A skull was buried in the laundry basket. Steffy threw aside the clothing and held it up to the pale light of early morning. A run-of-the-mill skull would have been alarming enough, but this one came with streaks of a gray, sludge-like substance spread across its surface, coating the mouth and leaving a trail behind the ears. She put it back in the hamper and covered it with one of her dirty shirts, then brought the basket through the living room and descended to the basement. She wrapped the skull in her shirt and placed it inside the broom closet Patrick had been afraid of ever since they were kids. He used to have nightmares of getting stuck inside, maggots emerging from the walls, eating him slowly to death. Over the years, his fears had multiplied, pasting themselves vaguely upon the entire outside world. Steffy closed the closet door and her cell phone buzzed with a call from the new station manager.
“Ms. Sanders?” The man’s voice was low and mechanical.
“You’re late for work.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Your time slot changed.”
There was a pause, and Steffy thought she could hear the heavy clacking of typewriter keys in the background.
“You’re late,” the man said again, then hung up.
Steffy went to Patrick’s bedroom and whispered goodbye. Patrick was trying to see how long he could sleep and had been in bed for three days. He grunted and Steffy closed the door.
Outside the radio station, Steffy saw the same sketching of an astronaut that seemed to be following her around lately; this appearance following sightings at the grocery store and the post office, as well as in her library book, squeezed into the margin of page 27. And now here, adrift on the wall, its face a blank white oval. She hadn’t mentioned the astronaut to anyone, for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint; something about it just felt private, as if talking about it might cause it to vanish. She’d felt the same way about the plans she’d made for her life after college, none of which had ever trod the distance between thought and action—those visions of traveling the world, joining the Peace Corps or becoming a nomad, romancing some sweet, simple guy from a small town in Alaska or New Zealand, sleeping on couches in messy apartments, waking to the sounds of another language, and coating herself in the texture of experience.
Inside the studio, one of Steffy’s shows was playing in her absence. So sometimes I’m not sure if I’m as much of a person as I used to be, she said. Then some song will shake me out of it. Call in and tell me the songs that remind you of yourself. Steffy listened to herself talk for a moment, trying but failing to remember when the show was from. Finally, she cut herself off mid-sentence and greeted her listeners, apologizing for the re-play. At the next commercial break, the audio guy opened the door and peered in at her.
“That wasn’t a re-play,” he said, voice wiry and raw, a needle coated in dirt.
“What do you mean?”
The audio guy shrank back a bit, leaving only one of his eyes visible. “I have all of your shows on tape,” he said. “That wasn’t a re-play.” He withdrew, closing the door softly.
When her show was over, Steffy walked through the six hallways separating the studio from the manager’s office and knocked. No answer, though Steffy could hear faint voices whispering within, followed by the clunky typing she’d heard on the phone. She tried the doorknob. Locked. Her phone buzzed.
“What is it?”
Steffy looked around the hall. No cameras. No peephole on the office door either.
“Do you have x-ray vision?”
Steffy paused. “I wanted to know when today’s re-play was from.”
“Not long ago,” said the man.
“But when exactly?”
“I shredded the old records.”
“The audio guy said—”
“Goodbye Ms. Sanders.”
On her way back through the halls, a sticker of the astronaut, small and alone, floated silently on one of the pipes running below the ceiling. It felt as if it was somehow staring at her from beneath its barren veil. Steffy stepped to either side of it. What? She wanted to say.
Back in the studio she ran into Henry, the evening DJ. Of course, he was right on time for his new slot. Steffy felt a familiar irritation she knew was unwarranted; she liked Henry, but he was always so on the ball, it made her feel in danger of losing some sort of implicit trial on the validity of her existence. Henry was pale and ashen, with permanent circles under his eyes. Steffy punched him on the shoulder the way he had shown her his old frat used to do. When she’d asked him why the hell he would join a frat, he’d told her it was to better make fun of it, like an undercover comic, bruh.
“They switched you too?” Steffy asked.
“Sure did,” Henry said. “Those sons’a switches.”
Steffy stopped on her way out, pretending to unscrew her hand and throw it back at him. Henry slapped the air and made a small pop sound with his mouth.
“We’ve got to work on our high-five volume,” he said.
At home, Steffy went to the basement and opened the broom closet. She couldn’t shake the feeling that the skull needed to be monitored, and that it could turn into something worse if it wasn’t. It lay wrapped in her t-shirt just as she’d left it, though the strips of gray substance seemed to have grown skin, pinkish-white pieces creeping up the ends. Steffy bundled the skull back up with haste, pushing it deep into the closet with her foot before closing the door and returning up the stairs. She checked on Patrick, asleep with the covers stretched over his face. Steffy waited to see the small inflation of the sheet that lay over his mouth, then tiptoed out of the room.
After eating a late dinner, Steffy sat alone on the couch turning the phone over in her hands. Outside, a lone streetlamp flickered weakly. Wind moaned against the house. Steffy turned the light off and curled up in the dark, fingers dialing a number from muscle memory.
“Hey,” Steffy whispered.
I missed you.
So much, baby.
Steffy unlaced her pajamas and slipped her hand beneath their cover—she liked to get started early so she could finish before they got to the stuff that made her feel the saddest, the stuff that most reminded her that it was only a phone sex line.
Afterward, she lay there a while longer, turning on the TV and half-watching an old silent movie about aliens. Her phone lit up in the dark.
“Hello, dear.” Her mother called less and less these days, always late at night, voice throaty and grim. Steffy pictured her sitting in the dark in her room at the nursing home, a trail of cigarette smoke rising past her shadowed profile. “How’s your brother?”
“Fine,” Steffy said. “He’s sleeping a lot.”
Her mother hmphed. “And you?”
In the movie, the aliens were closing in on the protagonists after cornering them in an abandoned office building.
“I’m fine, too,” Steffy said.
“Of course, you are.”
Steffy tensed. Her mother would have doubted it even if she was fine, but somehow it felt as if she knew, as if she would always know. “I’m going to bed,” she said.
“Take care of Patrick.”
The aliens had subdued the humans and were dragging them behind the building. A white light beamed down on them.
The line went dead.
Steffy dreamt that she was watching her own sleeping form through a hole in the bedroom wall. Two men stood on either side of her bed, tall and white-coated, wearing goggles and gloves, one holding tongs while the other stood by with a crumpled-up piece of paper. A third man entered from outside the frame and held her mouth open while the one with the tongs reached them into her throat, pulling out a small, crinkly box dripping with saliva. It appeared velvety in texture. The second man took the box from the tongs and peeled back the top, placing the crumpled ball of paper inside. He then folded back the lid and replaced the box within the tongs, the first man returning it into Steffy’s throat. The third man released her mouth and took out a tape recorder as the Steffy in bed began to speak, mouth moving rapidly as the rest of her stayed still, welcoming listeners to her show, discussing up-and-coming pianists, asking and answering during the trivia segment. Once all of it was recorded, the goggled men left, and the hole in the wall shrunk until there was only dark.
In the morning, Steffy went to the basement to check on the skull. She unwrapped it to find that the skin had grown further over the grey tarry substance, branching off in parts and spreading onto the white of the bone. She scanned the basement for something thicker to cover it with. The only thing she could find was the tattered blanket she and Patrick had shared as kids. She swaddled the skull inside the blanket and returned it to the broom closet. At the bottom of the stairs she found Patrick staring down at her from the top step.
“Why do you keep going down there?”
Steffy hesitated. Patrick was frightened of enough, and had enough trouble inside of him without having to deal with a skull in the broom closet. She shook her head and walked up to him. “Just cleaning up,” she said, closing the door behind them. “Organizing.” Patrick squinted suspiciously, then turned and went back to his room.
Steffy was on her way to the station when her cell phone buzzed.
“You can stay home today.”
“We have your slot filled.”
The line went dead.
Steffy went to the station anyway. Movement felt critical. In the house, the weight of inactivity lingered, threatening suffocation.
She entered the studio to find her chair empty and a recording of her voice playing.
Alright people, what’s your favorite song to listen to before sleeping alone? Call in and tell me.
She’d never asked that before.
The new manager’s door was still locked; Steffy’s knocks went without response. From inside the office, the clacking of keys had grown louder.
Steffy retreated through the hallways and paused outside the audio guy’s door, atypically ajar. The room was unoccupied, empty save for a cardboard cutout of the astronaut standing in the corner. Steffy approached it and ran her fingers along the void of its face. She tilted her head and stared at where its eyes would be. Were they in there, waiting for something? There was a knock on the door behind her and she turned to find Henry grinning.
“Having a private moment?” he asked.
Steffy forced a laugh. “What are you doing here?”
Henry hung his coat on the door and looked around the room. “I sub for Lonny on Thursdays,” he said, “but it looks like someone moved the gear.”
Steffy hesitated. Maybe it wasn’t just her. Maybe everyone thought it was just them, and it wasn’t. She pointed back at the astronaut. “Have you seen this before?”
Henry squinted at it. “You know what?”
“I think we went to the cardboard moon together.”
Henry looked at her with a befuddled smile and shook his head absently. “I haven’t seen it.”
Steffy nodded and walked past him out the door. On the pipe below the ceiling, the astronaut was gone. Steffy went outside and looked at the wall. Blank. She drove home, turning on the radio and hearing herself introduce a new jazz number. There was a vacancy in her voice, something manufactured about it. She turned the volume to zero.
At home, Steffy went to her room and got into bed. It was only two in the afternoon, but she fell asleep almost instantly.
It was dark when Steffy woke up. She rose and made her way downstairs, hearing the creak of Patrick’s bed as he shifted position. In the living room she looked out the window and gasped. Below the flickering streetlamp stood the astronaut, three dimensional and alive. Steffy closed the blinds and called Henry.
“Steffy?” He sounded drowsy, woken up.
“I’m sorry,” Steffy said. “I didn’t know who else to call.”
“It’s okay,” Henry said. Steffy heard the shuffling of covers. A woman sighed. “What’s wrong?” Henry asked.
“I found a skull.”
“In the laundry.”
Steffy opened her mouth to continue, but the words didn’t come. She strained.
“A–a–nd they’re rec–ording me,” she said, pushing out the syllables as hard as she could. “Wh–i–le I sle–ep.”
What’d you say? You’re breaking up, Stef.”
Steffy took a deep breath and shouted into the phone, none of the words getting past her throat. She waited a few seconds and tried again. Nothing.
She let the phone drop to the floor. Henry’s shrunken voice called out to her twice more before it was replaced by a dial tone.
Steffy lifted one of the blinds—the astronaut was gone from beneath the streetlamp. From the porch she could hear someone approaching, and in another few seconds the door clicked open. Steffy backed into the wall as the astronaut walked inside and turned its faceless head at her, the movement slow and heavy. It stood still for a moment and then continued to the hall. Steffy followed, watching as it opened the door to the basement and began the descent.
The astronaut knelt down in the broom closet, its back to her. It was unwrapping the blanket. Once it had finished, the astronaut paused for a moment before its shoulders began to rock up and down, accompanied by a small and distant sobbing. Steffy turned and ran upstairs; the astronaut’s reaction was somehow more disturbing than the skull itself.
She hurried to her bedroom, but the spot where the door should have been had been walled over. She ran her hands over the surface and came into contact with a small hole. She knelt down and put her eye to it, revealing a circular view of her bedroom. The three goggled men stood over her mattress and looked off-frame, as if waiting for something. Steffy recognized the crimpled box they’d pulled from her throat, tight in the grasp of the tongs. Suddenly, the astronaut entered from the left with Steffy’s head in its hands. Her expression was flat, skin stretched taut and new.
One of the goggled men slipped on his gloves and took her head from the astronaut, the man with the tongs inserting them between Steffy’s lips and placing the box within. The astronaut stood by, hunched, weeping tearlessly into its hand. The gloved man put Steffy’s head down on the pillow and adjusted it a bit. The third man removed a tape recorder from his pocket, setting it down on the mattress before all three left the frame.
The astronaut lingered as Steffy’s mouth began to form words, welcoming listeners to her new 24-hour show. We’re always here for you. Everything’s okay on Steffy 2.0. Steffy felt tears running down her face as the hole in the wall began to close. The astronaut approached the talking Steffy, running its fingers along her cheek. In another moment its body seemed to dissipate, helmet and space suit collapsing to the floor, hollow. The hole in the wall sealed completely, and Steffy turned back to the darkened hallway. Wind moaned against the house. She lumbered downstairs and into the living room. Her phone glowed with a text from Henry, asking if she was okay.
From somewhere inside of her, Steffy could feel the astronaut, lifting on the soft pads of its feet, falling into space.