Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

This is the Way I Die

I want to be broken, to be shattered, then reshaped into something new. Something with bulletproof skin, eyes that can see in the dark, lungs that can breathe in water as well as air, and an impenetrable heart. I want to be made monstrous, beautiful, frightening.

You wield the scalpel, the clamps, the bone saw. I am offering myself as the subject of your experiment. Yes, I know it will hurt. Yes, I know there is no guarantee. I may end up terrified or warped and deformed or as fragile as spun glass, but all things carry a risk.

Know that I am not a victim. Know that this is my choice.

• • • •

I’m drowning when I come to you. You make no mention of my sodden hair, the water dripping from my fingertips onto your floor, the squelching sound of my footsteps, but I know you see them. You see everything.

You see: A girl of indeterminate age, her shoulders slumped but her eyes holding tight to a defiant spark.

You think: The spark is fragile, hanging on by a tiny thread, and you could snip it quickly if you chose, so quickly I wouldn’t notice until I collapsed into a pile of nothing, a not-thing.

You fear: The words from my mouth, the conviction in my voice.

You’ve been waiting for someone like me for a very long time.

• • • •

“What’s your name?” you say.

“Why?”

You raise your eyebrows. “I should call you something, shouldn’t I?”

I bite my lower lip and finally say, “Lola Mae Blue.”

One corner of your mouth quirks into a half-smile. “Lola Mae Blue. I like it.”

When you take my hand, you say nothing of the chill in my skin. The heat of yours feels strange, alien, as if my own flesh has forgotten what it’s like to be warm. I’m suddenly afraid of the warmth, afraid of burning up, burning down to ash and cinder, so I gently tug my hand free from yours. Your lips part for an instant but close before a word escapes.

Your eyes are proud, yet hesitant, when you show me your workshop. The lights are bright, startlingly so. A metal table with a raised edge and a small hole for drainage takes up the center of the room; the tools of your trade are spread out on a bench in the corner; sketches and plans cover the walls; the smell of disinfectant lingers in the air.

The air conditioner turns on with a whoosh. I see goosebumps on your forearms; I have none of my own.

• • • •

You show me your sketches, your ideas. I point here and there. You erase lines, draw new ones, darken others. When you finish, you hold up the sketch, a small smile on your face. I look for a long time, but there’s something missing, something I can’t define. It’s beautiful and strong, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s somehow . . . empty. Powerless. You see the hesitation in my eyes and flip to another sketch.

You stop to make coffee, ask me how I take mine. Before you take a sip, you pick up the pencil again. After a time, the second sketch is discarded like the first, but with a low growl instead of a frown. Another sketch and then another meets the same fate as the sun drops below the horizon and the house grows dark.

You make more coffee. You don’t have to ask this time; when you hand me my mug, the coffee is perfect.

We start on another sketch, then you frown and toss the sketchbook aside. “They’re not good enough,” you say, and pull out a new sketchbook, the blank surface of the pages awash with possibility. You tuck the pencil behind your ear, pick up your mug. “Talk to me,” you say, your voice little more than a whisper. Your eyes catch mine; I look away first.

“About what?”

“Tell me what you want, what you’re afraid of. Show me how to see things through your eyes. The other sketches were concepts. This is about you, not something vague.”

I exhale. Look down at my hands. Slender fingers, short nails, and a tiny scar near the base of my thumb, a scar from a wound I can’t remember. I have many like it; I’m not sure if I truly don’t remember, or if I’ve chosen not to remember. Sometimes letting go is for the best.

We sit in silence for a time; I can’t find words to fill it up. Finally, you bring me a blanket, ask me to hold out my hands. You drape the fabric over my palms.

“Close your eyes and tell me how it feels.”

I laugh, but the sound is harsh at the edges, almost manic in its desperate attempt to sound normal.

“Please,” you say. “Tell me.”

I do.

Soft, silky, surprisingly heavy, warm. Boring. Boring. Boring. I have no idea why you think this will help, but I like the way your brow creases when you work.

The pencil scratches across the paper, pauses, and scratches again.

“Tell me about the color,” you say.

“It’s gray,” I say.

You look up, your eyes wide. How can I explain to you that everything is gray?

“Show me,” I say, when you stop sketching.

“Not yet.”

• • • •

The next night, you place an old coffee mug in my hands. There are chips in the handle, a crack in the side.

Again, you say, “Tell me.”

Again, I do.

Fragile, brittle, worn, tired.

• • • •

“Is Lola Mae your real name?” you ask.

“Does it matter?”

“Do you have family? Friends?”

“Again, does it matter?”

“It matters to me.”

“It doesn’t to me.”

You glance down, but let it go.

• • • •

A pencil, complete with teeth marks. Yours, I presume.

Concentration, thoughts, choices, decisions.

• • • •

A book, the cover tattered and creased. I flip through the pages, inhaling the scent.

Words, forgotten, broken promises.

I blink once, twice. Your face is carefully blank. I put the book aside and steeple my fingers beneath my chin.

“Will you show me now?”

“Not yet.”

• • • •

“Why,” you ask one night. “Why do you want to do this?”

“Does there need to be a reason?”

“I’d think so, yes.”

“There are a hundred. Is that enough?”

“Tell me.”

“No.”

• • • •

A knit scarf. I take each end and wrap it around my hands. Stretch it out.

Pain. Hurt. Drowning. Dying.

I stand. Let the scarf fall. “Enough,” I say. “Enough. You don’t need to know these things. You don’t need to know anything about me, only that I’m here.”

You stand, put your hands on my shoulders. You’re close enough that I can smell your skin, a mix of sweat, coffee, and graphite. It’s too much. You’re too close. I step back, away, holding my breath. I run outside, bend over with my hands on my thighs, tell myself to inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Every movement makes my chest ache; something so biologically simple shouldn’t be so fucking hard.

• • • •

I make coffee and step into the living room, wondering what you’ll have me tell you tonight, wondering how I’ll tell you that this isn’t part of the bargain; this dissection isn’t part of the process. But you pat the sofa beside you instead and hold out the sketchpad.

The first sketch is hard to take. I want to turn away, but I force myself to look. You’ve drawn me with my shoulders bent, my chin tucked down. Defeated. Tired. The second sketch shows me curled up in a small ball. The next shows me standing at a window; the next, me with my hands outstretched and tears on my face. The next shows me standing, half my body concealed behind a shadow, not my own, my face twisted in fear.

I don’t understand these sketches. This is not why I’m here. You know this. Before I can speak, you hold up your hand, show me the last sketch.

She is not me. Not yet. She is strong, proud. There is a light in her eyes, apparent even in graphite. The changes, the modifications, are perfect. The anger inside me slips away. I touch the paper as if somehow I can reach through and touch her, bring her into me, become. I want to smile, but my mouth has forgotten the shape.

“Are you ready?” you ask.

“Yes.”

• • • •

On the table, I wonder if I should be afraid, but I refuse to remember what fear tastes like. Surely I’ve swallowed enough for ten lifetimes.

You decide to start with my hands. I ask why, and you look surprised.

“I’m not sure,” you say. “It seems like the best place to start. Is that okay?”

“Yes.”

I feel the sharp sting of a needle, then nothing at all. I wake to pain, as if my hands have been dipped in acid. The bandages are dotted here and there with Rorschach designs in reddish brown. You feed me, bathe me, brush my hair.

Strange, this being taken care of, yet I sense no obligation in your touch, only kindness, concern, a gentleness that frightens me even as it comforts. Is this why you started with my hands? So I could learn to trust, to accept that I am worthy of this?

When it’s time for you to unwrap the bandages, I draw in a sharp rush of air. These hands are capable and warm. I touch my face, my neck, and then move about the room, touching walls, windows, curtains. The textures—rough plaster, woven silk, smooth glass—fill my skin, feed a strange hunger, a need, to impress everything with my fingerprints.

You come to stand beside me, take my new hands in yours. Mine are strong enough now not to pull away. I run my fingertip across your knuckles.

“Are they okay?” you say.

I nod, terrified that I’ll cry if I speak a word.

• • • •

All the mirrors, including the one over the bathroom sink, are gone.

“I want you to wait until we’re done. Is that okay?”

I look down at my new hands. “But I can—”

You press a finger to my lips. “Please.”

“Okay.”

• • • •

My eyes are next. You buy a cane, and I spend a week walking while it tap-tap-taps in front of me. I fall once, twice, but eventually I don’t need the cane, only one outstretched hand. Then I don’t need to even extend my hand; I know where everything is and sidestep all the sharp edges.

You unwind the bandages, and I blink against the sudden sting of light. I cover my eyes, peer through the spaces between my fingers. It’s a shock to see that your eyes are blue, nearly the same shade as the sky outside.

The blanket draped over the back of the sofa, the same one you had me hold, is red. I sit on the floor with it in my lap, tracing patterns in the weave. I feel your eyes watching me and when I glance up, you offer a smile.

• • • •

My mouth and lungs follow.

I smile, tracing the shape of my lips with one finger. Strange, yet familiar, like a ghost of someone I once knew. I laugh and it sounds real, which makes me laugh even harder. Soon, you’re laughing at me and I’m holding my stomach because it hurts in a painful way that feels inexplicably good.

When the laughter slips away, the smile remains.

“Tell me,” you say. “Tell me where you came from. Tell me something, anything.”

I open my mouth to tell you no; instead, other words break free. I tell you of my mother, my father. I tell you how I ran away for the first time at eleven; the last, at seventeen. I tell you of the streets, the fear, the men who hurt, the men who tried to rescue, the ones who merely turned away—a cruelty more cutting than anything else. I tell you of a thousand things I’ve never spoken to anyone else about.

When my voice dries up, I step outside and breathe without effort. For the first time in a long time, the only thing in my lungs is air, not water. My eyes burn with tears, and I let them fall.

• • • •

“It isn’t my real name,” I say one night while we’re eating. “Or, no, it is my real name, but I gave it to myself.”

“Will you change it again? When I’m finished?”

I put down my fork. “I don’t know.”

• • • •

We slip into a routine: I break; I heal.

When you replace my spine, my height increases by an inch. My shoulders stop slumping forward, my chin doesn’t drop to my chest. My new legs move with purpose, my arms, unafraid to reach out.

• • • •

“How did you know?” I ask you.

“Know what?”

“Why I came here?”

You shrug. “I just did.”

“Are you sorry?”

You shake your head hard. “Not at all. Never think that. Please, never think that.”

• • • •

In your workshop, I trace my fingertips over the tools. Under the fluorescent lights, the metal gleams like a promise. At the end of the bench, there’s something covered with a cloth the color of old pennies, but as I reach for the fabric, you touch my arm. “Not yet,” you say. “Please.”

I let it go.

• • • •

When you replace my skin, the pain is fire hot and star bright. I can’t even find my voice to scream.

You lead me to the guestroom, bring me warm soup and extra blankets, kiss my forehead as if I were a child. The touch of your lips turns my arms to gooseflesh, and when you step back from the bed, your eyes are wide. Mine, too.

You close the door behind you; I turn my face into the pillow and sleep more deeply than I have in forever.

This new flesh is so strange, so perfect. No scars. No blemishes. No memory of anyone else’s hands. It will not bruise at a slight or a glance. I press a finger against my forearm, take it away and watch the color rush back in. I touch my face, feeling the differences there, too: the lack of tension, the tiny lines at the corners of my eyes, lines borne of laughter.

• • • •

The last external scar fades to nothing; you take my hand and lead me to a standing mirror that you’ve covered with a sheet. I close my eyes and listen to the whisk of fabric as you pull the sheet free. I take a deep breath. Then another. And I open my eyes.

The Lola Mae staring back at me holds infinite possibility in her gaze, gleaming with the ferocity of Godzilla. She could topple cities, set the world afire. Her shoulders are strong; her limbs, powerful. She could tear apart the strongest bonds, shatter the bones of an oppressor with little effort. Her lips hold resolve; her chin, pride. No one could break this woman; no one would dare even try.

She is so unlike me, for a moment, I can’t remember how to breathe. But I’m not drowning; I’m dreaming awake. Aware. She is all the me I always hoped for, all I feared belonged only to pretty fantasies; fantasies I sometimes indulged when the nights were long and wrapped in solitary confinement.

Yet my fingers tremble. I am paralyzed by thoughts that someone will see through the reconstruction, will see the girl who used to live within, will smell the vulnerabilities of the still-fragile heart inside and exploit every one until the external shell crumbles away to nothing and the truth is revealed: this is all window dressing, and bereft of its clothing, this mannequin is still powerless.

I turn to you and touch my chest, unable to give my fears voice. You press one finger against my lips.

“It’s not ready yet,” you say.

• • • •

We walk hand in hand by the lake, not speaking, just being. We whisper in the dark. I tell you I always wanted to learn to paint. I tell you I want to climb a mountain and stare at the clouds. I tell you I want to read Romeo and Juliet. I laugh, embarrassed by these things, these frivolous wants. You touch my cheek, stare into my eyes.

The next morning, I find an easel, tubes of vibrant colors, brushes. Then hiking shoes, bug spray, and an old volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

• • • •

A song comes on the radio; I remember my mother singing this before she slipped into a bottle and forgot her voice. I burst into tears; you wipe them away, put your arms around me, and we sway together, moving in time to the music notes.

When the song stops, we keep moving, my head on your shoulder, yours arms holding me close.

• • • •

I ask about my new heart, and you say, “I need a little more time, please.”

• • • •

You’re out running errands when I creep into your workshop. My fingers shake as I remove the cloth. The heart is finished—smooth and perfect and free of scrapes and gouges. Made of bright and shiny metal, it knows no pain, no sorrow, no memories.

I lift it slowly, carefully; it thumps steady and strong in my hands. I picture it behind my ribs, a captive bird inside a cage.

But this heart is also a blank slate, and once you place it in my chest, there will be nothing left for you, nothing left of you, inside. I bow my head and cry.

When my tears dry, I touch my chest. Are the changes enough? Am I enough? After a time, I nod. This one piece, then, I will keep. All the broken shards; all the stitches holding it together; all the bruises; all the fear.

I place the new heart back on the table. Cover it. Turn out the light.

• • • •

We have a late dinner outside beneath a darkening sky. We drink red wine. Laugh. I slip my hand into yours. Such warmth. Such safety.

“I love you,” you say.

I answer with a kiss. My heart whispers the words so quietly you can’t hear.

• • • •

I leave in the small hours of the morning. You’re fast asleep, one hand tucked beneath your cheek like a child. Will you weep when you discover I’m gone? Break things in a rage? Acknowledge that this is the only way it could have ended?

I leave the new heart behind. Not as a token for you to remember me by—I wonder, fear, how long it will continue to beat in my absence—but for me to remember where and who I’ve been.

I am afraid, unspeakably so, yet perhaps there is strength, not weakness, in this fear. And I know I could stay. I would be safe here, perhaps too safe. If I stay, I’m afraid I will never be anything other, more, than your creation. I was lost and you led me from the shadows—you saved me—but I have to make the rest of the journey on my own. I know I will carry you, us, inside every step of the way, but I was never yours to keep.

Still, I give one last look over my shoulder and as the air dances a melody across my skin, I wonder. Then I let it go; I let it all go. There is power in this, in saying goodbye.

I’ve been waiting for someone like me for a long time.

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Damien Angelica Walters

Damien Angelica Walters’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in various anthologies and magazines, including The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2015, Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu: New Lovecraftian Fiction, Black Static, and Apex. She was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award for “The Floating Girls: A Documentary,” originally published in Jamais Vu. Sing Me Your Scars, a collection of short fiction, was released in 2015 from Apex Publications, and Paper Tigers, a novel, is forthcoming in 2016 from Dark House Press. Find her on Twitter @DamienAWalters or on the web at damienangelicawalters.com.