Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

At The Periphery

He asks for a table by himself, in a quiet part of The Periphery. It’s late, nearly ten, and the pub is just about empty. Ali has twenty minutes left on her shift. She doesn’t care where he sits. “Anywhere you want is fine, sir,” she says.

He slips into a booth full of shadows. One of the lights on the wall is gone. He’s a tall man, this man who slouches down in the seat, his features worn. She cannot guess his age. She’s usually good with a man’s age. She thinks he might be in his late thirties, but he could be in his early fifties. He has a bit of silver in his stubble and hair, but it’s the way he dresses that confuses her. He dresses like an old man. He wears pressed pants, a buttoned shirt, and a jacket. It’s all dark grey, it all matches, but for his boots. His boots are dark red, a young man’s boots. In the end, Ali shrugs. The Periphery gets all kinds. It sits on the edge of Yaamaka, not far from the highway, a square block of a building whose clientele are mostly truck drivers and backpackers.

Ali grabs a bottle of table water, a glass, and heads to him. He thanks her for the water. He orders the special, chicken schnitzel, fries, salad. He adds a glass of wine, red, to his order.

“Have you lived in town long?” he asks.

“Me?” Her first thought is that he’s trying to pick her up and she responds automatically. “No, I moved here with my partner about five years ago. He got a job in Yaamaka, working at the radio station.”

“Yaamaka,” he repeats, ignoring her lie. “Someone told me it means here. In the area, here, that is. It’s a strange name for a town.”

“It’s a Paakantyi word. The story is that, way back, after the British invaded, a group of prisoners escaped. There were eight of them. The British tried to find them but couldn’t, so they forced one of the local Indigenous men to work for them. He was a tracker. He found the eight prisoners dead in what’s now the centre of town. After the constables saw the bodies, they asked the tracker where they were. They had to write a report detailing what they’d found. The tracker didn’t want to tell them anything important, so he said, yaamaka. What he meant was that he’d found them around here, but the constables didn’t understand that. Instead, they wrote in their report that all the prisoners died in Yaamaka.”

“The names people use.” The man glances at her name badge. “Look, Alice, maybe you can help me? I’m a bit like the tracker in that story you just told. I’m here looking for someone. A woman. She’s a young woman about your age. Her name is Eleonora.”

“You got a photo?”

“No.”

“You don’t have a photo?”

“No, but she wouldn’t look like it if I had one. She would’ve changed herself. She’s a bit like a snake, this girl, she can shed her skin.”

“I don’t know anyone like that. Yaamaka is a small town so it’s hard to hide in. You sure she’s here?”

“She’s here.”

She wishes him luck and leaves him. At the bar, it takes all her strength to push his order through to the cook without a trembling hand.

Eleonora was the name her mother gave her. It is still the name her mother gave her. Before Ali came to Yaamaka, people called her Eli. Her mother. Her father. Her friends at school. No-one said anything about her name until Antonio. Antonio hadn’t liked it, but he didn’t tell her that until after she’d known him for eight months. Eleonora is too old a name, he said. You should change it to Elizabeth, or Chloe. I really like Chloe.

Alice isn’t close to Eleonora, but Ali and Eli are. It’s all she will allow of her old life and her new to mingle. Before Ali arrived in Yaamaka, she bought and sold two cars and set a third on fire. In the fire of the third, she burnt her ID, her clothes, and her skin.

The man in The Periphery wasn’t wrong when he said she was like a snake. Ali first cut herself open in a cheap motel room. She stood in front of a mirror and slit a line from her forehead to her groin with an old knife. She used both her hands to pull the skin open, to pull it off. The sensation was awful. It wasn’t birth, it wasn’t creation. She’d read that shedding your skin was like that, but it wasn’t. It was something else entirely. The peeling of your skin exposed the fragility of existence. It destroyed the ways we understood each other. It obliterated the self. In that motel room, Ali’s dark eyes, dark hair, and olive skin disappeared. She emerged new with grey eyes, a stubble of blonde hair, and pale skin. On her shoulder, there was the tattoo of an ouroboros, the design a circular streak of black, as if a paintbrush that had never existed made the circle.

Ali spent another two months on the road breaking the connections between Eleonora and Antonio. She crossed state lines, slept in campgrounds, ate at small takeaway places no-one would remember. She paid for new bank accounts, birth certificates, ID. When she reached Yaamaka, she not only looked like a different person, she was a different person. She didn’t think that anyone would be able to piece her trail together.

She had two bags when she arrived in Yaamaka. In the first was jewellery, gold, silver, diamonds, rubies, all of it hidden in the folds of her new clothes. In the second she had three thick books and an old knife wrapped in a cloth, the handle painted red.

• • • •

Ali leaves The Periphery before the man’s meal is delivered. It is the end of her shift and she is thankful for Georgina’s arrival, thankful that nothing like her baby, or her husband, delays her tonight. On other nights she doesn’t worry about Georgina. On other nights she’ll work half an hour extra, even an hour.

At home, Ali doesn’t sleep. She is exhausted, but she sits at the dining room table with a glass of wine and waits, waits for the knock on the door that she knows is coming.

The table she sits at is secondhand. The wine she drinks is cheap. She thinks, after she is killed, after she is shot, or stabbed, or strangled, after the photos of her are taken, that her old friends will be surprised. They’ll be surprised by what she looks like and they’ll be surprised by how she lived. When they knew her, Ali was about the fine things.

Ali struggled when she first arrived in Yaamaka. It was a lot more difficult than she thought it would be to hide Antonio’s jewellery, to not touch any of it. She had to get a job waiting tables and tending bar to pay her bills. At first, the long hours of The Periphery nearly defeated her resolve. Her feet and legs ached terribly. Men touched her. The other waitresses laughed and told her to laugh it off as well. You’re just young, you’re just cute, they would say, as if that somehow justified the behaviour of the men who came into the place. More than once, she thought about leaving town, about selling the jewels to press on, but she didn’t. Instead, she made friends. She learned to put down the men who touched her, verbally and physically if she had to. She told herself to be patient. She had to wait out any repercussions. She could make a sanctuary for herself, a new life in Yaamaka or outside it, if she was patient.

Ali sighs. She remembers telling the man in The Periphery that she’d been here for five years. The words slipped out, a truth in her lie. It was because she’d been thinking about the jewellery earlier, she is sure, thinking about all the pieces while she stood behind the bar cleaning glasses, the customers dwindling. She had been thinking about how to start selling them, how to start setting herself up.

But then the man arrived.

The man who still hasn’t knocked on the door.

He will soon, though. Ali knows that. He’ll arrive in a dirty black truck, a pickup not so different from her own. She saw his truck when she left The Periphery, like something out of a bad dream. She expects that the man will finish his meal before he drives over to Ali’s house.

Antonio once told her that his work was at its best when you could savour the moment, when you were just about to start, when all the possibilities of what could happen were still open to you.

When the morning comes, Ali is still at the table. She has fallen asleep at it. Both the glass and bottle of wine are standing empty on the table, bad guardians.

She takes a shower. It’s the first she’s taken since she came home from work. She leaves the door open while the water runs. Even though she lives by herself now, she’s never gotten out of the habit of locking it.

In the shower, she listens for a knock, or for a window breaking. She believes there are a limited number of ways that someone can break into your house, but she keeps thinking of new ones. The man could cut through the floorboards. He could pull up the tiles on the roof. When Ali first came to Yaamaka, she dreamed of Antonio breaking into her house, still wearing the clothes he died in. All of those dreams resurface now, but Antonio is the man from The Periphery. He isn’t, Ali knows that, but that doesn’t help the thoughts.

The house is quiet when Ali steps out of the shower. After she is dressed, she goes to the window. The street is still. It’s hot and the birds have hidden themselves. There’s no sound from anything alive. For a moment, she thinks time has stopped.

Then she sees the black truck.

It’s parked across the road, up just enough that she could pass it off as someone else’s vehicle at first glance. But it’s not. It’s the man’s.

Ali can’t see him in the truck. She thinks, is he here? She is afraid to turn from the window. Behind her, every sound in the house is amplified. Every noise is a potential footstep. A hand on the door. A gun being pulled out. When she turns around, the man isn’t there. He isn’t anywhere in the house, in fact.

Gwen’s outside. Gwen is in her sixties, a large Wilyakali woman who was once a famous painter but who is now mostly a recluse, at least to the art world. In Yaamaka, though, Gwen is accessible to everyone, a rich eccentric who paints and brews her own beer. She owns the house Ali lives in and owns another four or five in town. The number changes frequently, at least according to Gwen. When Ali first arrived in Yaamaka, it was Gwen herself who gave her the lease. Ali arrived with a real estate agent to look at the house, but Gwen came over, curious. She saw Ali’s hair growing back in, saw something in her that she recognised, and told her she could have the place. A woman ought to help another woman, she said before the real estate agent could protest that this wasn’t the way it worked.

“You had a visitor this morning.” Gwen’s clothing is paint splattered and looks like the negative of a violent photograph. “Man who drove the truck parked up the street. He got here ’round five.”

Parked there when Ali was asleep. “He came into work last night,” she says, trying to keep her voice calm. “He still around?”

“Nah, we got rid of him. He looked like—well, he didn’t look right. He had a bad look about him. Nga thought the same.” Nga lives in the house the truck is parked outside of. She’s the same age as Gwen and makes her own spirits, whisky and gin, mostly. She is Vietnamese, short and thin. “It was Nga who saw him first. She came out to ask him what he was doing, parking there, parking outside her place. Whatever he said, she didn’t like. She started yelling at him. It’s what woke me up. When I got outside Nga had him out of the truck and was peeling strips out of him, demanding to know who he was, why he was here, all of that.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he was looking for a woman called Eleonora. Whoever she is. The man wasn’t wearing a ring, but what does that mean in this day and age? Ring or no ring, a man will think he owns you when he can.”

On the day Ali moved in, Gwen came to see her with a tin of biscuits and a bottle of her homemade beer. Over the two, Gwen told her how she left her first husband, how he was abusive. Emotionally, not physically, she meant. In a way, she said, he was the worst of her four husbands. His words still crawled into her when she had a bad day and sometimes when she had a good one. No woman leaves a man for a bad reason, she said and poured out more beer for the two of them. They’re all good reasons, whatever they are.

“You know how I knew he was bad?” Gwen asks, talking about the man Ali met last night. “He kept saying he needed her. He needed Eleonora. She was important to him. He couldn’t go back to his life without her.”

“Where is he now?”

She laughs a mean, happy laugh. “Nga called her son. She called Huy and he came over with his friends. There were five of them. They talked to the man. They told him to go with them. When he said no, they dragged him to Huy’s car. The last I saw of him, he was being driven out of the town. I can only imagine what happened to him after that.”

Ali imagines it, but only briefly. The man is there when she arrives at work. He is sitting in the same booth he sat in the night before. He is sitting there like he owns it.

She doesn’t understand how he is there. Huy isn’t subtle. If he and his friends take you outside town, you don’t come back after.

Yet the man is here. Did he walk to The Periphery? Ali didn’t see his truck in the parking lot. As far as she knows it’s still outside her house. And it’s hot outside. It’s over forty and there’s no relief from the heat, even inside. Yaamaka is a town of sparse trees and red dirt. To walk through it is to walk through a landscape of heat and space, the world warped by it. You have to have a reason to walk through it, a reason that cannot wait.

“Do you mind taking care of the new customer?” Lauren asks Ali when she steps into the kitchen. She is sweeping up what looks to be a tray of broken cutlery. “It’s just a mess in here.”

Ali can’t say no. Lauren is heavily pregnant and when you say no to her right now, she cries. “Sure, no problem,” she says.

She takes a moment after she puts her bag away. She centres herself. She reminds herself that she was waiting last night. She wasn’t afraid. She won’t be afraid. She will meet what happens without flinching. She walks out, grabs a bottle of tap water and places it on the man’s table, a glass next to it.

He doesn’t notice her. He is staring at his hands, turning them over, revealing the edges of coloured tattoos on his arms as he does. He turns his hands into fists, then back again. Both of his hands are full of abrasions.

Before she can stop herself, Ali says, “Hurt yourself?”

“No.” He turns to her. “How nice to see you, Alice. That’s the name you’re using now, isn’t it? I’d forgotten it, but your friends reminded me.”

“I didn’t ask them to do anything to you.”

“No?” He smiles and it is lopsided. “No, you probably didn’t. Antonio always said you were sweet. He said you wouldn’t hurt anyone. Did you know that?”

“Do you really want to talk about Antonio?” She is not afraid. She will not be intimidated. She will find a way through this. “Is that what you really want?”

“No, I’m not here to talk about Antonio. You know, he would have wanted me to hurt you, but I suspect he had it coming. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Antonio. He did good work. He did good work for me, especially. He wasn’t easily replaced. But the apprentices he kept? Let’s just say there was a pattern. They were all pretty and young and they all disappeared. You lasted a long time compared to the others. Antonio once said to me that he might be able to start a coven with you. I didn’t believe it. If he wasn’t fucking you already, he would soon. When that happened, he’d stop teaching you. No-one lasted long after that. So when I heard Antonio was dead, I thought, good for you. You stood your ground. You didn’t let him use you. You got away.”

“But here you are.”

“What can I say? I need a witch and you’re a witch. There aren’t many who can do what you do. It’s a gamble I’ve taken, but right now in my life, I have to gamble. I have to take chances.”

“What do you want?”

“I want a new start. I need a new start like you got a new start. The world is now much too small for me and my face.”

Ali laughs in disbelief and shakes her head, unable to find words for her surprise.

“You’ve done it for yourself.” He looks at her, looks her up and down. “You did a good job with yourself. Better than what Antonio ever did with himself. I saw him do a lot of things, a lot of things that weren’t easily explained. That’s what I paid for, after all. I paid for the unexplained. Still, I only ever saw him shed his skin once. He did it after a man stabbed him. I thought the wound was going to kill him, but instead he dug a knife into the wound and slit himself open. It wasn’t the knife he’d been stabbed with. It was another one. One with a red handle. Antonio used it to make a long cut over his chest. Once he’d done that, he pulled the skin back and pulled himself out. Strange thing was, he didn’t look any different when he came out new. After, I asked him why he didn’t change himself, why he didn’t give himself a different look, and he laughed. Why would I? he said to me. I like who I am. We should all be so lucky, right?”

“Why would I do this for you?”

“You want to protect this life here? Those old ladies are sweet on you. Trust me when I tell you it doesn’t take much to hurt someone. But then I guess you know that.”

Ali meets his gaze. He doesn’t turn away. His eyes are dark. He lets her look into them to see what’s in him. “What’s your name?” she asks.

“I’ve a lot of names, but tomorrow, you can call me Mark.” He pauses, taps the table with his scraped and bruised hands. Then, “You know the cinema in this town, right? The drive-in?”

She does.

“You’re going to meet me there after you’ve finished your shift. I don’t want to repeat the scene with the old ladies outside your house. Believe it or not, I’ve got no desire to hurt them. There’s no point becoming a new man if you’re going to do the things the old man did. Besides, I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to fight with you. I just want a simple transaction. Once you’ve helped me, I’ll forget who you are and I’ll be on my way. I’ve even got some money that I’ll give you.”

Ali is not a fool. She knows it won’t be like that. She knows the man who wants to call himself Mark will never forget where she is, or what she looks like, or how he found her to begin with.

The bell over the door rings. Half a dozen tourists enter The Periphery. The man looks at the menu on the table and then back to Ali, his eyes still flat and hard. “I think I’ll have the chicken parma,” he says. “With chips and a salad. I’ll have a beer, as well. There’s one here called Dead Man’s Revival I’d like to try.”

• • • •

He eats and drinks and he leaves. After he leaves, a story seeps into The Periphery, a story about Huy and his friends. They were found on the side of the road in bad shape. They’re on the way to Broken Hill, to the hospital there.

Ali works her shift. She’s only half aware of the orders she takes, the conversations she has, the time that passes. She thinks about Antonio. She doesn’t want to, but after the man leaves, Antonio arrives. Throughout her shift, she keeps seeing him. She sees him at a table, or booth, or stepping through the door of The Periphery. He is a ghost haunting her. By the end of her shift, it is so bad that The Periphery starts to resemble the home they shared, the beautiful house she killed Antonio in. She sees the big windows he died in front of, the broken glass he’d been holding on the floor, the private beach that runs down to the ocean. She even sees, on the shelf behind The Periphery’s bar, the statues Antonio kept.

Ali drove the red handled knife into Antonio’s back as he stood by the window. He had just poured himself a drink. He was celebrating a job he’d finished. He was looking out at the ocean. He said something to Ali as she approached, she wasn’t sure what, but it didn’t matter. She was focused on making sure the knife cut flesh, that it went through organs, that it didn’t hook into anything that wasn’t part of this world. That was what she needed to do if she wanted to leave, if she wanted to keep learning and stay alive.

Ali was with Antonio for nearly two years. She was not yet twenty-one when she met him and he took her on as his apprentice. He was a warlock, he said. The only one in the world. He’d teach her to be his equal. He gave her a small charm at the end of their first lesson, a necklace that would protect her. She was touched by his gift, amazed by his knowledge, his skill, awed by the things that he could do. After a while, he introduced her to the underworld he was part of, the professional killers, the crime lords, and worse. She was thrilled by that, Ali admits now. It was like being in a movie. She would watch as dangerous people came to Antonio and paid him huge amounts of money to curse people, to pull out secrets, or to summon demons. It was unlike anything she had been part of before. There was a risk that at any moment her life could crack open in a gangland war and spill onto her personal screen, complete with a soundtrack.

Nowadays, Ali is ashamed by what she thought. She is also angry. She can’t believe how easily Antonio seduced her with his world, his knowledge and his violence. It was like a glamour that he used on her, one that hid the truth.

She remembers how hurt she was when she learned that the necklace Antonio gave her let him track her. It happened after she went to bed with him. The next night he came to the bar she was in with her friends and pulled her out onto the street and yelled at her for not being there when he needed her. She asked how he’d found her and he grabbed the necklace. He didn’t hit her that night, but he would soon after. When he did, Ali told herself it was his work. It wasn’t him. He was kind. He was gentle. He was special. When Ali remembers what she said, she wants to peel her skin off again.

Ali steps outside The Periphery. It is dark and hot outside. The stars are scraped across the sky like the universe is dissolving around her.

She drives home. The man’s truck isn’t parked on the street. When she steps inside, the house is quiet. She turns on the lights to each room, one at a time. In her bedroom, she pulls the two bags down from the closet.

She takes the knife with the red painted hilt out of the bag. It’s still wrapped in a cloth. Beneath it are three leather-bound black books. Ali puts the knife and the books on the table. What she really wants to do is take a shower, but she doesn’t. She’s afraid that the moment she is naked, the man will break in. It’s a ridiculous thought, but Antonio used to come in and watch her shower. He used to complain when she locked the door. What are you hiding from me? he would ask. You’ve nothing to hide from me.

She had to teach herself after their relationship changed. Antonio told her he couldn’t teach a girlfriend. It wasn’t right. But she wouldn’t give up what she had. She would stand in the bathroom and recite spells and reach out for the folds in reality that she already knew. The water always ran while she worked. The exhaust was always on. She herself was dry and clothed. Every bit of magic she learned in the next year and a half she learned behind closed doors, in hidden corners, places that Antonio wasn’t watching. She remembers the first time she found his books, these books she now has spread across the table, and read about the things he could do. She learned that he could do a lot, that he could change himself, that he could slip through reality, that he could trap people in statues. She carried the book out to the bar. Antonio wasn’t home. She stood with the book in her hands as she stared at the elegant statues of women he kept there. He once told her they were modelled after former apprentices, those who tried, but couldn’t learn what he had to teach. After she killed Antonio, she smashed them open with a hammer, her final act before she fled, the statues bleeding out into the sink as she drove away.

Ali doesn’t read from the books straight away. She makes a compromise with herself, instead. She cleans off her makeup and washes her face. She changes out of her work clothes. She makes a cup of tea.

Ali gets back into her truck an hour later. The knife is with her, but not the books. She has hidden the books again. She puts the knife on the seat next to her. She remembers how easy it was for her to slide it into Antonio, how hard it was to make sure it only cut flesh. She can see the flames of the car she set on fire, the fire consuming all of who she was inside. She had burned herself without a second thought. She thinks about doing it again. Ali doesn’t think it will be as easy. She doesn’t want to leave Yaamaka. She has made her life here.

The drive-in is on the edge of land that was once mined for gold. The screen appears first. It lays flat, its back facing the sky, its borders lost in the dark. The films it plays only ever run on Friday and Saturday and it’s currently Tuesday. There is, however, a truck parked in front of it. The cabin is lit up.

The gate is open. Inside, Ali drives past the shuttered box office and closed grill. Nothing is alive out here but the two of them. Ali’s heart skips a beat and she parks her truck, not at all sure now that she’s doing the right thing. Still, she picks up the knife by its painted hilt when she gets out.

The man is standing in the light of his truck, waiting for her. “I was starting to think I might have to come and get you.”

“My shifts are long.”

“That kind of work grinds you down. Why do you do it? You don’t have to work there. You could be rich.”

“I could be rich working for you?” She points to the door of the truck. “Why don’t you stand against that. Try not to block the light for me.”

The man moves against the door. He takes off his shirt. He has a series of multi-coloured tattoos across his chest, a mix of images and words, a history that is cohesive only to the owner of the skin. “Do I have to think about what I want to look like? Do I have to have a picture in my head?” the man asks as he begins to unbuckle his belt. “I want to be good looking. I want to be younger.”

“You want to be a movie star?” Ali shrugs. “You can think about what you want to look like, but it won’t make a difference.”

He is naked now. “What do you mean?”

“It’s subconscious. It’s internal. It’s a response to part of you that you can’t control.” She touches her face. “I didn’t even know this face existed before I saw it. I didn’t know I wanted to blend in. I didn’t realise that what I wanted was for people not to see me.”

“It’s not so bad, what you look like.”

He reaches up to touch her cheek, but she lays the knife on his chest before he can. “Why don’t we just start this?”

He nods.

There’s blood and there’s pain. The cut isn’t as deep as she wants it to be, but it’s not angled for flesh, or muscle. It’s cutting into something intangible, a layer within a person that they are not usually aware of. When the cut is finished, the man grabs the edge of his skin and pulls.

What he reveals is not blood or bone. Ali expected to see that, five years ago in the cheap motel room when she removed her own skin. She was not sure she was doing the right thing, not even when the light began to show. It was mixed with her blood, the colour of it distorted, and she thought she was dying. She thought she was hallucinating. But she wasn’t. She isn’t now. The light pours out of the man’s chest. It eats away at the blood that covers his chest, the blood that belongs to his physical form.

The man’s light washes over her. It’s like a broken kaleidoscope. The man falls to his knees. It’s hard, Ali knows, to pull your skin back like a shirt. It’s hard when the light consumes your vision. It’s hard when you start to live the life that you are abandoning, when you see all you have done, good and bad.

She sees only a part of the man’s life. She sees what’s recent. She is surprised by that, but then they are linked by the knife, by the cuts she has made.

Ali sees Sydney. She sees the city, the tangled sprawl, the harbour, the beautiful houses and apartment blocks that surround it. She sees a large, elegant apartment, one that is furnished in a minimalist fashion. Inside it is the man. He is dressing. He is pulling on an expensive suit, one quite different from one he took off and laid inside the truck. A woman comes in to see him. She’s beautiful, elegant, a woman Ali doesn’t know, but does. She met many similar to her when she met the men Antonio did work for.

The image changes.

The man walks into a court. He sits at the back while lawyers talk and argue in front of a judge. There is an elderly man, a man who might be a grandfather to him, sitting in the defendant’s box in handcuffs. Later, she sees the man who wants to call himself Mark in a room with the judge. The judge is at her table. She is looking down at a solitary, bloody finger that has been laid out in front of her. The man is talking. Ali cannot hear the words, but she knows what he is saying, the ultimatum he is giving.

The man leaves the office and appears outside a factory next. The images flip past her like a dream, but the logic is consistent, she knows. Inside the factory is empty of everything but a young child, a boy who cannot be older than twelve. He looks a little like the judge.

The boy is chained to one of the walls. He is cradling his hand, a bloodied hand that has been bandaged poorly. The boy looks ill, pale and dull. The man pulls up a chair and sits in front of him. He talks to the boy but the boy doesn’t appear to hear him.

After a while, the man’s phone rings. He listens to whoever is on the other end for a while, then hangs up. After he does, he walks over to another side of the factory and picks up a can of petrol. He pours it over the boy who doesn’t even try to pull away. Once he is finished, the man puts the can away and pulls out a lighter.

In horror, Ali watches the boy burn. She watches the man film it with his phone. He sends it, she knows, to the judge.

The man does not delete the video. He keeps it like a trophy. That is why, one night, when his girlfriend is flipping through his phone while he is not there, she finds the video of the boy burning. The woman must have known what the man did for a living, Ali believes, but this crosses a line for her. She sends the video to herself. She takes it to the police. She sits in a small room. She tells the police all she knows about the man.

When the police come for him, he is not there, but his girlfriend is. She sits on the couch, her body wired with explosives. The explosion rips through the building, killing not just the police and the woman, but those who lived in the apartments around the man.

He has nearly pulled himself out of his skin now. His new face is young, around twenty-five, smooth and pale, handsome even.

Ali can kill him. She can drive the knife into him. The man is barely aware she is there now. To peel your skin off is exhausting. He would not be able to stop her, but Ali will not do it. She will not kill him.

She has never meant to kill him.

Ali runs the knife across the palm of her hand. She angles it differently than when she cut down the man’s skin. She cuts into something else she cannot easily explain, a part of reality that holds more than herself, but which is her own, and only her own. She lets it mingle with her blood, then clamps her hand on the man’s jaw, covering his mouth.

“You’re going to forget me,” she says, pushing her blood into his mouth. “You’re going to forget Yaamaka and everyone in it. You’re going to forget your name, your new one and your old one. You’re going to forget everything about yourself but your dreams. Your dreams are going to be awful. You’re going to dream of every wrong thing you’ve done. Every person you’ve hurt. Every child you’ve murdered. You’ll never be able to sleep more than an hour at a time because of these dreams. You’ll never be able to sleep twice on the same bed. You’ll seek redemption, but you’ll never be able to find it. You’ll help people. You’ll give away what’s yours to anyone who is in need. You’ll do this until you cannot do it anymore, until your body gives you up, until your wretched and twisted soul is nothing. Do you understand me?”

He nods, his jaw still gripped in her hand, his old flesh on the ground like a lover’s discarded clothing. Ali looks into his dark brown eyes like he had before and sees a terrible fear and anger, but neither changes her decision. The curse has been made, the curse is alive in her blood, the curse is binding itself to the man in a way that will never be broken.

At home, Ali has a shower, washes the wound, binds it. In her kitchen, she opens another bottle of cheap wine. Later, she will bring the jewels out of her bedroom to the dining table, but that is later. For now, she pours a glass of wine for herself. Silently, she raises it to Eleonora, the woman she was and the woman she wasn’t.

Benjamin Peek

Benjamin Peek lives in Sydney. He is the author of The Godless, Leviathan’s Blood, The Eternal Kingdom, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, Black Sheep, and the collection, Dead Americans and Other Stories.