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It Feels Better Biting Down

It Feels Better Biting Down — Art by Reiko Murakami

“What’s with the lawnmower. No one mows this early in spring.”

“It’s June,” I reply. “Spring should be long gone.”

My twin sister rolls over onto her back, rubbing the afternoon sleep from her eyes with ten long, pale fingers and two long, pale thumbs. I’m lying next to her in our nest of pillows on the living room carpet, holding a book with hands that look just like hers, pale and strange, the extra finger curving into each palm, shy-like but not vestigial or immobile, not completely reticent. A sleeping stinger waiting to strike, my mother once said in her raspy, rye-tinged voice. We like that.

“Where is it coming from?”

“Neighbors,” I say. “Behind us. Not the sides.”

“I didn’t know someone new moved in.” Sister sits up. That’s what I call her anymore, and what she calls me. It drives our parents crazy because we only answer to Sister, and they never know which one they’re going to get when they call our name. It only started last summer, just before our senior year, but sometimes now I can’t even remember our original names. We are Sister, a singular entity with twenty long fingers at the ends of our four pale hands.

“I know.” I close the book and stare through the open-screened windows. Only the neighbor’s roof is visible, framed by wind-tossed trees swaying under a cream blue sky. “No one’s lived there for years. Remember Father complaining?”

“‘A white trash eyesore,’ he said.”

“‘Property rates dropping,’ he said.”

“All the plants dying,” Sister says.

“Too many pine needles, too little sun,” I say. “That whole backyard is dead. The last owners graveled it over like a parking lot.”

“What are they mowing then?” Sister asks.

The engine sputters and buzzes in a low, monotonous drone. The air pooling in through the open-screened windows smells of cut grass and gasoline. It smells enticing and new.

Sister stares at me, waiting for my response. I let the book slip from my hands. Mystery is blossoming behind the fence, waiting to be bit into like a stolen plum. We bare our teeth like wolves. We call it the delicious smile, because something strange and delicious is about to be found, to be torn apart and sucked dry. It’s another little thing that drives our parents insane, because it doesn’t look anything like a smile at all.

I’m always the first to move. My sister likes me to hang back a bit. I stand up and hold out my hand, and she reaches. I pull her to her feet with little effort on my part, our extra pinky fingers locked as she moves up toward me, a graceful pantomime of our violent birth. We make our way to through the silent house, hand in hand. Our parents are gone for the weekend, visiting friends, they said. They’re probably just hiding out in a local motel. Summers are hard for them because school is out and we’re always around. To be fair, we don’t make it easy. We never have, not since our unexpected birth. We’re not stupid; we know how they feel about us. We see them as one with two sets of eyes. They don’t like our indecipherable games, our private whisperings in secret languages, our twisty extra fingers brushing across their normal non-twisty things. Sometimes I feel bad. Only sometimes. They only ever wanted one of us to begin with, and anyway this is what twins are. Wrong. This is how we’re supposed to be.

By the time we get to the den and open the patio door, the mowing has stopped. A high-pitched fluting noise floods the air—it’s the wind washing through all the construction sites surrounding our block, playing with chain link fences, weaving through empty, honeycombed frames of houses and apartment buildings, and stiff forests of construction beams half-driven into the hard ground. The skeletal remains of what was to be a new neighborhood, abandoned to ruin almost as quickly as it had begun. As we step outside, I raise my hands. I feel the warmth of the day growing steady behind the cool gusts. In this part of the world it usually takes so long to throw off the winter cold, but this summer already feels different. We stand on the concrete slabs, looking across the yard at the fence. Father put it up a decade ago, when all the hedges started to wither and die off. In the slight gaps between each wide wooden slat, there’s no movement or sound. We wait.

“Nobody’s there,” I finally whisper. “Maybe it was next door after all.”

“I heard it, too.”

“It’s cold out. Let’s go back inside.”

Sister grabs a plastic lawn chair and walks across the grass. Irritated, I stand at the patio’s edge, toes curled over it and brushing the green blades as I watch. She places the lawn chair against the fence, then steps onto the fabric seat, pressing her face against the slats. Slowly she stands until her head peers over the top of the fence. Almost instantly, she crouches down, shock lighting up her face like the sun.

Come over here! she mouths, her hand beckoning. There’s a woman in the yard!

I casually pick up a chair, dragging it through the grass as if this was the most boring thing in the world. Of course I want to see, I wouldn’t dream of not seeing when Sister already has. I plunk the chair beside hers, and she shushes me, one long finger at her lips like she’s our mother. Like she came first. It’s times like this I want to grab her little fingers, snap them off her hands like beans from a vine.

What’s wrong with you, she whispers as I step onto the chair.

What’s wrong with you, I reply.

There’s a woman, she’s just standing there.

So what? Did you see a lawnmower?

No. Her face is all—Sister grimaces.

Is all what? I ask.

I can’t describe it. You’ve just got to see.

I don’t want her to see us.

She can’t, Sisters says. Believe me.

I hold out my hand. She clasps it, our stinger fingers coming together like a hook and eye. And just like that we’re in sync again, we’re Sister. In unison, we peer through the slats.

Behind the fence, a dark brown ranch house sits in the shade of several massive evergreens, their branches brushing the shingled roof. The surrounding yard is a carpet of pale gray gravel. No bushes or flowers, no potted plants or garden or fruit trees. A woman stands in the center of the yard, barefoot and wearing a shapeless green dress. The hem flutters in the wind, and her crooked brown hair floats about her shoulders, but she’s as still as the house. She faces the fence. She faces us.

I let out a small gasp.

I know, Sister replies.

Together, we stand up until we’re both staring over the top of the fence, our free hands clutching the rough wood for balance. The woman’s face is like a statue, with only smooth, flesh-colored indentations where her eyes should be. The nose is small and without nostrils—almost an afterthought. She has no eyebrows. Her mouth is her largest feature, wide with thin, sloppily painted purple lips that stretch across her cheeks almost to her small ears.

Relief floods my chest, and I turn to Sister.

“It’s a mannequin,” I say in a normal voice.

“It’s a joke,” she says, equally relieved.

“A lipstick smile,” I say.

“An ugly wig,” Sister says.

“What are you doing?” I ask. Sister slips from my grasp and jumps down to the lawn. She bends down close to the edge of the fence, then holds up a small rock, the malicious smile on her face as she steps back onto the chair.

“I want to see her without it.”

“Don’t,” I say.

“Why not?” she says.

“I don’t know.” I stare at the mannequin. “I don’t think we should.”

“It’s just a mannequin.”

“What if it’s not?”

“What’s gotten into you?”

“What’s gotten into you?” We stare at each other, our frustration mutual.

“I don’t want to fall.” Sister reaches out. I grab her hand, but there’s no enthusiasm in my touch. Sister pitches her right arm back and throws the rock. We always did have good aim. It bounces with a plink right against the woman’s forehead and lands at her feet. After a second, the wig slithers to the woman’s shoulders, exposing her marble round head.

I turn to Sister and smile. “Nice.”

Sister smiles. “Nice.”

“Niiiiiiicccccceeeeeee.” The woman’s mouth is open, and the word is pouring out, elongated in the familiar lawnmower drone, in the thick smell of gasoline and severed green grass and torn leaves. We scream. Sister pushes back from the fence, her chair tipping over, but I don’t let go of her hand. She falls against me, trying to pull away, but I throw my free arm over the top of the fence. I refuse to let go. The woman’s lips stretch apart, wider than wide, past the nubby ears and up and up, until her entire face disappears in the bear trap of her mouth. It comes to a stop only when her entire head is split in half, the oval crown of her bald head resting at the back of her neck. Small rows of jagged teeth line the mouth’s wet edges, rotating around and around like the blades of a circular saw.

“You wanted to be first,” I say, to neither of us, to both of us. “You wanted to see.”

“Let me go!” screams Sister. She pushes against me, but I’m wrapped tight against the fence, my feet hooked under the arms of the chair.

“No,” I clench my hand tighter around hers, and I feel our bones grind and shift. The lawnmower sound deepens, grows ragged and clogged as if the blades were running over rocks. Small emerald specks are rising out of the woman’s cavernous mouth, swarming about her head in a frothy cloud of bodies and wings. The smell is suffocating, and my body grows sleepy and numb. Sister feels like a thousand pounds of dead weight at my waist, but I can’t push her off. It’s not that we don’t want to move anymore. It’s that we can’t. And then: an explosion of green pours out of the mouth, thousands of jewel-bright, stinging bodies that shoot forward, slam against the wood slats, against my face in a hard rain. The woman’s body deflates, collapsing against the gravel in a shivering heap. I feel myself falling, finally. The sky is above me now, and the impossibly high tips of the trees, and Sister is somewhere beside me, grabbing at me with both hands. Everything grows hazy and beautiful and kitten-gray, even the screams. My right hand rests on my stomach, five fingers and one thumb clutching two objects, slender and soft and hard.

One of us is licking their lips and laughing. I’m pretty sure it’s me.

• • • •

Sister is crying. The mimicry tears, we call them. It’s the kind of crying we do when we don’t really want to cry but we have to, because everyone else is acting a certain way and we need to do the same. Her weeping sounds so far away and hollow, like she’s become one of those empty construction lots, the wind plucking her bones like the metal frames and threading the music back and forth across all the blocks.

My nose tickles. I think of tiny legs and wings crawling out of my nostrils. I sit up, eyes open, and rub at my face until the sensation is gone. Then I stare down at my hands. Ten fingers, two thumbs. Two more fingers sit in my lap. I pick them up. The nails are polished and shiny, with a faint rose sheen. The other ends are perfectly round. No torn flesh, no peek of bones, no blood. I have a terrible urge to lick them. I manage to tuck one in the waistband of my pants before she speaks.

“What did you do to me?”

I look up. Sister is standing before me, her arms outstretched. Each hand has four perfect fingers and one pretty little thumb. I hold up her extra pinky.

“I only have the one.”

“Well, where is the other?”

“I can’t keep track of your fingers for you.”

“I look all normal now.”

“Yes, like that’s so horrible.”

“It is!”

“I know how you really feel.”

Sister looks frightened, but she stops pretending to cry. I roll my eyes and turn back to the fence. Between the slats, I catch glimpses of flesh, folds of grayish white dotted with emerald specks, and the shimmer of sharp teeth catching the midday sun. A thin breeze pushes through the fence. It smells like rotting fruit, sour-sweet.

“That was not a mannequin,” I say.

“Give me my finger back.”

“What were those flying things?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sister says.

“I think it matters quite a lot,” I say, standing up. “Show me your hands again.”

Sister holds them out. I place the end of the pinky next to the red bump where it used to hang. “It’s like it just fell off,” she says. “It doesn’t even hurt.”

“You’re relieved, aren’t you.”

“I don’t know how I feel.”

“We’re not the same anymore,” I say. “We’re not the same person.”

“Is that all you care about?” she says. “We never were.”

I place her pinky next to mine, touching the end to my skin. A sharp pain spikes through my hands, and my left extra pinky trembles, then unfurls. It isn’t curled up in sleep anymore. It’s strong and straight, and the nail is long and steel-sharp. I wiggle it back and forth. I’ve never been able to do that before. We stand on the lawn in silence, staring at it. Across the fence, crows are gathering on the rooftops, waiting for the right moment to attack the woman’s remains. I press Sister’s pinky hard against my skin, taking my hand away only when the ache subsides. It doesn’t fall off.

“What did you do?”

I wiggle the fingers on my left hand. All six of them, and a thumb.

“That was my finger!” Sister steps forward, but I step forward, too, my sharp-nailed finger extended. She pulls back.

“Finders, keepers.” I reach down into my waistband and pull out her other finger. “Losers, weepers.”

Sister lunges. I open my mouth wide. A soft, low, metallic buzz emerges from the back of my throat, and the drowsy scent of gasoline fills the air. Sister’s pupils widen, and her body grows slack. “Two can play, Sister,” she murmurs, and sticks out her emerald-flecked tongue. My knees buckle at the scent—fresh-cut grass and crushed leaves, all the ripe green distress of dying flora. I sigh, and my breath comingles with hers. We drop to our knees.

“Give me my fingers back!”

“They’re our fingers.”

“We’re not the same.”

“Not yet.” I make the words rattle like a saw.

Sister grabs my hand and puts my index finger in her mouth. I slap her face, and when she raises her other hand, I grab it and catch her wriggling thumb with my teeth. We fall against the fence and slide sideways onto the ground, our noses almost touching.

“You’re only hurting yourself.” Her hot tongue pushes the words around my flesh.

“You love it.”

She smiles the delicious smile.

We both bite down.

Behind the fence, the crows have landed, fighting over the woman’s festering remains. Sister lies on the grass with her head at my shoulder, examining my severed finger. It didn’t even hurt a bit. And her thumb—it was like nipping off cookie dough from the roll. Other than several small teeth marks that quickly faded away, you couldn’t tell what was gone. She’s placed it in the middle of her palm, and now it waves back and forth, around and around. I take her thumb and place it between my breasts, then slide it down to the open zipper of my pants.

“Absolutely not,” Sister says.

“Absolutely yes,” I say.

“That’s disgusting.”

“It’s practical. It leaves my hands free for the other things.”

“I can’t believe you just said that.”

I roll over so that our noses are touching again, our foreheads, our lips. “If you don’t like what I’m saying, then why don’t you bite off my tongue.”

She does. In our petroleum haze, we shed our clothes, adjusting and arranging our new parts. Insects float in and out of our now-empty mouths, catch in our long hair, crown our heads like emerald halos. Sister signals me, her long fingers waving me forward, and we move as one across the sun-dappled yard to a far corner, to a bed of beauty bark under the heavy needled branches of stiff evergreens. The afternoon sun lowers and the moon rises, bright and clear in the hot summer night. Our limbs come together, fall apart, and weave together again, tongues and toes and scent directing our exploration. And with the break of day, we grow bold with our new single mouth and bite down harder, further within, until we are inside-out, until our hearts are one. Black birds gather on the overhead branches, chattering at the sight of so many organs, so much sinew and broken bone. They wait in vain. We are fast and quick and sure, and not a drop of blood is spilled or misspent.

And night falls again. We rise from our corner, stretch our double-length torso and our many slender, double-jointed limbs, raise the eyes of our single-mouthed head to a star-studded sky as we step into the center of the lawn. The wind is low, and the birds are quiet. All about us, small backyards pool behind hedges and fences, small oases of suburban repose. And across the concrete patio, yellow light wells from the kitchen window, and two familiar figures move like shadow puppets in a box. With two sets of eyes, we watch as one.

“Sister,” I say.

“Our parents are home,” I say.

“Do we show them?” I ask. “Do we embrace them?”

“How can we not?” I say

“They will scream,” I say.

“And then they will love it,” I say.

“Or they will die,” I say.

“Unless we die, as the woman did,” I say.

“She gave us a gift,” I say.

“And where is she now,” I say.

We grow silent.

After a time, we lower our haunches onto the dew-speckled grass. One long, multi-fingered arm picks up a sandal, discarded from two days ago. It seems so small. Our parents move back and forth deep within the house, talking, drinking, making dinner. They look happy. We think of the woman, immobile in a barren landscape, staring with empty eyes past our fence, dreaming of the lush, forbidden world of another backyard.

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Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn is a writer of dark fantasy, horror, and erotica, whose short fiction has appeared in over forty anthologies and magazines and has been reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year series, Years Best Weird Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Best Erotica. Her first collection, Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors (2011, Lethe Press), received two Shirley Jackson Award nominations, for Best Collection, and for Best Novelette (for “Omphalos”). Her story “Furnace” received a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award nomination for Best Short Story. Her second collection, Furnace (2016, Word Horde Press), was published this year. You can find her online at liviallewellyn.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.