Push

By Emma Aarnes


Fiona was my first. We had known each other since elementary school but we weren’t close. She was one of those girls who seemed she could burst open at the smallest touch, like when you whack a tube of crescent rolls against the counter and the tube pops so all the dough puffs out and you can smell the preservatives. Don’t get me wrong, though—she was perfect. She modeled herself after Nancy Drew because she had strawberry blonde hair, which she wore shoulder length and flipped out every morning with some fancy curlers her father bought in Atlanta. I know because she had a sleepover once. The cover of The Mystery of the Ivory Charm was framed in her locker and she used to stand in front of it teasing her hair.

Fiona’s problem, or maybe everyone’s problem with Fiona, was that she was completely literal. Idioms and metaphors flew right by her. If someone said, “Jeez, I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” Fiona would scrunch up her face like a fat kid tasting asparagus and say “Yuck!” And she wasn’t kidding. People always thought that she had to be kidding, but she wasn’t.

I killed her one day after a meeting for our school’s literature magazine. I was the editor, but she was convinced that she ought to be and was busy telling me so. She had submitted a poem and the editorial staff had turned it down—not me, the staff. But that didn’t make any difference to Fiona.

“Diane,” she said, “you know that everyone voted against my poem because they knew it was mine. That’s the only explanation.” She was in her teacher pose: right hand on her hip, head cocked to the left, and legs planted firmly apart with one knee cap pointing out and one pointing in. She looked ready to perform an arabesque. Or fall over.

“Actually, Fiona, I’m the only one who knew, and I didn’t vote.” I tried to avoid looking at her and kept moving around the room, checking my watch. I could never tell if Fiona was incapable of recognizing subtle hints or just refused to on principle. Refusal I would have respected. I do that myself.

“Hmmph.” Fiona raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Well regardless, you have the editorial power to reverse the staff’s decision. The buck stops with you.” Smiling, she continued, “That’s how I run the newspaper anyway. It’s not a democracy.” She tried to corner me with her eyes, but I kept fiddling with a random pile of papers. “Here. Let me just read it aloud for you the way it was meant to be read.”

“Fiona, that’s not necessary. I—” she cut me off and began to recite:

“You”

You nestled inside my heart

Like a bird,

Hiding from the dark.

I let you in,

No holds barred.

You and me together

Like birds of a feather

Survived everything

Until you went away

That fateful day

When you broke my heart

Apart.

I stood transfixed as she recited the poem. I wish I could strike it from my memory, but it’s always the bad things that stay with you. Fiona stopped heavily after each line and at the end whispered “apart” a second time, echoing herself. She was clenching a fist at her chest and heaving in little gasps, like she was wearing a too-tight corset. The worst part was I knew the only boyfriend she’d ever had was Curtis Lucas. He was president of the Federation of Christian Athletes and everyone had known his love for Jesus wasn’t holy. Fiona had just been his beard until his parents sent him off to one of those gay rehab camps.

I laughed at her, standing there indignant in a sweater set. It was my civic duty to take her down a peg. I expected her face to stiffen like papier-mâché and crack. It didn’t. Instead, she smiled.

Believe that? I was being rude. Any normal person would have left the conversation as quickly as possible, but not Fiona. I stood there and began to experience a strange sensation, as if my ears had just popped and everything was far away. It was calming. I’d never been more myself.

“I’m sorry Fiona,” I said, “but I can only overturn the staff’s decision if a minimum of twenty-five percent voted to accept.” She kept her lips pulled tight as I looked at her.

“That’s your answer?” she asked, her voice a pitch higher than normal. She was blinking quickly, but seemed vindicated. Some people love to be self-righteous.

That was the first moment I thought about killing her and I knew that I would. I had never contemplated murder before, but I knew what needed to be done. She shrank a little, as though I was looking at her through binoculars and someone had adjusted the frames. I nodded and stood up straighter, all seriousness now. I had a plan.

“Look, I’ve got to go,” I said. “We’ll talk about this next week.” I took a moment to pack up. Turning to her I asked, “Do you want a ride home? My car is in the back parking lot.”

By now her smile had warped into a confused grimace. “Um. Okay,” she said, following me out of the room. It’s amazing what people will do out of politeness.

Awkward silence held as we walked through the empty halls. Our school building was new and made from blue plastic. Everything—the walls, the carpets, the lockers, the doorknobs—was blue. The only things not blue were the fire alarms, which taunted us, red and naughty, from the walls. Outside, the ground fell away ten feet past the back door and revealed a deep pit of crumbled asphalt and kudzu. It was for student parking. Kids called it the “Kudzu Crater” and joked that one day we’d come outside and all the cars would be overgrown. There was one long, broad flight of blue stairs down to the lot, like the entrance to a museum but steeper, and you could just make out the gravel road at the far edge that led to the highway. My car sat by itself in the center, no one else in sight.

I faced Fiona. I was excited, but calm; this was the beginning of something. We were standing at the top of the stairs and she was staring out toward the gray sunset. Her face was squishy, without elasticity, but when she saw me she smiled again. People never learn. Meeting her eyes, I put out my hand and pushed. She shrieked high and girlish as expected, but was cut short as her head hit the first concrete step. She tumbled down the stairs like a bouncy ball. Her sensible shoes appeared over her head again and again. Some time on her way down, I heard a sharp crack.

When she reached the bottom of the steps, I began my descent, slow and steady, the same way I took the stairs every day. I slid my hand along the metal of the blue railing, feeling the bumps in the paint and watching Fiona. Below me her body was splayed out, little red marks all over her legs from scraping the concrete. Her hair covered her face, but when I reached the bottom of the stairs, I could see blood seeping from her hairline. I stepped carefully over her body, elated by the ease of it all, and headed straight for my car. I sat still in front of the wheel, my heart rate sluggish and my body heavy, like the moment an elevator dips before it stops and your knees turn to mush. I knew I would want more.

The police ruled it an accident, and I actually did include her poem in the magazine as part of the school’s tribute to her. More people bought the magazine than ever before and everyone knew Fiona for what she was—a very bad poet.

But Fiona was important only because she was my first. She helped me realize the possibilities. Half my high school dreamed of murdering her because they mistakenly blamed her perfection for their imperfection. I just wanted her to stop smiling and, more importantly, to stop writing poetry. The grace of her body as it ricocheted down the steps was a more artistic moment than any other in which Fiona had participated. To be fair, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen as well—like watching sunlight when it hits the air just right and you can see all the tiny bits of dust—but with an added sense of purpose: I had made the world better.

After Fiona, the urge to kill hung around me, a cloud of just-sprayed perfume. It was so easy—I still don’t understand why more people don’t do it. The world would be a happier place if people were more honest about their impulses. Regardless, I went out of state for school and no one seemed to notice that people I knew kept falling down stairs.

I did the guy in bio lab who used to cheat off my notes and then got better grades. His body didn’t bounce as much as I had hoped. Brad was all meaty, making thudding sounds all the way down while groaning—decidedly inelegant—and he wasn’t quite dead at the end. It’s not as pretty when I have to finish them off, but I’ve got a growing collection of biker boots. After I pushed him I figured out that it was the TA who really deserved my attention. She always kept Brad after class and she was two weeks late getting our papers back after he died.

“I’m still trying to cope with my grief, guys,” she said, sniffing and teary-eyed. “I’m sure you all understand.”

When she took a header down the same flight of stairs as Brad, everyone assumed she’d killed herself. I remember watching her face when she fell backwards down the institutional steps, covered in gray rubber and endless. Her cheeks went slack with surprise and she was awake and asleep at the same time. Her body hit and rolled sideways like a child on a grassy hill until it flopped with a fleshy smack at the bottom.

The professor asked me to take over as TA. “Next to Brad, your test grades are the most impressive in the class,” she said.

Usually, I try to avoid doing roommates or close friends. Murder is like sex that way. I am careful about whom I choose to hang out with. I can tell who will make me homicidal in the first five minutes after I’ve met them. I avoid such people. I use restraint. It’s not a hobby or something. I don’t practice or belong to a league. There are no t-shirts with my name on the back: Diane ‘The Pusher’ Benson. I’m not doing anything that everyone else doesn’t think about all the time. Besides, the people in question aren’t what I call PGAs—Potentially Great Achievers. I’ve never done anyone I thought was a PGA. I stick with the extraneous. I’m not trying to be mean. It’s safer that way. No one wants to be the woman who killed the next Einstein.

I stopped for a while in grad school. My department was too small and most of the people were inoffensive, though I would have done Jerry in a second if he hadn’t been doing AIDS research. Every day he sat at lunch and peeled an apple with his tiny Swiss Army Knife. He would peel it so the skin came off in one long, curling piece until it lay coiled, serpentine, on his plate. Sometimes he ate the skin, feeding it into his mouth like a piece of spaghetti, slurping. Still, even though I didn’t think he was a real PGA, I had to give him credit for trying. More people should try harder. I mean, some of us are inevitably dispensable, but there’s no need to wander around highlighting your unimportance by being an IRS accountant. There are other options. Even dentists help people.

After grad school, I took a year off before starting work and went to Europe because I came into a bit of money. My Aunt Evelyn took a spill. She was ninety-two. Lovely woman except for her habit of pinching, using her tiny grey nails on the skin of your wrists if you tried to help her. She left everything to me. My cousins were less than pleased, but Amsterdam was wonderful. All those houseboats made me a little push-happy. Drowning was new to me.

When I came back, I started a real job. Greg worked with aquatic life in the EnTox lab down the hall. He was your typical lab guy: a little pasty for want of windows and with a habit of pushing his glasses up with the back of his wrist because his hands were always gloved and covered in goo. When I started at the lab, Greg came by my office with a dead fish in a plastic bag.

“This is for you,” he said, and held it up. It was a minnow with purplish scales and wide, stuck-out eyes that had gone filmy. It floated upside down in the water and glared at me.

“Um.” I made no move to take the bag. Already a vaguely fishy scent had begun to permeate my windowless office. “Is that a threat?” I asked.

Greg laughed. It was a hiccup laugh and it should have been annoying, but it wasn’t. His lab coat was a bit too small and tugged at his armpits as he threw his head back. “Finally, someone who watches mobster movies as much as I do,” he said.

I still wasn’t certain how to take the gesture. I’d met Greg along with everyone else in a blur of introductions. He’d seemed normal then.

“It’s a joke,” Greg said after I stayed quiet for several seconds. “Here, everyone sleeps with the fishes. Once a month, you’ll have fish duty. I think Carol told you about it. Think of this as your initiation.”

“So I’m not about to get whacked?” I’d asked.

He had wide, very green eyes like traffic lights and when he drove he made vrooming noises whenever he went uphill or passed another car. We started hanging out because he liked movies and he headed up a group of the younger lab techs who would go to the latest opening every Friday night.

One weekend there was nothing anyone at the office wanted to see, but I loved going to the movies more than the movies themselves, so I suggested some chick flick to Greg and off we went. The movie was horrible enough to be funny, but so earnest I could barely take it. I don’t believe in anything that sincere. Overly earnest people make me nervous. I keep waiting for the catch, the donations box carolers produce only after they’ve finished singing “Silent Night” on your doorstep, as though your quiet tolerance of their presence wasn’t enough.

That’s what I thought I liked about Greg. He seemed straightforward. But then, people do at first. It’s only after you get to know someone that you find out you don’t know anything at all.

Greg and I had a good time mocking tween gullibility, so when he asked me out to dinner afterwards, I said yes without thinking. Actually I still hadn’t thought about it by the drive home on the third Friday when he asked me when it would be okay to tell the office.

“Tell the office what?” I said.

“You know, about us,” Greg said, reaching over and patting my knee.

I stared at the spot where his hand had connected with my skin. I hate it when people touch me and Greg’s hands were always powdery because of all the gloves. I could feel the latex residue.

“I’m not sure,” I said, crossing my knee away from him and covering it with my skirt, feigning modesty. “Let’s not worry about it.” He seemed satisfied with that answer.

But, as he walked me to the door it occurred to me that he might try to kiss me. I unlocked my door quickly and turned to face him. When he asked if we were still on for next week, I faked a sneeze and covered my nose and the bottom half of my face as if embarrassed. I pointed inside with my free hand. Thankfully, he just shook his head, amused, and went home.

I spent the next week worrying about what to do. I decided on nothing. It had been over a year since I’d pushed anyone. I thought it was a sign of maturity. I was settling in, making a place for myself, and maybe my judgment had gotten better. Maybe this time I’d found a place where no one would deserve it. It could happen. After that week’s “date,” to which I’d already agreed, I could just make myself less available. There would be no need for any awkward “I’m not really interested in being more than friends” conversations. I hated those. Once, I did a guy just for making me have one. Poor bastard. I was probably a little hasty with him, but at least he didn’t get the chance to spawn any awkward children. Sometimes I think that’s my job—aiding evolution.

My plan for Greg worked well until he tried to walk me to the door again. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I can get myself to the door. No need to walk me in.” He looked at me, perplexed.

“I never thought you needed protection, Diane,” he said, smiling as he stepped out of the car and shut his door. “It’s pretty clear that you can take care of yourself.”

The situation was fast leaving my control. I liked Greg, and this was going to ruin everything. Lamely, I hurried from the car and tried to beat him to my door. I imagined running into the house and slamming the door before he could get inside. I could shout an excuse through the wood and go to sleep. He loped behind me, keeping up easily. I laughed a too loud hyena-laugh when we reached the stoop and blocked the doorway with my body. He was avoiding my eyes, but said “Can I come in?” hurried and quick, like he was asking me to pass the salt. The small guilt I’d had for misleading him vanished. He had to be able to tell I was uncomfortable, but there he stood rocking back on his heels, staring at my door without blinking.

I pawed the doormat with my feet, watching the dirt on my shoe obscure the “W.” “Actually, Greg, I realize that it must seem like—”

“Whoa. Stop there.” Greg got taller. He pulled his shoulders up and leaned back, putting more space between our faces. He still wouldn’t look me in the eye. For a moment, he was more attractive than usual. “I guess the rumors were right.”

“Rumors?”

“You’re a vagitarian.” He slid his eyes over to mine, daring me with their hard glint. My mouth fell open like the dead fish he’d brought me on his first day, limp and useless. I wished for stairs.

“Look,” he relented, taking a step back with his hands in the air. “I’m sorry I asked. I’ll see you in the office on Monday.” He marched away, shutting his car door too hard.

On Monday he wasn’t there. By the next Monday I had barely seen more than his back as he moved through swinging doors. It was hard not to take everything Greg did personally. When he took the last wheat-grain bagel in the line at lunch I nearly kicked him in the shins. He knew those were the only bagels I ate.

I tried not to rush to judgment. I had liked Greg. Part of me wanted to give him a chance. I really am a reasonable person. I even sat next to him at lunch in the cafeteria, but he only gave me a curt “Hello” and continued talking to the other guys from his lab about the successful use of specially designed wetlands to filter copper out of lake water. The men glanced at me quickly, snagging glimpses of my face before staring into their soup bowls.

I was wasting whole days looking for him in the white hallways, trying to force him to speak to me. Worse, I had to spend the lunch hour with Glenda, the secretary who spoke only of her mother’s health problems. Tom, the married guy who complained about marriage, asked me if I wanted to eat lunch with him and then winked. So I took matters into my own hands. As I left Thursday afternoon I dropped by Greg’s office.

I looked at him, tried to appear sheepish and forgiving, and ended up staring at the floor. Already my blood was thickening and the world got quieter as I stood there. This would be easy.

“Hey Greg,” I said. He was sitting at his desk, smug. I had expected at least mild surprise, but he was enjoying my discomfort. I’d been wrong. He wasn’t nice. I focused on the floor again. “I missed our little get-together last week,” I said.

All I got was, “Mmhmm.” I could see his ego grow like a well-fed hamster while he looked at me as if he saw lettuce in my teeth.

“Anyway, I was wondering if you wanted to go out again this weekend. I always have so much fun.” I smiled big and breathed heavily so I could feel the top button of my shirt strain.

It worked, but he stopped himself before he became too effusive. “I’ll pick you up at six,” he declared.

I nodded and hurried out of the room, enjoying the hollow echo of his words in my head, clear and cavernous as an empty barn. He’d practically asked to be a target. And he wasn’t even a PGA. He did research on power-plant pollution, waiting to be hired by some company or the government to write impenetrable reports that made things sound better than they were.

When he picked me up I already had a plan. Normally, I improvise. You’re less likely to leave a trail if there isn’t one to leave. And once I decide to do it, I’m usually not so keen on waiting. But Greg was special. I couldn’t just depend on opportunity. I had to be sure my method of choice would be available, so I bought a Zagat’s Guide and read through all the restaurant descriptions. I went online and searched for places with famous, stair-dependent entrances. Eventually, I found what I was looking for in an article about themed restaurants.

When Greg arrived, I was waiting outside—overeager I suppose, but you know he didn’t think so. I climbed into the car and he asked if I had any ideas.

“Well,” I said, blushing and unzipping my purse. “I was reading something online and I saw an ad for this restaurant and it sounded beautiful.” It was hard to play along when I was already picturing the lovely tipping motion he would make when he fell, a weeble with no wobble. He misinterpreted my enthusiasm entirely.

“What is it?” He took his eyes from the road and practically threw them at me, all longing and forgiveness. I was a repentant child.

I pulled the article out and showed him the highlighted portion. “What do you think?”

He didn’t even look at it. “Anything the lady wants, the lady gets,” he said. That line was motivation enough. I stared ahead, counting the dotted white lines as we drove past them, imagining the sound of his neck breaking in a quick, tight snap like closing a Tupperware lid.

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at The Tree-Top Table. The restaurant was built in a local forest and each tree had its own tree-house creation with an open top and a table inside. “One party per tree,” the newspaper said. “Your privacy is guaranteed.” They were right. The branches were so dense you couldn’t even see the other tree houses. Wobbly bridges connected the tables and the whole thing was at least twenty-five feet off the ground. Entrees were thirty bucks a piece. It was perfect.

Someone had clearly enjoyed designing the place. The waiters moved with astonishing speed across the bridges, and somehow managed never to drop anything, even with the inevitable traffic jams that occurred when too many people tried to cross the same bridge. Greg was entertained.

“This was a great idea.” He looked at me with raised eyebrows, the same expression I’d seen when there were sex scenes in the movies we watched. He rested his doughy hands on the table. I kept mine in my lap. “Very romantic,” he said.

I smiled weakly. “I wonder where the bathroom is? Or if they even have one.”

Greg jumped up. “I’ll try to flag the waiter down, so we can ask. It’s probably on the ground, with the kitchen. You’ll get to ride in the human-sized dumbwaiter again.” He walked toward our bridge and stepped out onto it, peering in both directions. Under the cover of trees I walked up behind him. He heard me coming.

“You don’t have to get up. I’ll find someone.” He took another step out onto the bridge, but I kept coming. I pretended to rub his shoulder as I looked past him, checking for witnesses.

“Thanks Greg,” I said, as I backed away. Looking at him from behind, I realized how burly he was, and I took a few more steps back to ensure some momentum. He was still looking for the waiter, but there were too many branches to see through. I took a running start, and hit him from behind with all my weight. His meaty torso made him top heavy in comparison to his skinny legs, and he teetered, bending at the waist so far that I couldn’t see his head, but he didn’t go over. His hands grasped the railing and I stepped back, ready to rush him again, but he straightened, still holding the railing, face red from his rushing blood.

“What the hell?” I was lucky he didn’t scream, just turned and looked at me, his eyes so wide I could see the pink at the top, a cartoon character being strangled.

We gaped, guppy-eyed, at each other until I ran at him again. He should have been ready, could have blocked me easily with his arms, but instead my hands crushed heavily into his stomach. His skin yielded and I could feel his liver, harder than the squish of the other organs. He groaned and bent over a little in pain. Still, he made no sound, just breathed heavily. His angle had changed. He was clutching his stomach, turned sideways, his right hip a little above the rail. He stared at me the way babies do when you play peek-a-boo—wide-eyed and uncertain what your hands are hiding. I threw myself at his shoulder, forgetting I might go over myself and he toppled, went right over the side of the platform without a sound. I panted, listening to the sound of branches breaking, waiting for the thud. Then I began screaming and leaned over the side of the bridge, crying.

“Help! Help! Someone please help!” I was going to try to hyperventilate to cover my own exertion. “Call an ambulance!” I wailed, leaning eagerly over the side, feigning desperation.

It was fun. I always had to run away, or at least leave quickly, but causing a scene was much more enjoyable. Especially since it was Greg. Before I’d done it, I’d been worried I might feel sad afterwards, but this was even better than Fiona. The feel of the thin fabric of his dress shirt and his spongy back as I’d pushed almost made up for not being able to see it happen. There was too much foliage; I couldn’t see Greg’s body, but he’d fallen straight down and I’d heard the crack when he landed, the sweet pop of cervical vertebrae. Men usually weren’t as much fun to watch, anyway. They go too fast—make things anticlimactic. But he’d taken extra effort and I knew I’d earned the happy weightlessness I had now, like I’d been sprinkled with fairy dust, zaps of adrenaline zigging up my spine.

Waiters came running up and pushed me back onto our platform. They checked me over and made me sit down. The maitre d’ kept asking me if Greg had been drinking. I sobbed hysterically, unable to answer because I was breathing so hard, like the air was trying to escape. It was easy to get carried away and I was a little upset. Greg was dead and these people were worried about getting sued. They had no way of knowing I wanted it that way. They should have been more compassionate.

Hours later the police dropped me off at home. They said there might be some follow up questions, but that it was pretty clear that Greg’s death was an accident. Tree-Top was closed for renovations and reopened a few months later with ground level-tables in private gazebos.

At the office on Monday everyone was subdued and there were lots of questions about the woman he’d been out with. In the end, I guess I have to give Greg credit for not being a gossip. It took several weeks for the fervor to die down, but no one ever found out that we’d been “dating.”

Now I’m in charge of the office movie outings. I miss Greg a little bit, his comfort with discomfort. I can tell that everyone else thinks there’s something off about me. It’s their animal instinct, like dogs before an earthquake, and I almost enjoy watching them push against that instinct, straining to be polite. Sometimes I think Greg would have understood if I’d explained it right, if I’d told him my reasons. Still, I’m not sad I did it. Killing him was more than worth it, but I’ll have to find a new job soon. Glenda is starting to push my buttons and I can’t afford to do two people in the same office, even if Glenda’s mother would be better off without her.

 

Emma Aarnes was born in South Carolina, attended Vassar College, and is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in Fiction.  Her work has appeared in The Blotter Magazine and Columbia Magazine and is forthcoming in The Emrys Journal.  She currently lives in New York City and is working on her first novel.

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