Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

Returned

The shadows press on your skin, prickled velvet that shouldn’t have weight, shouldn’t have texture, shouldn’t feel like you are wearing sandpaper and poison, but they do. You are almost used to it, this new way that things that shouldn’t happen do, but you do not like it.

Here is one of the things that shouldn’t have happened: You are awake, and you do not want to be.

No.

No, that’s not quite it, and you are going to be honest. You are going to put aside the polite fucking fictions that are in place to make everyone else feel better around you because you are done, done, done caring what they feel. Since you have returned, no one has given any indication that they care about what you feel.

So. To say the thing true: You are alive, and you do not want to be.

Well, you are not exactly sure about that one word.

Alive.

You died. Not the sort of dead on the operating table, light at the end of the tunnel, go back to those who love you, near-death kinds of dead. But dead dead. All the way gone.

A death certificate was signed. Your body was cremated. You were made into a thing of ash and air and some fragments of bone. All that was left to go wherever you were was a soul, and that had gone on long before the burning of your body.

Not that it had been your idea to die. You weren’t a suicide. It had been

(a snake bite)

(a poisoned apple)

(a hand around your throat)

Anyway, you don’t exactly remember, or rather you do. The problem is you exactly remember all of those things, all of those possible deaths, and you cannot say which one was yours.

Maybe that is why everyone looks at you, well, like that.

Maybe not. You’ve heard them talk.

You remember being dead. You remember passing over the white bone of the corpse road, feeling vertebrae, ribs, phalanges crunch beneath your feet. You remember the air shivering as you passed beneath the lych gate. The scale that weighed your heart. You didn’t need coins to pay your passage, because. No. That part you don’t remember.

(maybe)

(no)

The queen whose eyes were as cold as marble who welcomed you with frostbite’s kiss. You remember her very well. She smelled of winter and tasted like pomegranates.

You were neither particularly happy nor particularly sad about being dead. There were things you hadn’t done — you had never learned French, or how to make a soufflé. You never started the novel you had always meant to write, and you still couldn’t run for more than a mile without stopping.

You regretted not doing those things, but in a dull, quiet sort of way. It seemed to you just as likely you would never have done them, only kept them on a list for someday, even if you hadn’t been

(stung by a bee)

(hit by a car)

(drowned in your bath)

You got used to being dead. The way the sky was shades of red, purple, gray — always striated with black, and never any stars. The way voices carried in the land of the dead, sounding more hollow, less real than other sounds, as if they were coming from farther away than the mouths that spoke. The way drinking from the wrong river could make you forget what it had been like to be alive.

(You knew that, about the river, before you arrived on its shore. But it was only a little that you drank, and you had been thirsty, or at least you thought you should have been after your travel there, and besides, you didn’t want to remember how you died.)

(You wish there was a river like that here.)

Then he showed up.

The hollow voices of the dead sounded almost solid in their excitement over his presence, as they told you he was here, he was speaking. If he spoke well, he would take you back. Back to life.

Excitement was not what you felt about him being there.

You didn’t listen to him speak. You stayed away, until you couldn’t.

He was, you guessed, the person you would call your boyfriend. Or lover. Which you mostly thought was a stupid word, but what else do you call the guy who walks into the afterlife and drags you back into your beforelife with him?

Bringing you back was, all things considered, easy for him. He had rules and he had tasks and he had warnings, and if he did all of the things exactly as he was supposed to, you would have to go with him. He did, and you did.

No one ever asked you what you wanted.

The cold-eyed queen’s goodbye kiss burned like ice on your lips from the moment they touched hers until the moment you stepped again into the sun. You think you remember seeing a tear on her cheek as she embraced you and bid you safe journey, but perhaps you only want to remember that.

Now that he has brought you back, he is bright-eyed and golden and so very pleased with his success, so very proud of himself. He is handsome on television, and in the photographs for websites and weekly magazines that write stories about what he’s done, stories that say bringing you back was a miracle of love. He writes “Top Ten Lists of Romantic Gestures Sure to Win Her Heart,” and no one comments on the fact that, for number one to work, she has to be dead first. No one says that things are more romantic when the girl is alive.

You are a shadow in photographs, cold-eyed and frostbitten, and everyone says they cannot tell what he sees in you. This makes them like him all the more. He must be a really great guy, to love someone like you. To stay by your side, even now, now that you are like this.

You cringe from the sun, too bright in a sky that is shades of blue, day and night, and full of the stark white light of stars. You step back when he tries to touch you.

He had sex with you, once. The first night you were back. He had brought you back because he loved you and now he was going to show you how much. He pushed himself inside you, and withered almost immediately. You were too cold, he said. Like a dead thing.

He hasn’t tried again.

Small mercies.

You’d walk away, leave, if you could, but whatever tether pulled you with him out of death, whatever magic reconstituted the pieces of your immolated body around your peregrine soul, still hasn’t snapped. If you get too far away from him, well, you can’t. You are dissolved, reconstituted, turned inside-out. Returned to him, to his side, to this curse he has brought you to.

You wish he had looked back.

But he didn’t, and you are here. Returned. And at the center of an attention that is just one more thing that you don’t want. You hate how they look at you, with pity and puzzlement. You hate how they look at him, lust and belief.

No one cares about the truth of you. At first, they expected you to be happy. Not being dead was clearly superior to being dead. And how romantic, what he had done. He must love you very much.

No one asked you the opposite question — whether you loved him, whether you wanted to return with him. The old magics are not without their flaws.

The people around him watch you as you turn from him, as you flinch from his hand, as you stay behind him, as far as you can without being snapped back to his side, as if you are ungrateful, as if you are some half-wild, feral thing, and you suppose you are.

The reason why is another thing they do not know, that you would tell them, if they asked. Your body was not the only thing that came back, when you were yanked between death and life.

Your memories did, too, the ones you drank away with the river. Bits and pieces, here and there, more like a dream than like events you lived through (died in), but maybe that’s how things are, now. Even your dreams feel more real than this thing that happens when you’re awake, this thing you used to call life.

But you are awake, and you do remember.

You remember that you weren’t in love with him, not anymore. You were going to leave, you had told him.

You remember he reached past you, and closed the door, and said

No.

You remember the look in his eyes as he told you he would never let you leave his side.

You remember the weight of his hand as it crushed your throat.

You remember that, even though you were dead, you ran from him, under the red-black sky of the land of the dead, on the white white bones of the corpse road. Ran much farther than a mile without stopping. Ran into eternity, fleeing into death, away from the pursuing voice that called out how much he had loved you, loved you so much, why couldn’t you see it, he would make you see.

You crossed the river’s shore and you washed your hands in it, washed your hands of him, and drank its waters to forget.

But now you remember.

And the shadows fall painful on your skin, and the sky is too bright, and you cannot turn your back and walk away from him.

So you try to die. It’s the only way you can think of to get away from him, and it wasn’t bad, being dead. (The cold kiss of the colder queen.) You were just starting to get used to it. You miss the soothing darkness of the starless sky.

You open your wrists because the knife is close and you have never been afraid of blood, but the liquid that runs in the wake of the blade is darker than blood and your skin heals almost before the cut is finished.

You take pills, so many pills, and you do not even fall asleep.

You sink yourself beneath the waves and discover that you can breathe underwater.

He cries when you come back, dripping salt water behind you, and asks why you want to leave him again, when he loves you so much. He says that it is the power of his love that keeps you here. You should be grateful that he rescued you, that he has made it so you can always be together.

You think about that word: always. It is stuffed to the letter with time; it is an alternate shape for an infinity symbol.

It is unbearable.

I’ll tell them, you say. I’ll tell them that you killed me.

He doesn’t even bother to laugh. It’s too ridiculous. You’re clearly not dead. He has fixed things, taken it back.

Fixed. Things.

Rage is acid in your veins. Even the air on your skin is needles. Your lips peel back from your teeth and you hiss like a snake, like a Medusa, like a basilisk.

And perhaps your gaze is poison, because it fixes him like a stone.

You don’t think of what happens next as murder. His death is only a side effect. But if you are going to be tethered to him for always, for that infinity-shaped word, you are going to choose where.

Your fingers are claws and you tear his fragile heart from behind the opened cage of his ribs, and when it ceases to beat in your hand, you feel the rubber band snap of a loosed tether. This is not what you expected. This is better.

Free. You are free.

You drop the ruined thing from your stained hand. It is full of blood, and not love, after all, no matter what he said. You begin to walk away. You can feel the bones of the corpse road again, and you know that if you just keep walking, you will find it under your feet, that it will return you to where you belong.

Then you turn. You look back. There is one thing you need to bring with you. A talisman against future events.

This time when you leave, you don’t look back. You carry his head by the hair, and when the white bone of his spine, unstrung like a broken lyre, clatters against the white bone of the road, you stop and you fix it there. You place it very carefully. You make sure that his sightless eyes are always looking into the land of the dead, always looking in the wrong direction to walk out himself, or to drag you back with him.

This time, you do not drink from the river of forgetfulness. You do not even wash your hands in it. You return, covered in the price of your passage, to the cold queen on her colder throne, and she presses her cold lips to yours. Your hands smear her red, like the crushed seeds of a pomegranate, and she tells you how glad she is that you have returned.

Kat Howard

Kat Howard is the author of Roses and Rot, named one of the best SFF books of Summer ’16 by Publishers Weekly. Saga Press will also be publishing her next novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, in September ’17, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in early 2018. Her novella, “The End of the Sentence”, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, is available from Subterranean Press. Her short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and performed on NPR.