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Fiction

Break the Skin If You Have To

The base of my skull buzzes as I pick up some bleach and a new scouring pad from the market. I’ve been away from my house for too long. When I get back, I must remember to clean the oven, clean the stovetop, clean the sink. In the checkout queue, I drop my basket onto the counter, and then I see her again. The new girl. So many have come and gone through the years that I barely remember them. Their polite gazes always slip off of me when I come through their checkouts.

“Afternoon,” says the new girl, looking me full in the face as she scans and bags my purchases, brown eyes steady and welcoming. Sometimes people stare or try to see something in my face that’s different. She has looked at me kindly twice, thrice, but I’m sure she’s heard all of my stories by now. “You need anything else today?”

The buzz grows louder, rougher. I must remember to clean the sinks upstairs. I feel like I’m going to fall, like I’m going to lose control of my body. I don’t gasp, but I want to.

“No, this all I need.” I take the bag from her, slide it over my shoulder. “Thank you, deary.”

“Annalee,” she says. “And you welcome, Miss Constance.” She leans over the counter toward me, and her nearness is enough to dim the buzzing, the tightness. She smells like citrus and warmed amber, almost like honey. “You mind if I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

She lowers her head slightly and looks at me through her black lashes. “You a zombie?” She doesn’t look scared. Curious, maybe, but not scared.

“Yes,” I say, waiting for her expression to change.

“It hurts?”

“Not anymore.” I don’t feel much of anything anymore, not since the day the owner of my house killed me.

“I’m glad,” she says, and the perfect angle of her jaw as she smiles catches my attention. “My shift’s over at five. You want to grab something to eat or something later?”

For the first time in a hundred years, I return the smile. A new song picks up in my heart, a lullaby that warms me down to my bones.

I walk to my house with her in my mind, the idea of spending time with someone else consuming my thoughts, the buzzing a roar in my ears I can ignore until my house welcomes me home and all is silent, quiet, tolerable again as I settle back into my routine of cleaning and cooking and cleaning and cooking.

• • • •

The porcelain bathtub is slope-sided and deep enough to drown a man. I kneel on the cold tile, dunk my scrubbing brush into warm, soapy water. It’s warmer than I am by far. Nearly as warm as Annalee’s collarbone.

Dragging the brush around the edges of the bath, I push lemon-scented suds into the slink of its curves until my brush slips deeper down and over the plughole, tenderly polishing the gold-plated chrome. I promise my house I’ll get everything right, everything perfectly clean. I splash clean water into the bath and wash away the fine, white bubbles. Then comes a cloth to polish the inside and outside of the great white bathtub to a proud shine—its hollow depths, its round hips, its lipped edges, its nailed claw feet—until I’m damp from shoulder to navel.

“There,” I whisper, wrapping my arms around its body, pressing my cheek to its cold cheek. My house thrills in me, the constant buzz loosening into a low, silky-smooth whistle that embraces me back. “Now you’re perfect.”

• • • •

Annalee and I have been dating for a week and I still don’t know what it is about me that draws her, what about me makes her bury her fingertips into the hair behind my ear and kiss just above the point of my smile, but when she looks at me, I feel seen.

Every night after I finish cleaning my house, I go to her tiny studio apartment in town. As soon as I drop my things, Annalee pulls me into the shower with a laugh. The shower stall is barely big enough for both of us to stand under the spray together, and my elbow bangs against the glass door every time, but she’s there with her eyes sparkling like the night she asked me if she can call me her girlfriend and I said yes, yes, yes between kisses. She’s worth it.

“Sorry,” she says, though she’s smiling.

“Prove it.” When I try to kiss her and get a mouthful of water, she quirks her mouth into a grin and gently turns me around. I place my hands flat against the tiles and close my eyes as she covers me in body wash and slides her soap-slick hands over my breasts, my ribs, my hips, and back up again. Her warmth is right up against me. Her lips are on my neck. I can hardly hear the buzzing—hear my own thoughts reminding me to clear out the old candle stubs, to clean all of the fireplaces—over the sounds I’m making.

I feel like I’m almost as warm as a real person.

She shifts behind me, steps back just far enough for her nipples to brush against my shoulder blades as her thumbs continue to work in circles at the tops of my thighs.

“Come to bed?” she murmurs into the nape of my neck.

All I can do is nod. We rinse off, sharing a towel, and then we’re together under the blankets and I’m dazed at the sight of her tall, curved body even though I remember I must mop all the floors tomorrow. Each of them twice.

“Your poor hands,” she says, nuzzling my cracked and dry palms. She smooths the oil she keeps bedside for me over my hands, working from elbow to fingertip, pushing into every crack and fissure. Somehow, she finds every tight muscle and tiny knot in my hands, and she rids me of each of them. Then her fingers slick over my chest, around my breasts and over each nipple, down my sternum and down and down until she reaches, my mind buzzing, the scattering of my hair. She pulls away.

“Do you want me to touch you?” She asks every single time.

“Please,” I reply. “Please don’t stop.”

And then she is on top of me, propped up on one strong arm, set just above my shoulder. She kisses me and kisses me. She captures an earlobe between her lips, between a hint of teeth. Her other hand is everywhere I want it to be, and she tells me that she adores me as she strokes down between my legs and I begin to quiver, a hive murmuring in my mind about shaking out the rugs, plumping the couch cushions, dusting the office.

Afterwards, I’m sweaty and blissful in her arms, and even though I want to, it takes a minute to draw myself back together enough to give her what she’s given me. She tastes of salt and honey, of oil and pomegranates. When I circle with my tongue, she gasps and grips the sheets. She climaxes, the names of gods long forgotten sweet on her tongue. When I get back to my house tonight, I need to remember to polish the master dining table.

Afterwards, she’s in my arms, the warmth of our lovemaking cooling into whispered pillow talk.

“Your house on King Hill Road, right?” Annalee asks. She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “I used to have family up that way. The Baptistes. You heard of them? Anyway, the Baptiste men die off and the Baptiste women got married into other families. The Cummings still live on Mamey Peak Road. I related to them on my mother side and her mother’s father—you listening?”

The buzzing at my neck is in my ears. It whistles like the ocean running through old pipes, like a house living inside a conch shell. “Mhmm,” I say, though I can hardly hear myself.

“You’re not.” She must sense something is wrong because she strokes my arm, her soft fingers tender and featherlight against my skin. “It’s okay. It’s not important.”

I have to get back now. The buzzing is now threatening to thunder in my ears. It’s hard, so hard, to pull myself out of her warm embrace. She groans and pulls me closer.

“It dark out,” she says. “Stay.”

My shoulders shake. “I don’t want to go, but I have to.” I ease away her hands and stand, find my clothes scattered around the room. My house is making static now, echoing through my skull. I clench my jaw so hard that I’m worried I’ll break my teeth. I need to wipe surfaces, to polish the taps, to—

“Why?” she asks. “I don’t understand.”

I step into my skirt, zip it up my backside, pull my blouse over my head. “I just have to.” I try to find the words to explain to her that I’m bound to the house now, since the family have all passed from this world. Nothing I want to say feels right. The words I try to use stick in my throat and sound like they weep out of me.

She offers her hand and I’ve never wanted to stay away from my house more than this moment. “Please don’t go back there tonight. You don’t have to go.”

I don’t think she understands. “I want to stay,” I say, but my house—its dirty nooks, its cobweb crannies—is pulling me, with tighter fists and the weight of history. It’s in my mind, its panic and its static, thrashing like a cornered animal.

“Do you?” Annalee asks. She sounds lost.

One step and I’m at the door, but when I don’t reach for the knob, my house is thunder, my house is rage, my house is a screaming inferno because I do: I want to stay. I drop my bags, and my breath floods from me. I’m on my knees. My skin burns as thoughts of my house consume me from the inside out. What about the master dining table? What about the countertops? What about the curtains I need to close? Maybe I left a window open, a door unlocked. I need to make sure the owner of my house is sleeping soundly. In the morning, I need to make breakfast, need to have it ready at precisely nine o’clock in the morning, need to clear the table at ten o’clock, need to re-alphabetize the library. I need, I need.

“Constance? I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. What wrong?”

“No,” I say. I wrap my arms around myself, dig my nails into my upper arms to fight, even for a moment, the feeling of my house beneath my skin. “No, I need to stay.”

My mouth fills with saliva. I’ve forgotten what that means until I’ve thrown up on the floor. Annalee is at my side, lifting me and steering me to the bathroom. I vomit black blood and bile until I’m empty of all but my core. My house is quiet, softer now, gentler than it has ever been. Annalee cleans me up and brings me to her bed. She holds me and hums to me. A deep song that reminds me what it feels to be loved.

My house still calls me to come back, but it’s quiet compared to Annalee’s voice.

• • • •

The oven is big enough to feed the whole neighborhood and takes half an hour to fire up. I layer spinach, bacon, and cheese onto the bottom of a quiche pan, then crack eggs and whip them up with cream, salt, and pepper to pour over the top. It goes into the oven, and after I set a timer I continue through the house.

I pull back heavy velvet curtains to let the light in. I relish in the sparkle of sunlight on the tiles as my house sings happiness to me. The song threads deep and joyous through the walls, thudding like a heart with a beat that wraps around my bones and tugs me toward something I’ve been missing for a long time. It’s a familiar song, but I can’t quite place it.

The buzz rises in my head, making it heavier as I unclench my hands and slide them along the windowsills, up the wood banister running parallel to the servants’ staircase, across the walls in the hallway, down the grand stairway to the front of my house, over the wainscoting in the dining room, to rest a dry-skin fingertip on the door to the pantry.

The song cuts the static like cold rain in heat, and it tells me to look inside. There is something behind this door that isn’t supposed to be there. The buzz reminds me I’ve been in here plenty of times. Just last night, I was in here to get some ingredients for dinner. There’s nothing to see, the buzz says, and shouts: The quiche will be ready soon, the linens need to be laid, the table has to be made, the owner has to be called to eat.

I remember again that the owner is dead.

That I’m the only thing in this house.

That I am also dead.

The pantry opens to shelves loaded with enough food to last months, possibly even years. I sell a painting or a small piece of furniture when it runs low. Still, most of the food ends up rotting in the backyard. I step inside, my house’s song vibrating against my skin, and reach for the metal cord switch. With a click, warm light flickers over the cans, the boxes, the jars. The song drums an order into my ears—look closer, closer. If I don’t hurry, the quiche will surely burn, so I make quick work of yanking down every item on the shelves until I can see the bare, stained walls where someone smoothed new plaster over with their hands. There’s a smudge of thumbprint at the edge that’s smaller than mine. A child’s thumbprint. I scratch at it with my nails, but it’s too thick to get through. I need something stronger. I fetch my meat tenderizer. I hit the plaster with the spiked face over and over and over, crumbling a part of my house into a mess at my feet, over and over again. The plaster bruises like skin.

I need something with an edge. I find it in the gardener’s shed. The axe bites deeper than the hammer. I slice into flesh, hack open the wall to reveal whatever it is hidden within. It’s not one or two strikes that does it. It’s ten—the last one I feel slice across my gut. The pain is almost enough to send me to the floor, but something viscous and maroon bleeds from the gash in the wall. It spurts like arterial blood. Like my blood. I cup my hands to catch it. Where it touches my skin, warmth blooms in my body. As it pools in my palms, it drips down wrists and envelops my arms like a firm grasp. I want this feeling to sink deeper into me, and so I lower my lips and drink down the red and it’s more nourishing than any of the food Annalee has tempted me to eat.

Swallow after swallow, I take it in, repairing my old and broken parts until the song I heard earlier has fought back the buzzing almost entirely. My house wasn’t what was singing to me. It was this. It’s what’s trapped within my house. It’s me. I’m in these walls. These walls are me. Within the song’s chorus, a memory unfolds of a dark room, a small room with a single, exposed light bulb overhead. A room I called my own when I was a child, where I sang myself to sleep every night. This is my room—was. Before I was a zombie. How’d I get this way?

My house screams at me. A distraction. There’s only one way to stop it. This house is a zombie that made a home of my mind just as I am a zombie that calls it mine. No more. I take the axe again to the wall, to my shrieking house, and break the skin again and again.

I bleed every bit of myself from its depths until I’m standing in a puddle of binding that kept me here. A puddle of what was once me. I bend down and I scrape up every drop I can persuade into my mouth until I’m full and satisfied. Although my house is an ocean’s roar in my ears, I know I can walk away from it, walk right into Annalee’s arms and stay with her forever. But my house will always be here, wanting for me as I always wanted for it. My house I so lovingly tended is as ancient and dead as I am and until I am the only one left standing, it will continue to bind me, to hold me.

I set the axe on the cracked kitchen counter and wipe my tar-black hands on my apron. There’s already blood there. Mine. I’m bleeding, but it feels good. It feels free. The floorboards under the yellowed tile I spent years mopping cry sharply beneath my footsteps. The front door groans when I open it, and when I slam it, my entire house quakes.

The walk to the market is quick. I grab fire starters and all of the kerosene I can carry. Annalee doesn’t greet me cheerfully at the checkout queue this time.

“Is blood that?” she asks.

“Yes. And something else,” I say. “Don’t worry. How much is it?”

“What you doing? What you need with all this?” She scans in my purchases all the same, bagging them with weight in mind. She takes my money without pause.

“I burning my house.”

“The house you work in?”

“Yes.” I shift the bags onto my shoulder. That’s when the memory comes to me, flooding me like clean rain. When they came for me in my small room. “My house kept me all this time. I want it dead.”

Annalee takes my hand into hers, kisses my knuckles. “What I can do to help?”

“Wait for me. I coming back.”

She entwines our fingers together, a light in her eyes. “I get off in fifteen minutes.”

I leave her. The walk back is slower, the axe-cuts in my own skin draining my energy, every step weighted down by the tools of my freedom. But when I arrive, I finally see the old, broken-down house where I slept, where I worked, where I sweated for a hundred years for what it truly is. The roof is buckled, and black mold is eating through the paint. It is a dead home, but I am not a dead woman anymore.

Baring my teeth against the stink of decay, I march back into my house for the last time. Once I’m in through the front door, my house reaches out to me in hisses, in growls, in snarls. The air is thick and suffocating. Up the chipped, worn grand staircase to the second floor, I start with the master bathroom, circling the porcelain claw foot tub with kerosene and then making a trail into the bedroom where I soak the oversized canopy bed. Every gallon poured out into this house is a clawed grip on my shoulder, pulling me back to clean up my mess, yanking me back into servitude, shrieking at me to get back to cleaning, preparing, cooking, serving.

Each step is heavier than the last, and the screaming grows louder with every footfall until I’m not sure if it’s the house or if it’s me. My skin, my nose, my mouth, my throat burn with the smell of the kerosene fumes. I coat everything with a slick layer and scatter kindling as I go, until I’m in the kitchen again with the blistering oven I’ll never turn off and the food baking inside for an owner long dead. I throw the last near-empty kero bottle into the pantry and the wound I cut into the wall inside that I will never patch up.

This is when my body stops. Maybe it’s the blood loss from the cuts I made with the axe. Maybe it’s that I’m covered in kerosene and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs. But I promised Annalee, and when I close my eyes and picture her, everything seems simple. The buzzing fades away, and in its place, her sweet singing voice.

I want to be with her. I want to touch her, to run my hands down her sides, down her thighs. I want to bake for her. I want to go shopping for her, stock her shelves and cook beautiful things for her whenever she wants. I want to make her bed up for when she gets home, have the table set for her, have fresh flowers to welcome her. The first step is the hardest, but once I’m moving toward her, I open my eyes and face the zombie spirit that has trapped me all this time. All I can see is its eyeless gaze ready to suck me into its dead cage again, its gaping mouth screaming higher, sharper, trying to consume my mind again and trap me in its nightmare. It is darkness spreading toward me, but I will not be caught again.

“Now,” I say to my house, to my long existence of debt. “Now you burn.”

I turn away and head outside, and the spirit claws at my back, screams in my ears, my prisoner, my prison. I wrench myself free of its touch only to be caught in death’s embrace again and again. I fight with every muscle in my body, grappling free an arm and then kicking away a leg, dragging myself step after step from its clutches until I’m digging my nails into the frame of the front door and lurching toward my freedom. Toward Annalee.

She is here, running toward me in the distance. She calls my name, and I find strength to move just far enough from the house to strike a match and fling it into the front hallway. I feel it in my chest first. The flame catching, bursting from within into a bouquet of white igniting, blue blazing, orange searing, red scorching in my ribcage and up my throat. Then I see it in front of me, an inferno exploding from within the decaying house. The smell of smoke in my nose, burning all the way down into my lungs. The house is roaring, all smoke and flames, and I might be burning with it from within, but I feel like I am alive. I feel so alive.

I step away as the only home I’ve ever known begins to catch, go up, smoke flooding the second-floor corridors. The wooden plaque on the outer exterior of the house turns black at the edges, burning away the corners of the name etched there. Soon the Baptistes will be nothing more than ash and memory. Annalee calls my name again and the zombie spirit’s grip slackens, its claws beginning to pull out of me. Then it speaks, its voice bitter and sweet as molasses. “You gon never be free,” it says.

“Watch me,” I say. With all my strength I turn away from the house and the thing that has trapped me for so long finally loses its hold and it makes a sound like laughter, like crying. Either way, I’m already gone.

“Are you okay?” Annalee asks, breathless once at my side.

“Hold me?” I ask, and she does, she does. She wraps her strong arms around my waist and angles her head just right so that her face is pressed into my neck. Although she’s not humming, I hear her blissful lullaby in my head, filling me with love and joy. I’m here with Annalee and it feels like home.

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Emma Osborne, Jess Essey, and Cadwell Turnbull

Emma Osborne is a queer fiction writer and poet from Melbourne, Australia. Emma’s writing has appeared in Shock TotemApex MagazineQueers Destroy Science FictionPseudopod, the Review of Australian Fiction and the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror. Emma currently lives in Melbourne, drinking all of the coffee and eating all of the food, but has a giant crush on Seattle and turns up under the shadow of the mountain at every opportunity. You can find Emma on Twitter at @redscribe.

Jess Essey is a speculative fiction writer and scholar from the PNW currently sunbathing in San Diego, CA for the foreseeable future. You can find them on Twitter as @biprismatic.

Cadwell Turnbull is the award-winning author of The Lesson and No Gods, No Monsters. His short fiction has appeared in The VergeLightspeedNightmareAsimov’s Science Fiction and several anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019. His novel The Lesson was the winner of the 2020 Neukom Institute Literary Award in the debut category. The novel was also shortlisted for the VCU Cabell Award and longlisted for the Massachusetts Book Award. His novel No Gods, No Monsters is the winner of a Lambda and a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award. Turnbull lives in Raleigh and teaches at North Carolina State University.