BY SHELDON COSTA
In the morning there is a man crouched outside my door.
I spot him just as I’m sitting down for breakfast, a sliced grapefruit sprinkled with sugar, its pink meat faintly reminiscent of what I imagine a person might look like without skin. The man appears to be short, just barely five feet, though it’s hard to tell, because he is squatting behind one of my tomato plants. I compile a general image of him from what is visible through the stalks: hairy legs in khaki shorts, a round belly peaking out from the bottom of a ribbed tank top, two massive arms, more flab than muscle, resting on his kneecaps, each ending in a hand large enough to wrap entirely around my skull.
All I can see of his face is a wide, grim mouth, glistening with red and speckled with what I assume to be tomato seeds. The upper portion of his head is covered by a cheap plastic mask in the shape of a smiling frog. The man has no hair, so I can see the mask’s string—clearly intended for a child—digging into the flesh on either side of his head, a set of puckered lips above each of his ears.
It is impossible for the man to be here. My large home is surrounded on all four sides by sixty-foot walls of smooth, pink stone. Scaling them would be incredibly difficult, but even if the man had been able to do so, the descent would likely have killed him. I know this because five years ago, near the end of the wall’s construction, one of the workmen fell from the crenellated tip, and I watched his body plummet to the concrete floor of the front courtyard and burst into a bright red splatter. Maybe the man used a rope or ladder of some kind, but there are no such devices hanging nearby.
The closest thing the walls have to an entrance is the wooden slot where, one or twice a month, a woman my father hired delivers a wrapped parcel of groceries. Presumably the man was not able to shrink his body to a size small enough to fit through such a space, but stranger things have been known to happen.
I am not afraid of the man. Even if he has found a way past the walls, my home’s front door and its many windows are equipped with sturdy locks. I suppose he could initiate a siege; after all, he is blocking my path to the grocery slot, and he has full reign over my vegetable garden. But I keep a polished revolver beneath my pillow. The gun fires the kind of bullets that make killing a person very simple.
So I stare at the man for a few minutes, wondering what he will do. I expect him to continue eating tomatoes, since this is clearly what he’d been busy with before my arrival at the kitchen’s granite island: there is a streak of crimson juice running down the front of his shirt. But once I catch sight of him he does nothing but stare. Of course, I can’t actually see the man’s eyes, since they’re hidden behind the frog mask, which has two slots of darkened plastic in place of pupils, but when I carry my plate to the dishwasher, his head swivels slowly to follow me. If he is making a sound—perhaps a low, steady grunt, or a quiet wheezing—I’m unable to hear it. My home’s walls are thick, and the only noises I can make out most days are the clicks and whirs of the machines in the basement, steadily occupied with keeping the building at a modest seventy-two degrees.
I bring up a hand and wave, the silk sleeve of my nightgown slipping down to my elbow in a way I imagine such a creature would find seductive, but the man offers no response. He is content to be an observer. I can respect that.
When it becomes clear that he is just going to stand there, I decide to continue with my day as if nothing has changed. I walk to the other side of the house to check my screens. Though the man is an unusual addition to my world, I have other obligations. Or, rather, I have a schedule to keep. Though I have been alone for six years now, and though I am wealthy enough to live in absolute comfort for the rest of my life without lifting a finger, I like to keep myself busy.
The screens are located on the opposite side of the house, in my father’s old office. Three large monitors sit against a wall above a mahogany desk. My heart stirs just so see them: all the charts and graphs, blinking back and forth between red and blue. I ease myself into my soft leather chair and run my palms over the keyboard on the desk’s surface. I press one key, then another, savoring the delicate click. I buy and sell. The charts dip and rise.
The markets are how I pass my time in the house. The physical realities they represent—precious metals, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications—mean nothing to me. I have no interest in adding to my family’s fortune, which is so immense that putting a number on its value is, at this point, laughable. No amount of terrible financial decisions on my part could reduce it in any way. I make more in a minute than I can waste in a day. But I enjoy the charts. The way the numbers flutter, as if alive. I love to watch a purchase swell with value over the course of an afternoon, or the way one, careless sell can send the whole system scrambling, a desperate reshuffling aimed at equilibrium. My family’s wealth is atmospheric, and like any good weather system it cannot be ignored.
Halfway through the day, after I have fostered and destroyed a number of multinational entertainment companies, I look out the office window and see the man. There is less foliage in the back of the house—just a few manicured shrubs—and so he is on full display, his pale skin glowing in the light like a polished bone. His mouth has opened slightly, revealing two rows of crooked yellow teeth. Despite there being nothing for him to hide behind, he still hunches on the pavement like an ape, completely still except for the subtle movement of his chest. I notice that there is a black half-moon of dirt beneath each of his fingernails, which are long enough to resemble a small animal’s claws.
I go to the kitchen to eat lunch. Outside the front door, the man is waiting. This is unexpected. While the journey from the office to the kitchen is a short one for me, it should take at least a few minutes for the man, who must circumnavigate the whole house, climbing over the vined trellises and weaving between the marble statues littered throughout the grounds, to arrive on the other side. When I walk back to the office and look out the window, the man is already there, standing exactly where he’d been when I left. It occurs to me that there might be two men, one at each window, but the splotch of red on his tank top is the same. The man is either very fast, or he can appear at two points simultaneously.
I would not go so far as to say I am disturbed by this turn of events—I think, again, of my gun, its iron snout sniffing the fabric beneath my pillow—but I am surprised, and I have no patience for surprises. When I was young, my father gave me a wooden box as gift. There was a crank on the side, and when it was turned the box emitted a pleasant song. Delighted by the noise, I turned the crank again and again, until suddenly a plaster jester, his lower body a bundled spring, erupted from the cube’s interior. I cried for the rest of the day while my father prostrated himself at my feet, begging for forgiveness. This was back when we still had staff around the house, and according to one of the maids, the toymaker who sold my father the box was found dead, a week later, at the bottom of a well.
I close the blinds. But it doesn’t help. For the rest of the day, as I try to lose myself in the sonorous clacking of my keyboard, I can feel the man’s presence outside as potently as if he were standing behind me in the room, his hot breath in my ear.
It is not until much later that night, as I am crawling beneath the silk sheets of my bed, that I realize the man might be a prince. I haven’t thought of princes for years, not since the days leading up to my father’s death. Back then, he mentioned them frequently, rambling about their virtues through the flem that arrived in blood-streaked globs between his cracked lips. He’d been frightened during the final weeks of his life, terrified, he said, of leaving me alone. Which was why he’d ordered the walls built.
The world out there, he said, is dangerous beyond imagining. Those people would do anything to take what we have.
I believed him. I’d seen the city outside: the endless miles of tin-roofed shacks, piled atop one another like barnacles, the crowds of grimy men and women who would sometimes gather on the other side of our chain-linked fence, begging for god knows what, before my father stepped outside to fire a warning shot above their heads with the very same gun I now kept in my bedroom.
It will be worse for you, my father liked to say, because you are beautiful.
He ran a withered hair through my hair as he spoke. My father always loved my hair, which flows down to my waist in a golden wave. I’ve never cut it, because he told me it was as precious as diamonds, and during his last days alive he clung to it, the strands knotted between his knuckles, as if it were the only thing tethering him to the land of the living.
Wait for your prince, he rasped again and again. Your prince will be determined, and quick, and he will love you, not for your beauty or your wealth, but for your innermost self.
I’ll admit: his words meant very little to me at the time. As he explained how a proper prince would have no trouble scaling our walls, how he would keep me company in the empty house for the rest of my days, caring for me the way my father always had, I assumed he was just trying to put me at ease, offering up fantasies to make up for dying and leaving me behind to fend for myself.
I’d never been alone before, and I was heartbroken when he died, even though his fierce grip on my hair had begun to hurt, and the pus that dripped from the corners of his eyes gave the room a primordial stink. Before the workers finished the wall, I commanded them to seal my father’s body in his room behind a brick wall, so he’d always be close. By the time they were finished, I’d forgotten all about princes. I settled into my solitary life, checking my screens, brushing my hair, and collecting food from the grocery slot and the garden. I would have been content to continue that way until I, too, was taken by illness.
But now there is this prince, haunting my grounds. I will have to decide what to do with him, a prospect I find thoroughly exhausting. I slip my hand under my pillow and grip the revolver’s pearl handle. When I turn to the window, my prince is there, hanging from the branches of a tree outside, his frog mask smiling in the moonlight.
I decide to test him. The next morning, I stand in the kitchen and show the prince my gun. He should understand that he is in danger—that his continued survival is dependent upon my interest in him. I point the barrel in his direction, and he doesn’t flinch. If he’d moved at all, if he’d lurched back or started frantically clawing at the wall, I would have stepped outside and shot him for his cowardice. But I’m pleased to see him unruffled by my threat. Already, it throws him in a new light. My father said a prince would be determined, and what could be clearer evidence of determination than to risk death for love?
I ignore him for the rest of the week, curious to see how far this dedication might go. I tempt him with the usual carnalities: allowing my robe to fall further down my shoulder than usual until the thin curve of a breast is briefly revealed, bending over the kitchen counter to grab a salt shaker with exaggerated sensuality, as if the prospect of seasoning my food is deeply erotic. I even spend a whole afternoon walking naked through each room in the house—sauntering between the numerous galleries and lounges, the home theaters with plush seating and the dining halls where stacks of fine china glint beneath crystal chandeliers—and the prince is there at every window with the same grim lips, no more aroused than if I’d shown him a dead rat. Eventually I start running, but no matter how fast I go, the prince is always there before me, waiting on the other side of the glass.
In this way, he achieves my father’s second qualification. He is most certainly quick.
Not once do I see him feed. For hours I sit in the kitchen, watching him sulk beside my vegetable garden, but he never reaches for the other tomatoes, whose skins have begun to split and drip from ripeness. At night I imagine him rustling in the dirt, tearing zucchinis from the soil and crushing their soft meat between his teeth, but in the morning the garden is untouched. His abstentions provoke my own hunger—I lug food from the freezer and prepare feasts, plates piled high with bacon and steak, bowls brimming with buttered noodles that tickle the back of my nose as I shovel them into my mouth. I close my eyes in elaborate delight as I glug my father’s ancient wines and plop salted caramels directly on my tongue. But just as he was with my bodily displays, the prince is entirely unmoved.
By the end of the week, something has changed. The prince has impressed me. For the first time in years, I find my screens thoroughly boring, the columns of numbers painfully abstract. I spend my time, instead, staring at the prince, reconsidering his body. His oddities make more sense to me now. Everything about him—the ribbed tank top, the red stain, the khaki shorts—seems proof of some humble confidence, as though he was so sure his stoicism would impress me that he saw no need to dress himself up in fineries. And the child’s frog mask: evidence that he has a sense of humor, certainly, but also a tantalizing mystery. The more I stare into the bright reflective plastic of the mask’s eyes, the more I hunger to see what is underneath.
It begins to feel like I am the one being tested—like the prince is curious how long I can keep studying him before my curiosity gets the best of me and I finally open the door. But my father’s final condition, that the prince must love me for my innermost self, proves elusive. A week ago, this might have meant that he shared my love of screens, but now I’m not so sure. When I think of my innermost self, I imagine a solid white ball, scuffed free of all imperfections. If I opened the door and spoke to him, I might be able to ascertain the prince’s intentions, yet I can’t open the door until I am sure that he’s a prince.
But he must know he hasn’t won me over yet. Because one day, as I sit in the living room brushing my hair and imagining the prince’s face—his broad, handsome forehead, his kind, sparkling eyes—he moves. He brings one of his palms up to the space beside his dimpled chin and begins to stroke the air. There is a delicacy to the motion, a gentleness, that is so surprising to me, so endearing, that I nearly miss what the gesture means. The prince is brushing his hair. Or rather, since he’s bald, he is mirroring my own brushing. The motion reminds me of the way my father, when I was young, would spend hours braiding my locks, gently folding the strands as if they might break if he handled them too roughly.
I see a message in the Prince’s mimicry. He is telling me he loves my hair. That he would like to run his sturdy fingers through it. Having seen everything—my body, my wealth, my opulent estate—it is the soft, silken bounty on my head he appreciates most.
This is proof enough for me.
As I walk to the front door and fling it open, two thoughts cross my mind. The first: in my excitement, I’ve forgotten to bring the gun. The second: it doesn’t matter. My prince, it turns out, moves even more quickly than I could have imagined, his body uncoiling like a tensed spring finally let free. I doubt I would have had enough time to shoot him. And as he comes for me, one hand reaching for my scalp in hungry desperation, I am at least a little relieved. Whatever happens next, I know, is beyond my control.