Every leap year, the same.
February 29th. Mama opens the door to the basement at 8 on the dot. Closing time.
If I’m lucky, there will still be a customer or two getting a manicure. If I pray hard enough.
If I pray really hard, she says, one day I might get many friends who want to stay with me.
But this year I haven’t been praying hard enough. There are only two customers, a man and a woman, yelling at Mama because of a burning smell.
It is enough for me. Mama says I should never ask much from God. Wishes can only be granted through prayer.
I walk out of the basement, becoming briefly blinded by the harsh lights of the bulbs. But not for long. Before the man and woman have a chance to react, I am upon them.
I do as Mama always tells me. I take the dirty rag, pour the special juice onto it, and hold it in front of their noses. They fall to the floor. She smiles at me.
We pick up the man and woman and bring them into the basement. My time on the surface is done, for now.
We pull the ropes around the man and woman, tight as can be. We put them in the special chairs, right next to mine. Mama kisses me gently, stroking my scalp, telling me to have fun. I know I will.
She goes upstairs and closes the door. I sit down in my chair, breathe, and put my hands on their soft shoulders. It begins.
Time passes. The woman wakes up first. She cannot see anything. She screams.
Her screams wake up the man. They cannot see without the lightbulb, but I can. I see the man looking around, crying for help. He calls for the woman, whose name is Maggie. The woman yells back, telling him she is there. Then they feel me stroking them. They yell out, asking to know who is there. I never tell them. It keeps them fun.
My nails gently caress the doughy neck of the woman. I can see from the way her rope is tied that she is very fat. She screams, and I feel her skin become warm and moist with sweat. Then I feel the neck of the man. It is hairy and greasy, and his oils pool in the space between my nails and my fingers. He smells of body odor and cologne. He moans and yells for help.
I realize from the woman’s screams that she is the daughter of the man. She calls for “Dad”, a word which I know but do not use. Mama forbids it. The man responds by telling her it is okay.
Maggie and Dad. I like these names. Maybe they will want to stay with me.
Why would they need to say that? Of course everything is okay.
I wait with them, watching as they wriggle and scream. Time passes. They fall silent.
I know when the time comes. I always do. Mama needs the signal.
I let out a loud screech, smiling happily, keeping my hands on Maggie and Dad. They scream loudly. I screech louder. The game is fun, like always.
And then the door opens. Light comes into the room, and Maggie cries for help. Mama comes down with the food and drink for the next five days. She smiles at me, and puts the chicken buckets on the laps of Maggie and Dad. She has to steady the food for Maggie. I see it leaning off her round, folded stomach, and almost falling. It cannot fall. Then they will have no food for the five days. Then I will lose the friend.
They have no choice but to lean their heads down and grab the food with their mouths. I make sure to keep my hands on their shoulders. Maggie has trouble bending down. Her neck blocks her chin from moving. I help her. I put my hand on the back of her neck and hold it down. She shrieks, begging Mama for help. Mama frowns. She climbs upstairs and slams the door behind her, and once again the room is dark. I feel tears streaming down Dad’s neck. I wonder why they are crying.
They give up and start to eat. I hear bones from the food skittering on the floor, and I see the yummy cooked brown lumps crunch and fall out of their mouths.
I see Maggie whimpering as she stops trying to push back against my hand. I hear a loud noise, and I smell a familiar smell. One of them has soiled their self.
They finish, and I see them fall asleep, crying.
My hands remain on their shoulders all the time.
Five days pass.
Mama gives them more food. Dad cries for help once more. Mama leaves once more. The room smells strongly of soiled clothes.
Five days pass.
Mama comes again. This time they do not yell. I am happy. Maybe they will stay. I see my hands, still on their shoulders. And I see that my favorite part is happening. My nails begin growing past my fingertips, and I smile, knowing that my friends can soon join in the fun.
As time passes, the nails grow longer. They slowly curve around the faces of Maggie and Dad, and my thumbnails move across their chests. They encircle their bodies, winding over and over again. Years pass. Dad stops making noises in the third year, but Maggie keeps moving. The food can no longer be placed on their laps, because they cannot eat. I enjoy the time in the basement. Maggie is a good friend. The nails encircle her entire body. And just five weeks before the leap year begins again, my nails crawl around her head. I hear her whimpering, breathing quickly. As the year arrives, Maggie takes shorter breaths. I hope that she will stay, unlike Dad.
As my nails close around her eyes, she lets out a last breath.
She has left me, like all the others.
I let out a different screech, this time, much deeper. Mama comes rushing down with a pair of shears.
We clip and cut and snip away at the lovely nails until I can see the tired bodies, covered in rot and fluid and feces. And we throw them in the furnace, and we burn them all away, like before, and before that.
It makes me sad to see the nails burn. I inhale the smell one last time before I return to my chair, and I pray.
Maybe this time my friends will stay.