Bethany stood in the warm summer sunshine on the small porch by her front door and chewed at the ragged edge of a torn fingernail. Pale delicate fingers pinched a bit of keratin from the tip of her tongue and held it a moment before sending it over the railing to the garden below.
A long strand of light brown hair lying on her arm caught her attention. She lifted it away and wound it around the slight 'v' of the first fingers of her left hand. When she was almost done she took the hair from her fingertips and used the last few inches to bind the strand into a bow smaller than a child's barrette. It too went over the railing.
As she stood there almost every fair day of the year, whether for a minute or the better part the morning, bits of her nails, hair, skin and saliva were sent from the porch down to the garden.
This isn't to say that Bethany was given to odd physical ticks and quirks. She wasn't one of those women who fluttered about in nervous flight like a bird trapped in human skin. In most circumstances she was quite steady; serious at need, but more inclined to smile than frown. Order was her weakness: a misplaced shoe, an unwashed dish or an unfinished task would perch at the edge of her consciousness and tap, tap, tap its foot until the situation was addressed. These loose bits and pieces of her self disturbed a personal order she resolutely pursued. If nowhere else, this tiny aspect of the world would be in her control.
Below the porch and shielded from casual sight by a row of forsythia, the collection of her cast off cells accreted in the fertile soil of the garden terrace. She had lived there for years; her aversion to the chaos of relocating gave her little alternative. Over those years, imperceptible from one day to the next, Bethany grew smaller, thinner and paler. And as she did so, the form behind the forsythia grew.
It began as a loose collection of bits. By the turn of a year it had became a unified low mass. Eventually, after quite a long time, it began to rise on its own; small, but distinctly anthropoid. If any bits of Bethany missed the mark it would reach out reactively like an amoeba and absorb them into the mass, giving an illusion of consciousness.
As the form continued to grow in size and animation, Bethany became less focused and active. Initiating a simple trip to the grocery required an hour of concentrated thought that left her exhausted for the remainder of the day. Her thoughts, when she had any beyond 'now I eat,' and 'now I sleep,' and 'now I pee,' were superficial and drifted easily. Her daily sojourn to the porch, once a comforting habit, had darkened to a ritual compulsion. The need to find some defect to peel away edged toward desperation. If nothing else could be found she would gnaw a piece of skin from the side of a fingernail and send it down. Then the tension would drain and she would go back inside and sit on the edge of the couch with her back to the window, her head down and her shoulders drawn close.
Again, Bethany moved toward the door. Driven by instinct and with no more forethought or volition than a snail crossing a rock, her hand, bony and gray, closed around the doorknob, turned and pulled it open. She passed over the threshold with legs bent nearly to a crawl and the protrusions of her spine sliding along the corse Cape Cod shingles. She sank to the deck. The folds of loose gray fabric covered the knobs of knees and elbows and blended with the pallor of her skin and the dull mat of colorless hair.
The small mound of her huddled form went unnoticed and, when a cold autumn rain began, it beat the fabric down, sagging sodden into the gaps between the boards.
Beth pushed at the wet rags with her toe and prodded the mass under the railing and past the edge of the porch, where it fell heavily to the damp earth below. She pulled her long wet hair from her face and turned an assessing gaze to the sky before reaching to push open the door and enter the house.
The front room was close and dark, an atmosphere more like an attic than a living room. She pulled open the heavy drapes at each window and lifted each sash. Beth was craving air and light like a newly opened blossom. The mood of the living room was greatly improved but Beth was soon back out on the porch, her face turned to the sun emerging from behind the breaking clouds.
As she looked at the fresh pink skin of her hands glowing in the light of late afternoon, she noticed the ragged nail of her left pinky. She went back inside and took a zippered suede manicure case from the closet near the bathroom. She spent a minute at the kitchen table trimming and forming the nail to proper order. Then she swept the bits of nail into her palm, lit the smaller of the two front stovetop burners and slowly, methodically, fed the pieces into the flame.