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Write-a-thon Bonus: The Dollmaker

Bonus #3: a tale of those who try to hold on to the piece of the Black Carnival.

When the Black Carnival comes to town, everyone must be vigilant.

 

In most cases, the urge for children to run into the great arms of the exciting circus with its beating drums and lilting melodies is so strong they practically need to be restrained by their parents, leashed in their rooms like ill-mannered pups until the world returns to unquestionable transparency. Sometimes, however, hands are not quick enough to grab nor eyes to shut, and like trying to hold an anthill in one’s grasp, a few escapees take flight.

 

That was how Ellinore Lauria Destine – of the uptown Destines – ran from her ivory house with six pillars when Mother was at her woman’s club and Father was working and found her way to the carnival and to one peculiar and wonderful cart. It was tall and small, like a fine bird’s cage draped in satin and red Moroccan tapestries. A black iron door opened to her, and when she stepped inside, there was much more room, double in size compared to how it looked from outside. She was met with a dreamy scent of incense and burning flowers.

 

The cart was lined with shelves but it was unlike any toy store she had ever been to (and it was worth noting she had been to many; her father knew that nothing soothed her young, savage soul like a plush toy, doll or dress). Her eyes glowed as they studied at least fifty antique dolls, sitting with painted lips turned playfully up, smooth porcelain skin of all hues, from cloud-covered moonlight white to a dark clay pot brown. Their outfits had a palate of colors, and each was a flower in bloom with its own arrangement of silks and cottons and velvets.

 

Ellinore bit her lip hungrily.

 

“The young miss likes what she sees.”

 

The little girl spun around to look up at a tall man dressed in harsh white, so bright he stood out like a bleached stain against the vibrant arrays of fabric both on the dresses and the walls themselves. His bare feet curled on the plush carpet, toes round like water chestnuts. She made a small curtsy like she had seen in Mother’s movies, and the man bent his knees and crossed his legs as if sitting on a chair that was not there.

 

“These dolls are not for you,” he said slowly. His head was smooth and bald, and he raised a his straight fingers in a steeple. “These dolls are not for little girls who live in pearl houses and do what their parents say and eat their vegetables without their elbows on the table. These dolls are not for lily gardens and golden verandas and the debutante ball.”

 

Ellinore did not know exactly what the man meant, but she had understood the first words. Not for you. It was not something that anyone told her, not Mother or Father or the tutor or the gardeners or the milk men. She stuck her lip out, and the man smiled, an expression like a crack across a frozen lake. “Go home, now. Your parents will be sending someone to look for you.”

 

And then there was a moment when the man straightened and turned, and Ellinore paused until she could not see his eyes. It was a moment like being in the kitchen at home, and just as she would do when the cook told her to leave the meats or pastries alone, she reached out one smooth hand, grabbed what she desired and spun on her black dress shoes until she was running fast away.

 

When she was back home in her room of pink and white lace, plush ponies and carnation sheets, Ellinore’s heart pounded, her cheeks flushed, proud and frightened and giddy that she had taught the man in white a lesson. She hugged the doll to her and sat against the wall away from the window, as if hiding from a bolt of lightning that may come to punish her.

 

When she awoke the next morning, she was in bed, tucked in tight with the doll pressed to her side. What a queer dream, she thought as she looked outside. The street, the surrounding town, was bare and bright, untouched by the darkness that followed the Black Carnival she had seen. There was no man in white watching for her, so she put the images from her mind and focused on all the wonderful, beautiful things that preoccupy children’s fancies.

 

Her parents said nothing of the doll at first…until one morning, during a breakfast of English tea, poached eggs and fresh toast. Mother set her cup down a little too hard and said, “She’s been clinging relentlessly to that doll you gave her, hasn’t she?”

 

“She has,” Father admitted, sitting up a bit straighter but not putting down his paper. He couldn’t place when he had purchased the item, but it seemed within his refined tastes. “It’s a beautiful piece. I’m glad I picked it out for her.”

 

“I do wish,” Mother went on, letting her voice air wistfully, “that you would pick out something so nice for me.”

 

He said nothing, and in that hair’s breadth of wordless space, Mother got up and walked from the room.

 

For a time, Ellinore could hear loud shouts echo up from the floor of her room. She slipped into her bed and under the rose-scented Egyptian sheets she held the doll to her chest so tight that she could feel her heart through its porcelain neck. Her fingers moved to its long, curly hazelnut hair and dug in hard as she was picked up out of the bed and carried away from the white house.

 

She and her mother moved into an apartment building that was surrounded by weeds and tall grass. Her room was no longer coral and ivory but a sick green, and the sheets were rough. She went to school then but was sent home when she bloodied a boy’s nose who tried to snag the doll from her backpack. She sat on the squeaky bed and used her shirt to polish the doll’s brilliant blue eyes until she was forced to return.

 

One night, Ellinore woke up to find a deep, dark stain between her legs. For days, she ached, and her mother worked long hours. She never cried but ate the processed foods – sugars, starches, deli meats – that were in the odd-smelling refrigerator because there were no cooks to make fresh salads of spring greens and fresh-picked mandarin oranges or soufflés or roasted chickens. Her arms and legs became thick, and school became harder until she started putting her fingers down her throat. Every night, the doll lay vigilant in her arms over the nightmares that swept over her.

 

Then, a call came to the apartment while Ellinore was at school. Her father had drunk too much and taken his entire bottle of antidepressants and did not wake up the next morning. She went to the funeral alone because her mother was working, always working, but she swore at night she could hear her cry, the smallest breaths of air through the wall. She held tighter to the doll, the last possession he had given her.

 

A short time after her father’s death, Ellinore met a boy in her class with long blond hair and a wonderful smile. He called her Ell (“for love”), and they stayed out late into the night and went to clubs and danced until everything in them burned. Sometimes they slept in his car until the sun came up, and he would buy her pancakes before class. She loved him so much that she always ate them and didn’t run to the bathroom afterwards.

 

Before their prom, she told him, “I think you should wear a white suit. I think you’d look hot in it.” She wasn’t sure why she said it. “Maybe cut your hair.”

 

“Whatever you want, babe,” he replied.

 

She slaved over her own dress, inspired by the one on the doll she had had so long now. It had layers and layers of frills and lace, and when she spun in her room, she felt like a blossoming rose. She made herself up with deep red lipstick and dark purple on her eyes. When he showed up with his hay-colored locks trimmed above his ears and the eggshell slacks, she danced with him until everyone else was gone, and they spent the night on a hill overlooking the town, his hands on her, over her, until she trembled watching the stars over them.

 

It was in that quivering moment that her mind touched something jagged and foreign and faint, a dream, a déjà vu. She imagined them surrounded by red tapestries and an iron barred door and she glanced down at the boy’s feet, the pale toes, and suddenly pushed him away.

 

“I’m sorry. I don’t think I love you.”

 

He got up, confused, and they talked briefly. He wanted to know who she had been with, and she told him nobody, no one, maybe someone once. His dark eyes flashed, angry, and she understood because he was a boy and her mind desired a man – a man who maybe didn’t exist. As he drove away, she wondered if she was going mad.

 

The red dress she wore stained in the brown dirt, and when she went home – so late the streets were silent, sleeping themselves  – her mother was waiting. Somehow, she knew, knew in the depths of her like a sea knows the movement of its creations, and they screamed at each other for minutes, then hours, until suddenly in a white hot fury her mother’s hand reached for the doll. It moved through the air so fast that it seemed like the sound – the smash of glass, the tinkle of crystal – came before it even touched the wall.

 

Ellinore ran from the apartment with nothing but the dress, which she held in handfuls. A rain had come, heavy and thick and hot like tears, and she kicked off the heels on her feet and stumbled through it drunkenly. It felt like a piece of the broken porcelain was floating in her heart, cutting as she moved, slicing when she breathed. She wasn’t sure how long she ran or how fast but the town ended and woods began and then there was a space of nothing, and quite suddenly there was music. Creatures. Darkness. The Black Carnival. And a silk-covered cart.

 

When she opened the ebony door, the man in white turned slowly. Nothing of the place had changed, nothing of him, and even the space on the shelf where the doll had been – the doll that she took, she recalled now – was still bare. She fell into his arms, and he moved his hand through her hair, long and dark with the rain. They said nothing, and the hot droplets fell on the man’s still bare feet.

 

He touched her cheek, and a coldness spread from his fingers that was comforting like the first snow of winter. He took in the shining of her eyes, that same cracking smile touching his face as his fingers shuffled off the dirt and grime from the night. “I had told you…”

 

“I was a child,” she whispered. Her eyelashes felt heavy, and she realized how tired she was. “How was I to know?”

 

He took her hands and kissed them softly. When she closed her eyes, she was that child again, chancing upon a dream of a place and a man who would change everything with his timelessness. He picked her up then, and she took her place on the shelf with her long dark hair, contented smile and frozen features perfectly placed in a red, frilled gown.

 

The man in white let out a soft sigh of satisfaction for the space once again filled, and he quietly closed the cage door.

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Write-a-thon Bonus: The Painless Man

Bonus #2: the story of Alex, the strange red-headed man who feels no pain…or does he?

There was only one person who had ever been able to enter, sit and stay a while in Espressitus Kauffee’s Boiler Room, and that was a young man named Alex.

The Boiler Room was Kauffee’s personal chamber that led the Black Carnival on its unmapped ways across the world. The great metal cart shrieked on iron wheels, drawn by a chained creature that was often mistaken for an elephant. Yet even when folk daring enough to come close would see there was, truly, a long neck, a reptilian head atop it, claws picking through the mud…they would still convince themselves that it could only be a costumed pachyderm. A smokestack constantly spewed clouds of black, white, sometimes other colors that would stain the sky with shades of reds, purples, blues.

Every morning, Alex would knock on the great brass door that had been scorched with protective sigils, so dwarfed by the giant box that it was hard to believe that anything could hear the small rapping of his pale knuckles. And Kauffee would answer, having not in fact actually heard his greeting but motivated by the timely schedule they had perfected as reliably as the moment of a sunrise, and the towering man would usher him in with a turn of his palm.

And every morning, all the others of the carnival would stop and shield themselves against the blast of heat that came out in that moment, the steam attacking them like a divine plague. Most days, Alex looked back as he went in and allowed himself a small smirk because while they winced, he was untouched by the heat, incapable of suffering its fiery kiss, but this morning…this morning he just walked in without pausing.

Alex’s seat was always atop Kauffee’s stiff, black tophat, and he pulled himself up to the table. Now and then it would remind him of being a child; the hat came a bit above his waist and his feet would sway back and forth in the air. This morning…this morning he pressed his feet into the material and rested his arms on his knees.

Kauffee himself would sit across from him in an iron throne, the seat of which only Alex knew held all the money of all the lands they had come to. That sustained them. The table between them was a dark wood, stained by heat and cracked with age. Steaming mugs of liquid so hot and broiling that they seemed to be full of black lava sat before them. Just as Alex was the only one who could sit within the chamber, he was also the only one who could drink as Kauffee did.

“How many fingers this morning, Alex?” Kauffee asked, the smoke from his own cup billowing into his face, mixing with his whiskers.

Alex opened up hands. They were pale – his palms glowing like full moons as his arms pinked with the heat – and he closed them again. “Ten.”

“Toes?”

“Also ten.”

Kauffee took a sip of his brew before continuing on, his ebony eyes watching Alex. “Nails?”

“All accounted for.”

“Any scratches in your eyes? Any changes in your posture, your walking, your movement?” He watched Alex pick up his drink and swallow down a mouthful of it, his bright blue eyes not even blinking at the heat. “Anything?”

Alex made a small hrm and shook his head, his shock of red hair moving back and forth before falling around a face with too many angles to ever be really attractive. “No blood under nails. Nothing. No change. Still same.”

Kauffee’s square head bobbed, a slight movement that took his beard precariously close to the edge of his cup. He said nothing to Alex’s short responses. Each word was as valuable as a breeze, raindrops. When he had first taken him into the Black Carnival, Alex didn’t even say that much, and though he had grown out of his baby fat, the speckles of dry-blood freckles on his cheeks, the intensity of the boy only hardened into a full-body shell for himself as a man.

“You’ll forgive all the questions, of course.”

“Of course,” Alex replied. His voice had a certain gravelly quality to it, perhaps hardened by the calluses, the blistered surfaces of the fire he ate regularly, the ice. “Must be mindful of valuable property.”

Kauffee did not disagree. Often this would be the end of their conversation. Alex would leave before the heat made him pass out, and Kauffee would be satisfied in knowing that his renegade body had not tried to harm him in his sleep. But this morning…this morning, Kauffee went on. “Do you want to talk about the show yesterevening?”

“Ennk.” Alex put his hands around his cup like it was neck he was choking. “Nothing to talk about. Brief slip in composure. Not worth discussing.”

“She seemed to know you.”

The image of the night before flickered across the backs of Alex’s eyes like a sepia movieroll. He was sitting as he normally did, his bare, long arms cross lazily over the chest of his undershirt. It was a small crowd that night, but all the instruments for his demonstration had been spread out on the table as they usually were: corkscrew, knife, matches, pliers. THE PAINLESS MAN, the banner read above him, WELCOMES THE MOST CREATIVE SADIST.

No one approached for some time. He could feel his delicate balance slipping into boredom when he finally perceived a sensation on the farthest edge of his brain.  A small point of pressure, and he looked down to notice a little boy poking his leg with a pin. When there wasn’t even a crack in his thin lips, the vindictive beast gave it a twist. Even his blood took its time travelling down his calf, as if it too could not even be bothered.

She came out of nowhere, a small, high-pitched breath escaping to compliment the whistle that followed her open hand. It hit the child so hard that the clap of her skin on his cheek didn’t reach anyone’s ear until after he was standing mute with preadolescent, tearful shame. The pin stuck out of Alex’s calf like a third wheel until she knelt at his feet and pulled it out, pressing her hand against the wound. “Are you alright?” she had asked, all solemnity and seriousness and…

                “You laughed in her face.”

“Barely chuckled. Over-exaggerating. Difficult to take seriously. Five minutes prior drunkard with cigar put it out on my shoulder.” Alex glanced down at the round circle that even cleaned looked like it would leave a quarter-sized morsel of scar tissue.

“She looked at you so familiarly.” Kauffee leaned forward with so much interest Alex found himself leaning back. “She touched you. And you let her.”

 

They are children. She has her tiny hands around his wrist, and she pulls him through the hall out of his mother’s apartment, which always smelled like ammonia, nightmares, death. The woman is howling after them, long breasts sagging over a sloshing filthy stomach, and the sounds follow them until they were out the door, in the alley. Ali. Her name was Ali.

 

“Won’t happen again.” He stood up. The room was starting to take on an aura like it was underwater. He didn’t feel any different, no, but he could tell the heat was soaking into his brain. “Have to go.”

“I brought her on.” Kauffee rose up, so many heads above him. He put his hat on, and he was no longer a companion, but the lord over the Carnival. “Hope you don’t mind.”

Alex almost snarled at him, but didn’t. “Do mind. Doesn’t matter, though. Why?”

They walked to the door together, and when Kauffee stood against the sun, so tall Alex had to crane his head, and even then he seemed one shadowy obelisk. Not a lord, no. A god. “She’s good with cannons.”

Alex made his way through the Black Carnival without wave nor word to any of the other freaks and fiends who were starting to wake up. The warmth of his skin and his short scarlet hair made him look like a match making its way from one cart to the next, a warning flame to anyone who thought this morning was a good one to approach him.

He cursed like a gunshot when he tripped on a stray tether that hung off one of the tarps used for tents. With one hand he felt his foot, his leg. He knew the bones like children, and he whispered each of their names as he made sure he hadn’t broken anything. Always checking. Always rechecking because if he didn’t there was no way for him to know if something had come loose, snagged, snapped, sprained.

                In the tiny space between their building and the brick one next door, they sit amongst the tall, winding weeds. It is too narrow for any grown-up to get into and pull them, so the plants grow out of control. She has a black eye her uncle has given her, and he has a gash from his mother’s tequila bottle. “Don’t it hurt?” It is still been bloody, sticking to his shirt like jam. He just shakes his head.

 

He had made his way up to his fingers when she had shown up in front of him, holding out a rag. She wasn’t pretty enough to make it tempting for him, like some princess holding out a token to her favorite. She was moving through a coating of dust, dirt, grease. An oil smudged her cheek instead of rouge, and her sweaty hair was pulled back tight from her face. “Your stomach is bleeding.”

He stood up fast and close to her, heavy like a bull, but she didn’t move. “It’s fine,” he growled. “Torn stitches. Will redo.”

When she realized that he wasn’t going to take her offer, she stuck the towel in the back pocket of her pants. He could tell from the tightness of her face that she was trying not to look slighted. “When we were kids, I thought you just said it didn’t hurt so I wouldn’t worry. I never thought you actually couldn’t feel it.”

“Hnnk.” She trailed after him like detritus caught on his shoe, even stepping into his cart. “This place. Full of surprises.”

They are twelve. They can’t fit in between the buildings anymore, but they have found an abandoned garage that always smells like gasoline and paint thinner. Her eyes water every time they go in. One day, she tells him to meet her there after another fight, another cut on her cheek, and she kisses him. It’s young like they are, and they clash too hard, a thin ribbon of blood finding its way down his nose. All he tastes is that warm metal, almost sulfuric from the smell.

 

Alex watched her as he snip, snip, snipped away the other stitches, pulling the string out in two frayed pieces. She was looking for some personal token, something to tell her that there was more to him than just the Painless Man. She stopped once he started moving the needle through his skin, looping and looping and looping, one more, cut. He wiped the escaping streams of blood away and bandaged the spot. “Broken bottle,” he said finally, no tremor in his voice.

“I thought you got enough of that from that bitch.”

“Don’t be crude. Not same.”

“You just let them…?”

“Only during show.”

“How is that any different from -”

Only during show,” he raised his voice to make sure she understood this time.

Her face grew red, and he wondered if the grease smudged there would start melting. “Do you know how long it took me to find you?”

It is a year after that first awkward kiss. He is sitting in the garage, a blanket spread underneath him that they put in there when the snow started coming. There have been a few other awkward things there, too, and he is waiting for her with an enthusiasm he was never allowed to have for Christmas or birthdays or any day other than when he would get away from her uncle. She doesn’t come. Not that afternoon, not the next. The third day, he can see men in suits from down the block pulling out the blanket, picking through the garage. He doesn’t go back. He doesn’t go home, either.

 

“No.” He wished she would move so he could get out, a creeping coming up in his gut from a time when he would be backed into corners without escape. “Don’t care.”

“We were friends…”

“No.” He found her dark brown eyes and locked onto them, willing with everything in him that what he had to say would force her out of his way. “Friends say goodbye. Don’t disappear. Don’t send in dogs  to sniff out like criminal.”

It worked, a little. She swayed, and he nudged her the rest of the way so he could head outside. But she followed. “I wanted them to get you away from that awful woman, like they got me away from him. You deserved better.”

He made another noise in his throat and spit in the dirt. “Had the best already. Had you.” He immediately regretted the sentimentality that left such a stupid sweet taste in his mouth.

Three years before. His mother is bloated in bed, and there is more of an awful smell that comes up from her throat. Bile hardens on her chin. He waits, and she doesn’t move. When the sun sets again, he takes her to the harbor, shoves stones past her jaws and keeps filling, keeps filling. She sinks, and he watches the whites of her eyes like nickels travelling to the bottom of a fountain.

                She has no one. No one loves her. No one comes looking for her.

Alex managed to avoid her for the rest of the day until the evening when everyone had started moving, had started setting everything up. It was like a switch being turned; one moment the lot of them were milling around, talking, doing whatever it is freaks do in daylight and then there was a sudden hivemind. The show must go on. Always.

The cannon was the largest thing in the caravan. It reminded Alex of pictures he had seen of whales that swallowed men whole. He would need the Giant to help him look down into it, let alone crawl in. She was straddling it and looked down at him. Ready to welcome anger, scorn, he was disappointed that she was still so hazed with concern. With such a forlorn watchfulness.

“I’m supposed to fire you out of this,” she said finally.

“Had figured.”

“You may not feel it, but…”

“Nothing has killed so far.” He gave the metal beast a speculative boot of one foot. “Won’t be first.”

 

He has been on the road too long. Everything – the haunting loneliness, the adolescent desires emptied out, the realization of all that had been gained and lost – catch up with him. There is a snow that falls that he cannot feel beyond a light whisper of damp on his arms , and a bellowing in the distance. He follows the sound until he walks beside the massive travelling Black Carnival, and it is only when he is at the head of it that he throws himself beneath the wheels of the first cart. It halts atop him, and there is red in the snow. He smiles terribly when everything becomes black – the sky, the tall man looking at him, the blood, Ali. Ali…

                The smile fades when he wakes up again.

                “How many fingers this morning, Alex?” the man asks.”You said that when I asked you your name. Before you passed out.”

                Alex. He doesn’t correct him.

                He opens up his hands. There are bandages all around him, and he feels like he must be in many pieces. He shows them to him.

                “Toes?”

                He pulls up the blanket, wiggles them with some difficulty.

                “Nails?”

                He nods.

                “Any scratches in your eyes? You can see, can’t you?”

                He nods again.

                The huge man smiles, hands him a bowl of bubbling broth. He drinks it without pausing, and when he rubs his tongue against the roof his mouth the blisters wet his mouth. “You’ll forgive all the questions, of course.”

                Alex – it is Alex now, he takes it like the new skin that is growing under all the bandages, covering his innards, covering his torn heart – realizes that he is the first man who has spoken to him in years. He tries his voice on like a new suit. It’s foreign to his ears, but he says, “Of course.”

 

                Once he was finally crammed and crushed inside, Alex rested his face against the wall of the cannon’s belly. The loud sounds and music and trilling and drumming of the Carnival was only a steady hum, a mild vibration. He wondered for a moment if this was what it was like before he had been forced into a world of screaming nights, too much drink, and…

“I shouldn’t have come.”

He wasn’t sure how he could hear her voice, and it brought a guttural, frustrated sigh from his chest. “Maybe not. Too late now to think on it.”

Her breath hitched, like it had been snared in a trap. “I don’t want to do this. I just wanted to see you again.”

“Too late. Chekhov’s gun. Cannon, yes, but…same difference.”

“What?”

Alex shifted. There was no pin and needles, but he could always be uncomfortable. “Gun presented. Must be fired. Way of everything, really. Boy meets girl. Girl breaks boy’s heart.”

She didn’t speak for a long time after that.

“Why cannons?” he asked. He didn’t know if she was even there anymore, and the silence had become as oppressive as the darkness. Somewhere towards the front of the weapon he could see a smattering of stars, but nothing else.

“They made me feel strong,” she said, after another few moments. “The foster family I was sent to did war reenactments. I felt like I could bundle all my inner demons and all the pain I had gone through into one of those cannonballs and…just…watch it disappear.”

Alex smiled at that. “Maybe we will both be doing ourselves a favor, then.”

 

She is one of the dancers, and she has the body to match. They press and move against each other, trying to fit together like two opposing jigsaw pieces. He growls and finally pushes her off. He holds himself in his hand, as if trying to hide the fact that he can’t…

                “Honey,” the dancer croons. He doesn’t even know her name. She is one of Kauffee’s, and he has given her to him as reward for a job well-done. She has liked him for some time. “It’s okay, let me…”

                She tries to move herself down, and it makes him gag a bit for her to get so close. He shoves her too hard, too fast, and then she looks afraid even when he mumbles an apology.

                “Alex…”

                “Don’t call me that.” His flesh seems to crawl so much it might rip off, leaving him a quivering mass of his inadequate, unfeeling muscle. “Don’t you ever call me that.”

 

There was suddenly a hissing. The fuse was lit, now, and he didn’t flinch, didn’t flex. He relaxed and waited. “I’m so sorry,” she said. She sobbed. He didn’t know how, over the growing noise and movement – he’d be fired in some direction, certainly – that it was only her voice he could hear.

“Had been forgotten. Never forgiven.” Maybe he was just imagining her there. Maybe it was just the broken part of his heart.

“I thought I was helping you. I swear. I’m just…I’m sorry, okay? Please…”

He laughed for the second time since she had reappeared like some unwanted specter. “All the time? You never knew. Only pain I’ve ever felt. Thanks, you’ll get, for the experience. Never forgiveness. Ever.”

And it’s in the punctuation of his words that the night exploded with him in it.

 

When he wakes up, she is there. Her hands are on him – he can feel it in the exposed parts – moving on him. It is a mockery of what he is sure she means as love, but it doesn’t make him cringe as much as he thought it would. Her palms smooth over his skin like a sculptor’s, and she folds his pale skin over the many scars and pockmarks and burns.

She touches him, up and down, and that part of him betrays the horrible yes that comes up his throat.

Her entreaties make him whole. She studies the holes needles have left, kisses them away. She moves past the barrier of his chest and holds his heart like a bird in her hands, and he sees her again, in those weeds, in the garage. He loves her again, and the rest of him trembles just as fiercely as his foresworn heart.

“William,” she says. It is him. And Alex is undone.

Thanks she will get for this too. The only one to bring him pain, the only one to bring him pleasure.

 

He goes to the Boiler Room and does not sit down. There are no drinks between the painless man and Espressitus Kauffee. Only those blue eyes, and his red hair, already looking more tame even as the heat teases it.

“How many fingers this morning, Alex?” the god asks.

“Ten.”

“Toes?”

“Also ten.”

“Nails?”

“All accounted for.”

“Any scratches in your eyes? Everything put back together after your flight?”

“Eyes are fine. Everything else too.”

Kauffee looks him up and down, like he is memorizing the man standing before him. “You’ll forgive all the questions, of course.”

“Of course.” He stops. “Always been a mindful master.”

The dark-faced man holds his beard for a moment. “No. I must make sure nothing is owed to you. You came to me whole, and so you are leaving. I have taken nothing from you. She is waiting for you.” He grins. It is like a rock cracking. “She has always waited for you.”

“Did you know?”

“That she would claim you after this? Perhaps I was counting on it. I would never possess such hubris to say this Carnival is where all my peoples remain forever. It’s here, when it is needed, and it will live on when they are gone.” He moves a hand and the door opens. “So go.”

He says goodbye and does. She tries to take his hand, but he shoves it into his pocket instead.

 

The next morning, he wakes up and his ring finger is missing a nail. The blood dots his pillow and sheets like the stars, and as he sits in it he feels like he is in the bottom of the cannon again. He tries not to tense.

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Write-a-thon Bonus: The Bearded Lady

Hi, everybody. I’m very sorry for the delay in the story-making. I’ve gotten very sick with some sort of chest congestion, so I’m working on slowly getting back into the swing of things. To keep things going, I’ll be posting a few bonus stories that were previously “published” on my blog, though for many it will be relatively new material. Again, sorry, and rest assured that two new stories should be posted within the week.

The first bonus is “The Bearded Lady,” which was actually my first Black Carnival tale. A slightly tweaked version of this will be in the final collection. Enjoy!

Darwin the Nine-Fingered Dwarf had never felt as enamored, as infatuated, as powerfully obsessed with a woman before as he did with Frida Barada, the breath-taking Bearded Lady.

Kauffee’s Black Carnival rolled through the cities of the South on great, rumbling wheels that chased thunder away with their deep volume, each crack of the ringmaster’s whip breaking distant clouds. Children ran out squealing in delight before their parents could grab them, expecting fantastic pachyderms on tree-trunk legs and smiling, mustached men with top hats. Instead, their wide, wet eyes were met with giant ebony-skinned men with silver tattoos, prowling women in cages with shining nipples putting out long claws through the bars.

To Darwin, the men and women – whether they looked human or bestial – were his brothers and sisters, and he loved them each as if they had known each other for years. Always with a smile on his impish face, Darwin ran about to complete his chores on round, sprinting feet, cleaning out the cages of the Oriental unicorn with its shedding scales and flaming tale or the Navagunjara with its many legs and sharp beak.

“Be careful, Darwin,” cooed one of the Angels – women with long, spindly bones that came out from their spines and twitched like grotesque wings, possibly the remains of attached twins. “You’ll lose another finger.” They giggled, a haunting sound like ceramic pieces falling on a stone table.

He shrugged his diminutive shoulders at their small mockery – after all, families have their rivalries.

“You need know woman, dwarf,” Brutus, the Russian giant told him once as he lifted one of the giant bulls from their pen and easily hefted it in his hand, his muscles glistening like beached, bloated whales. “You no speak nearly as should. Brutus will buy you beautiful Svetlana for you to make with loud groanings and such.”

It was true. Darwin never felt like he had much worth saying, and he found that over the years his tongue had grown dried and cracked like a slab of stone. “You will find much more to do with yourself by focusing on actions, my boy,” the Great Espressitus Kauffee had told him, when he was only a child and barely the size of a dog. He, on the other hand, seemed to loom over the carnival, eyes glowing in a dark, emotionless face. How he had come across so many creatures, oddities and outcasts were stories of legend, hearsay and myth. He drank huge pitchers of steaming liquid, the strongest coffee and the headiest liquors. “We are not philosophers. Leave the talking to the city people. We are what we are.”

Sometimes the wind blew new outcasts and creatures to the sheltered shadows of the great Carnival, and it was just such a twister that dropped Frida upon them. The storm dropped upon them from clouds so heavy with rain they looked like pure blue sky, and for hours it threatened to toss the caravan to the far end of the world like a wooden train set in the hands of an overzealous toddler. After the sun nervously returned to the sky, it was Darwin – eager to clean up the mess of the storm – that found her on the ground, her body bent, a crushed baby bird in the mud. And as suddenly as he came upon her, it felt like the storm had taken all the air from him.

Her cake-brown hair formed a mottled but luscious halo about her pale face, and when her eyes opened, her eyelashes made the softest sounds of a butterfly’s final flutters upon being impaled in a glass box. Her amethyst eyes glowed warmly, strangely, and then there was her beard. Its soft, luxurious fur seemed to kiss her cheeks in beautiful, tight curls. There was a stirring in Darwin the likes of which he had never felt, a tingling like the first day of winter in his fingers, in his…in his…

“Oh, my,” she breathed, her voice a gentle breeze. “I seem to have lost track of the weather. Forgive me. I must look horrible.”

Darwin shook head, smiling adoringly. When she laughed, he thought it might throw him off his feet. “You are a curious little man. What is all this?” She opened her arms, taking in the whole of the Carnival. “I have this feeling…this very strange feeling…that you are what I have been waiting for!”

Darwin’s fist-sized heart opened and closed fast and faster.

Frida became the star of the Carnival. Kauffee disappeared for days and came back with great clams stacked high in his arms. He pried them open one after the other, tossing the shells to Darwin, who watched in quiet reverence as he forged the opalescent material into a grand chamber to affix to the other carts and cages. It was decorated with lush ivory furniture and white velvet, furs and beaded pillows. Darwin was ever at her feet, polishing every knick-knack, every pole, every piece until her eyes would swirl with the myriad of white sparks.

Despite his silence, Frida was ever willing to have his company. They would take long walks throughout the carnival, tending to the fantastic creatures both great and small. She would never sing nor tell fantastic stories, but it was enough for Darwin that she was simply beautiful. Stars didn’t need to sing, right? Nor the moon. The sea didn’t have to tell stories. Nor the mountains. He wanted for nothing more than the glance of her crystal eyes and the wonderful rushing pleasure of her long, curving whiskers.

Darwin lay awake at night in his matchbox bed, dreaming of climbing up the tresses of her magnificent beard and kissing her cherry blushed cheeks. Images of running his nine fingers through it to her pert, firm bosoms made him squirm. He awoke in the morning touching his baby-bottom chin to an obscene degree, rubbing and rubbing it raw.

One day, as they readied for another show, Darwin came upon Brutus juggling the 300-pound Maria. Lucky for him, he did not have to say a word as Brutus nodded sagely. “My little comrade,” he said, throwing Maria like a giant, fleshy water balloon. “Be careful. Falling in love with freaks…it never ends well. Look at the Mr. Kauffee…no baboushkas, no little Kauffee’s running around. We find you nice whore next town over. Woman who sells herself…predictable.”

But Darwin would not hear the words of the giant, and he wandered off, immersing himself in his chores and the thoughts of his beloved Frida. He tried to pull all the thoughts of his heart and shape them into flowers, into letters, into small trinkets and affections to hide under her pillow. One night, in a desperate, long, white dream of her beard growing to an unending length and touching him in such intimate ways, he reached deep within himself and pulled out several ribs. Because he was so small, they came together to form the most beautiful bone comb, and he presented it to her in a velvet box.

“Oh, Darwin, it’s perfect,” she breathed. She still had the same, beautiful breeze of a voice, as if the storm had never quite left her. When he held it up to her, eagerly, at the curling splendor of her beard, he was shocked to see her recoil. “No, Darwin, I’m so sorry. I can’t…you can’t…not that! Please, forgive me!” She ran from him, tears falling from her eyes to the ground like broken glass.

For the first time, the Black Carnival was truly just that. Darwin would not clean, would not leave his quarters. It felt like, as his tongue had, his heart was becoming a red marble in his chest. Dust and dirt came upon the carts, and the creatures stomped impatiently at their own filth. As they moved on, the clouds were not chased away but parted in lieu of the stench. The carnival could rot and fall apart like an aged barn, for all the nine-fingered dwarf cared.

Finally, one night, another storm came upon the parade. This one was so strong, it seemed to threaten the very earth itself, promising to peel it back like the rind of an orange. Despite so much hail and wind and rock-hard rain, Darwin just heard the softest of knocks at his door. Wondering if he had finally lost the last of his sanity, Darwin chanced to open the door just an inch and felt like he had sprouted extra inches as he saw the small image of Frida standing there, his bone comb clutched in her fingers. He threw it open with all his strength, and she blew in and swept him up, kissing him over and over on his plum-pit cheeks. Her beard stroked his nose like a homesick dog, like a well-worn blanket… “I could not stand to be so alone! Even if you want…this…I cannot deny you!”

She pressed the comb to his hands, and Darwin set to work even as he still sat in her lap. He reverently stroked each portion dry with his own shirt, and marveled over how caring for the long, curling strands was as luxurious as he had always imagined, warm and wonderful. He was happy. Happy! Overjoyed! For the first time, the first time…oh!

So much so, in fact, that he did not notice at first when the whole mass of hair fell off into his hands.

So much so, in fact, that he did not stop combing until he opened his eyes and saw Frida’s beautiful, sad, bare – naked – face looking down at him, hopefully.

Darwin could just barely hear her cries, her sad, sad tears and pleading, as he tore herself from her and leapt into the coming gale of the twister. He closed his eyes as the fingers of the wind grabbed his small frame, and he wished hard and long for a land of bearded women, of love, of truth. As the winds took him, reaching into him and stealing his life away, he held tighter and tighter to his love’s lie, the broken beard in his nine fingers.

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Write-a-thon Story #3: The Unicorn

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               It was a clear, cold night when the animal jumped in front of Sloane’s car.

               There were so many ways that her mind tried to grasp the appearance of it – a sheet, a wedding dress, a snowstorm – and the fact that she couldn’t place the shape may have been why she didn’t let her foot off the accelerator. But when it stopped and turned on such delicate legs at her, bottomless mountain pond eyes catching hers with a passive apathy and not hinting even at curiosity in the last moment, she wasn’t able to hit the brakes until she was upon it.

                The car struck it with a sound like it had hit a cloud.

                As Sloane sat in the driver’s seat of her truck, breaths coming shallowly in small, quivering puffs, she almost didn’t get out of the car. The lack of a crash or even a sound thud made her wonder if she had scared herself awake from a dream, some midnight illusion. Not that she had been asleep, of course, but so late at night it’s easy for the mind to wander and then to startle oneself back to paying attention. But Emory was barking furiously, nose shivering like it might jump off his snout, and she figured better to take a second and look than risk a ticket for leaving an animal in the road.

                She slipped Emory’s leash on, knowing that if she left the beagle in the car he might get excited and lock her out or tear the seat up in his excitement. There was no other traffic on the back road leading into the city, and she could make out the outline of it jutting from the river like an electric castle. She hadn’t wanted to drive out to Mary’s house so late, but she insisted that they have dinner before signing the divorce papers. She wanted so much for them to stay…comfortable.

                They got to talking over dessert. Mary wanted to know all about some freak show in town, some traveling carnival or something. She wanted to know if she wanted to see it with her.

                Maybe if she hadn’t had such a large glass of red wine, Sloane thought she might not have laughed so hard she spit bloody tears on her tablecloth. “You want to set up a date after I sign the death certificate to our marriage? I don’t know if you’re being a cold bitch or if you’re just stupid.”

                Mary cried like she always did – huge, like an actress, flailing and sobbing. Sloane put her arms around her and tried to play along. She told her again that she forgave her for sleeping with her friend from the finance department, and she pretended to be sorry for what she said. They didn’t say much after that, and Emory chose the lull in excitement to scratch at the door.

                “You love that dog more than you ever loved me.” Sloane looked back at her and there must have been some pain there because Mary’s eyes showed a half-moon of triumph. Sloane found herself smiling when she agreed and stomped out on the porch.

                Now here she was, bent over this…thing she had hit. She cussed at the cold night. That glass of wine really was too big.

                The heat from the body and the car made the whole world smoke. She put her hand down on the tiny white flank, surprised that she almost dwarfed it, and shuddered at the soft whistle of a keen the thing made, like the fading memory of a song. Emory snuffed its ear, and Sloane was about to bat him away when his hand froze above the creature’s single, shining horn.

                Sloane hadn’t been to church in years, but she found she was crossing herself.

                Holy ghost.

                As she hauled the thing into her truck bed, she realized there was no blood, not marking the road and not soaking into the raggedy blanket she used to cover it. It was no heavier than a child, and the smell on her hands reminded her of linens and grandmothers and lilacs. Emory rolled on his side next to it, one paw over the animal’s back, his muzzle resting near the slender neck. The look in the dog’s eyes told him that he wouldn’t be moved, so Sloane got back into the truck alone.

                Every movement on the road made Sloane jump a little after that. Each driver who locked their sight with hers made her look away with a guilty paranoia, like they suspected the holy cargo she was carrying. Twice they stopped when she had taken a curve a little too quick, and twice she moved to the back and lifted an inch of that blanket. And twice she touched that horn with the tip of one finger, to remind her that she wasn’t dreaming.

                If she stayed too long, Emory would growl. The sound was so foreign she figured it better than to test him, so she would be the one with her tail between her legs, slinking back to the ignition.   

                When Sloane got to her apartment building, she saw someone standing out front. It was Roger, her band’s bass player, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He threw it on the sidewalk as she got out. “Dude, where the fuck have you been? We were supposed to practice an hour ago.”

                “Look, man, you knew I was going out to Mary’s tonight. Get out of my face.” She stood between him and back of the truck, uncertain how close she should let him get to the…whatever it was in the back.

                His expression softened just slightly under his blonde bangs, and he raised a hand to push the mess of hair out of his face, trying to cool down. Sloane took the moment to glance at her watch. She had actually stood him up for closer to two hours, but what difference did it make? “I thought you all were just going to sign the papers and be done with it. It’s not like you can stand being around her.”

                “She wanted to have dinner. It’s not like we have any gigs we’re practicing for, anyway.” Guilt hit her almost as soon as the words came out. “Sorry. It’s just been a rough night, okay?”

                Roger held onto his case a little tighter. “At least some of us are making a fucking effort instead of locking ourselves away, crying our little dyke tears for some bitch who-”

                The thunderstorm that had been growing in her gut exploded, then, and Sloane took a swing at him. Her fist hit his cheek, and the bass hit the sidewalk with a discordant crack. He came back at her with a right cross that grazed her temple, and then as she was reeling, he tackled her hard. The wind knocked out of her, she wheezed as he picked her up by the lapels of her flannel and slammed her into the ground. “What’s your problem, man? I wait here for you, and you come back and give me shit.”

                At first, all she could see was white, and then the night sky came back into focus.

                “I said I was sorry,” she finally said, sense accompanying the oxygen in her lungs. “Get off me, you dick.”

                “Do you want to talk about it?”

                Looking up into his face, past his leather jacket and torn up jeans, Sloane realized that this was the closest to a friendship she would probably ever get. “No. Thanks.”

                He arched his back and looked at her truck. In her clearing senses, Sloane picked up the sound of Emory yodeling. The other parts of the night came back hard, like another punch. “Dude, your dog is freaking out,” Roger said as he stood up, pulling Sloane up with him.

                “Yeah, about that…” She prayed that she wasn’t making yet another mistake. “I need your help with something.”

 

                About twenty minutes later, Sloane and Roger stood over the tub in her studio apartment. The unicorn – it was Roger who said it first, practically screamed it, in fact – fit into it perfectly, its thin legs tucking up under itself like a deer. Fur the color of starlight seemed sickly under the flickering bare bulb that hung near the mirror.

                Emory sat next to the tub, resting his head on the toilet seat lid. Now and then, his tail would thump against the grimy linoleum, and he would look up at Sloane, waiting for her to move it again.

                “What are you going to do with it, dude?”

                Sloane let go a low whistle. “I have no clue. I mean, I hit it with my car, it might not even last long.”

                Roger turned his head, squinting. “He…She…uh…it looks okay, you know. For something so small that you slammed into with that hunk of junk.”

                “Yeah, there’s no blood or anything, but look.” She pointed down at its back legs. There were bulges just under the snowy surface. “Emory busted his leg a few years back going down the stairs, and it looked a lot like that.”

                “You could call a vet.”

                “And tell them what, dumb ass? ‘Yeah, so I hit a unicorn with my car, could you come out and take a look at it’?”

                Roger shoved her hard. “Look, man, it was just an idea. I don’t know what to do with it, okay?”

                Sloane pressed her hand against her face. It felt like she had been sweating all night. “I know, I know. Let’s just go to practice. There’s nothing I can do with it tonight either way, right? Come on. Emory, you too.”

                The dog – who would usually follow along with Sloane wherever she went, whether she actually called him by name or not – didn’t even stir from his spot on the floor.

                “Emory,” she said, more firmly than she had had to in a long time. “Come.”

                He whined and lay down.

                Sloane picked her guitar up and headed for the door. “Fine. Forget it.”

 

                They met with the other guys and had practice, and Sloane wasn’t sure if maybe it was just because of how bad the rest of the night had been but…they sounded pretty good. Better than they had in a long time, in fact. Even Jonas, who usually showed up a little high and a lot crappy, playing the drums like he was three with a spoon and some pans. “Good job tonight,” she said to him as they cleaned up. “I guess things are going well with that chick who moved in.”

                “Mika. Thanks. Yeah, I don’t know, I just felt really ‘in it’ tonight, you know?”

                Roger cut in as he wrapped an electric chord between his hand and elbow. “Well, keep feeling ‘in it’ like that, and we might actually get back to the Garage.”

                The Garage was a small club and bar in the southside. They had been getting consistent gigs a year before but had been cut out after the management changed. “We just want a newer sound,” the new owner said over the phone. “Kids want to hear electronics and keyboards these days, not punk.”

                Roger had evidently gone into a screaming tirade about differences in musical genres for so long and with so much cursing that the man on the other end had to eventually hang up. Sloane didn’t really blame him; she had made the same mistake once, getting him started, and she had to hang up, too.

                They went out for drinks after that, and she was approached by a mousy girl in a floral-print sundress. She had curly, short hair the color of honey, and her voice was sweet when she said that her name was Hazel. But it wasn’t just her cute face that made Sloane stare longer than she should have. Two long, bony protrusions came out of her back. They moved with her, like wings…or at least like what wings might look like, if they were plucked. Bleached.

                “Do you want to touch them?”

                Sloane nodded, her mouth dry. They felt smooth and cool, satin and ivory and magic. Magical. “Wow.”

                “Do you want to come back to my place?” Hazel asked. “You look like you’ve had a rough night. We could have a couple of drinks.”

                She was startled by how much like Mary she looked when she said that, and she hated saying, “No, sorry, Not tonight. I’m…uh…I’m coming out of something really rough right now.”

                Sloane waited for her to roll her eyes and walk away or even pout, but instead Hazel took her hand in her tiny, pale one and wrote her number down on Sloane’s palm. “For when things are a bit more smooth. Okay?”

                “Okay.”

                When she got home, a bit too warm and a bit too top-heavy, she crashed without looking in the bathroom again. Her bed – a mattress on the floor covered in laundry of all matter of sizes, shapes and varying degrees of cleanliness – was a surprisingly comfortable cloud, and it was the best sleep she had in months.

                The next afternoon, when her eyes opened, she didn’t move her head or look to the window. She expected the unhappy afterbirth from a night of drinking. Her phone buzzed from the cluttered coffee table Roger had constructed for her out of several pieces of wood and two cinder blocks. Lying on her back, it went to voicemail.

                When Sloane finally ventured to sit up, it was unencumbered by hangover or headache. She stretched, ready for it to strike like a viper awoken, but it never did. She wandered over to the corner where she had her tiny fridge and hotplate, pulling out a carton of eggs and orange juice. Where had those come from? She hadn’t gone grocery shopping since before Mary moved out, sustaining herself entirely on the Chinese take-out place on 52nd and an occasional trip to the gas station.

                Jonas had stayed over after practice last week. Maybe he left them…

                After a quick lunch, she poured some dog food into a bowl and took it into the bathroom. Emory hadn’t moved, his ears still resting on the floor, glassy black eyes looking up at her. She glanced into the tub, and the unicorn was still there. She wasn’t certain, but she thought that it looked a bit less luminescent, like dirty, street-side snow instead of the flawless white of the night before. And had it fit into the tub that well, last night?

                Emory whined.

 

                Knock, knock, knock.

                Sloane put down the fender she was tuning and wandered to the door. There was no face on the other side of the door, just a mess of hair. She only knew one other person who was that short, and for a second, she didn’t move, didn’t touch the door knob. Finally, she twisted it, leaving the chain latched.

                “What do you want?”

                The sliver of Mary on the other side of the paint-chipped, heavy old door smiled, tight-lipped. “I was in the city and thought I’d stop by. I left a message on your phone.”

                Right, the voicemail. She hadn’t checked it yet. “Right. So you stopped by. Great. Can I do something for you?”

                The thin, pressed lips seemed to cave in further, and Sloane could see the hint of her teeth, chewing. “You left last night without…you know.”

                “Saying goodbye?”

                Her ex-wife lifted an envelope. “Signing the papers.”

                After a second, Sloane closed the door to let the chain loose, opening it again to usher Mary in without a word. “Wow,” Mary said, sitting on the old couch, another curbside-find that Roger had brought by a year ago.  “It looks good in here, Sloane. Really.”

                “Thanks.” She almost told her that she had just cleaned it, had finished finding out what clothes were clean and which were dirty five minutes before she knocked. She wanted to gloat about how she had swept and taken a few rags to the windows. But if she said all that, she might have ended up wanting to tell her about the unicorn in the bathroom, so she didn’t say anything else.

                “Sloane…I wasn’t fair to you last night. I invited you out there, and then I was a…I was terrible to you. I’m sorry.”

                Sloane picked at a frayed hole in her jeans. “Yeah, I was nasty, too. It’s okay.” After a too-long pause, she reached out towards the envelope, but Mary didn’t let go.

                When her lips parted, she barely whispered, “I thought…”

                Sloane didn’t let go, but she didn’t pull any harder either. “What?”

                “Could we try again?”

                “What?”

                Mary spoke louder, but her voice was untouched by anger, free of any malice or manipulation. “This…all of it…it was my idea and I think I changed my mind and I can’t imagine spending my life without you. I want us to do this again. We don’t have to live together yet. I just don’t want to nail the coffin shut, you know?”

                Now it was Sloane’s turn to feel tense, to feel her face pulling in protectively. She got ready for her to laugh and say she was kidding, to tell her to sign the papers so she could go out on a date. “What about what’s-her-name. At work. Who you…”

                “No, baby. No. She was a temp. She’s gone. I don’t even have her phone number.”

                “What if you did?”

                “I don’t want to be with her. I want you.” Mary pulled at the envelope so she could cover Sloane’s hand with hers. The soft skin moved over the calluses from night after night of frets and playing away the pain. “You’re my wife.”

                Sloane let go of the papers but didn’t pull away. And when they kissed on the couch, a soft, hesitant reconciliation, she didn’t pull back then, either.

 

                After Mary left, Sloane finally checked her messages.

                The other was from Roger. They didn’t have a gig.

                They had two.

 

                “Hey, man, there’s some guy outside looking for you.”

                Sloane looked up from the speaker she was trying to get working. Jonas was twirling his drumsticks in one hand, and she recognized the nervous tick. “Yeah? What does he want?”

                “I don’t know, but he said he has to talk to you.”

                “You know we’re going back on in five. Can it wait?”

                “I don’t think so. I don’t know. He just said he has to talk to you, okay?”

                Sloane rolled her eyes and got up. When she headed outside, she could tell immediately who Jonas had been talking to. He had a shock of red hair and a face like a car accident. His muscles bulged under the dirty wife-beater, and she tried on a smile. He refused to afford her the same courtesy. “Sloane.” His voice was dirty, sharp, a hunk of dangerous metal.

                “Yeah. A fan of the band? Can I give you an autograph or something?” She reached out her hand, a peace offering. When he took it, he squeezed so hard she thought it might break. She tried to pull out of his hold but to no avail.

                “Have something of mine,” he growled. The way there wasn’t any question in what he said made her feel sick. She thought of the bathroom, the thing in the tub. “Want it back.”

                “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She finally reached out and shoved his chest with her hand. “Back off.”

                The man let go of her but only took a half-step back. Within a second, he stepped forward until she had her back to the brick wall of the club, two freckled hands on her shoulders. “Could be easy,” he growled. Then, he ground his knuckles against her bones in such a way that she cried out. She kneed him in the groin, waited for him to double over, but nothing happened. “Could be hard.”

                For a second, just as she thought the pain was going to be too much, something in her asked why she was doing this. Why she didn’t just tell him that, yes, she had what he was looking for, that he could have it back. And just as quickly, her subconscious knew why: it was the reason Mary had shown up, that the band was booked solid for the next month, that things were looking good for the first time in recent memory.

                Suddenly, Sloane caught the sight of a bottle coming down in a fast, nasty arch. It broke against the guy’s face, blood and beer pouring from his skull. He let her go, and another set of hands pulled her back. Roger’s rage was deafening, burning white in his face and in the knuckles that were holding her back. “Fuck off, asshole, before I call the cops.”

                Under the red of his hair and the blood, Sloane shook when she realized that he looked barely affected. “Not over,” he said in a frighteningly stable tone as he turned and walked away down the alley, one hand flicking the liquid off his face like it was just sweat.

                “What was that all about?”

                “He knew.” She took what was supposed to be a steadying breath. It didn’t help. “He knew, Roger. About the unicorn.”

                “You should come back to my place.”

                “No. It’s fine. I’m fine.”

                “Sloane, come on, man.”

                “I said I’m fine. I could have handled it. He just was…” Not being able to find an adequate excuse made her madder, and she yelled, “I don’t need any help. Aren’t you supposed to be getting ready for the set?”

                Roger’s mood changed, a page flipping suddenly on his face to reveal a wolfish grin. He pulled a card out of his jacket pocket and handed it to her. “Check it out.”

                The adrenaline that was easing off became swept up in the rush of shocked delight. Eggshell white and professional printing gave the name, address and phone number of Docile Tones Music Group.

 

                A week later, the unicorn had, in fact, gotten smaller. Now, it was only the size of a large dog. Emory still wasn’t eating. “He’s healthy,” the vet had told her after several tests. “He’s young, there’s no physical reason he isn’t eating. Have you tried changing his food?”

 

                When they finished recording, Sloane had seen cats bigger than the unicorn. She started force-feeding Emory supplements. “You don’t seem really with it tonight, dude,” Roger told her after they had been working on a song for an hour. She kept missing chords because she was so exhausted from staying up with the dog.

                “Sorry.” Then, she muttered, “Not like it matters. We could suck and we’d still be successful.”

                “What did you say?”

                “Nothing. Forget it.”

 

                When they got back from touring, the unicorn could be held to her like a rabbit. When Sloane started packing up her things, preparing to move out to Mary’s house, she found Emory in her walk-in closet adjacent to the bathroom. He was cold, stiff, on his side.

                Just as she was becoming completely undone, there was a knock on the door. She answered it. There was a giant man, dark and silent as death. In the lonely hallway, he cast a long shadow and it grew out from his feet in a way that was almost organic. “You have something of mine,” he said.

                She sobbed, unable to hold it back, a terrible explosion in a minefield of grief. “I’m sorry.”

                He lifted one hand to his face, rubbing the thin black beard. “I sent two before me to try to get it out of you. One to seduce, the other to coerce. You recognize the worth of a unicorn. I can respect that.”

                Sloane wished she could stop crying, and more than that, she wished he would just take the thing and leave. He regarded her like a scientist studying the behavior of an animal. “Knowing what you know now, and all that you’ve gained…would you say it was worth it?”

                All she could think of was Emory.

                Emory, who was there when Mary told her about the affair.

                Emory, who would come up to meet her when she came home from another bad practice.

                Emory, who curled up at the foot of her bed, within arm’s reach when she had drunk too much and needed to sleep it off.

                Emory.

                What had she done?

                “No,” she said. “If I could have him back, I would give it all up.”

                “Have you not gotten everything you could want? Fame, fortune, the stuff of kings and the greatest bards and…”

                Sloane crossed the room and threw open the door. She gathered the unicorn up in the blanket, now too large and mostly hanging to the floor around the small creature. She held it out to him. “I don’t want any of it. Please, just…bring him back.”

                “What makes you think I can do such a thing?” He took the tiny bundle.

                Through the tears, she actually laughed a bit. “You send me an angel and a devil and you expect me to believe you can’t heal a dog?”

                “Fair. Give me your hand.”

                She did. He drew back a bit of the blanket and ran the horn – now barely more than a needle – through her finger. Sloane shrunk back as blood dripped from the wound, tiny drops marking the wooden floor. For how small it was, it felt like her hand was on fire.

                The last thing she saw was the little unicorn – a dusty creature with blood on its horn – regard her with an expression that was endless and eternal, and she slipped away.

                  

                “What’s your problem, man? I wait here for you, and you come back and give me shit.”

                At first, all she could see was white, and then the night sky came back into focus.

                Roger was on top of her, a gash on his face. She had hit him – she knew it because her fist ached – but…why?

                Emory licked her face. Where was she? She had been somewhere else…had he knocked her into the ground that hard? “Sorry,” she said. “I…uh…what were we talking about?”

                “Come on, stop dicking around. You’re fine.”

                “Then get off already.”

                “Okay, okay. Don’t take another swing at me, Sloane. I’m serious.”

                She sat up. Starbursts went off in her vision, and there was this feeling in the back of her head, like she was going to say something and had then forgotten. Like a story or a dream was on the tip of her tongue and now it was gone.

                “So are we going to practice or what?”

                Sloane blinked and scratched Emory behind the ears. He seemed really excited, but she wasn’t sure why. “What?”

                “Practice,” he said, drawing out the word. “You know, you play guitar and I play bass and Jonas pretends to play the drums.”

                “Right, sorry. Just a second, I have to get something out of the back.”

                She walked over behind the truck. She couldn’t actually think of what she was expecting to be there, because the only thing was an old blanket. It looked like it had been thrown back there. Not wanting to seem like she was losing it, she picked it up and folded it up. Emory whined, and she could swear there was a smell there, something more than the metallic, oily grime scent of the truck.

                Something soft, sweet, and then short-lived.

Uncategorized

Write-a-thon Story #2: The Dolphin-Girl

               If asked, Kano, who was eight, could tell you two of the first things he could remember:

               The first was the stories about a time where there were no dolphins. The elders always spoke fondly of the fabled time, when they had been prosperous, blessed by the ocean kami with an abundance of fish.

               Those glorious years ended, the old men said, when the spirit of the village had become drunk during the seasonal festival. He tumbled down the hill to the shore, where he unfastened his pants and urinated in the waves. The sea god Mizusama became enraged and called a pod of dolphins to the desecrated water. For every drop of urine that touched the salty tide, twenty dolphins came to life and each swallowed one hundred fish.

                The village spirit had passed out upon the sand and rose the morning after to the wailing of his people. That was the day, they said, the village spirit first showed them how to slaughter dolphins.

                The second memory was his father’s back. The tall, imposing line of his father’s body would walk in a warrior’s stride down the hill to the cove, where he and the other fathers would go to hunt. It was always the hottest day of the summer, a month before the festival. He was never allowed to follow, though he always tried, and year by year his mother would pick him up, smooth the ink-black hair from his forehead and tell him that one day he could go. One day, but that, today, there were better things for young eyes to see than blood in the water.

                Kano always knew when the thirty days of the slaughter season were over, because the festival was always a happy time. On the last day, the fishermen would come home together, their sacks full of dolphin hearts to be taken to the temple of the village spirit. There would be sake, songs, and for one night his father’s face would be rosy, a smile on his lips. Sleep would be saved for the morning, and no one worked the next day.

 

                Now, if asked, Kano, who was ten, would say that he thought he was old enough to go to the cove with his father. Because he had been eight when his mother had taught him how to make mochi, cook noodles and brew tea, and because he had been nine when his mother taught him how to mend his own kimono. And now, at ten, his mother had taught him how to meet his father’s eyes when he had done something wrong. When his father returned with the black blanket of stars following with his steps, the boy met him at the door. A rock-shaped, purple bump stood out under his eye. “What happened?” his father asked.

                “I got into a fight,” he said.

                “You should not fight,” his father said as he knelt to remove his sandles.

                “But I have,” he went on, “and if I am old enough to fight, I am old enough to hunt dolphins. I know the other sons do, and they are not so older than I am.” He had practiced the speech, and he said it the way he thought a man should.

                Kano’s father’s face set like dark mud baked in the sun. “None of the boys go into the cove,” he said. “They are only being hateful because their mothers throw them out of the house to occupy themselves. How lucky you are to have a mother who is happy to have you around.” 

                “They do go,” he insisted. “They sneak down the cliff and watch and wait. I know they do. Tatsuo told me.”

                “If it is true, than Tatsuo will have a beating I think you would not wish to share,” his father replied and pressed past the boy and up the stairs. He smelled like metal and fish and a steam came off him as if he had been cooked in the water, cooked in the blood. When he was up the stairs and into the house, Kano sniffled indignantly. Just once. And then he stayed there.

                Kano woke up to the sound of his father coming down the stairs again. The step he had slept on had left him feeling bent. He blinked in the early morning, had never been awake so early it was still night outside, the sun still on her back to the world. “You may walk with me a ways,” his father said after many seconds of silence. “When I tell you to stop, though, you must. We’ll see if this is what you really wish to be doing.”

                Kano stuck his chest out and tried not to yawn. He wished they had gone later so the other boys would be awake, outside and playing, and could see them together, going on their way to the cove to kill the dolphins. He grinned up at his father, but he said nothing, and he figured that maybe in the start of the dawn he couldn’t see him and that’s why he scowled.

                The road took them down, and they came to a divide. Kano could just see the open mouth of the cove, and already further out in the morning waves there were things moving. Fins cutting the surface. Slapping tails and mouths. The road would still go on a ways, further down and to the docks out of sight in the trees. His father turned to him then and told him this was where he needed to stay.

                Kano sat down and waited.

                For a young child, two hours would surely be long enough to conquer the world. With no distractions, no friends, not even his mother or the mochi it felt like his father had surely left him to die here. He lied back on the grass at the side of the road, and twice groups of fishermen tried to hurry him home. “No,” he croaked, almost always caught napping. “I’m here to help my father kill the dolphins.”

                They laughed and left him.

                Suddenly, after the sun had risen over the cove and he could hear the soft murmurs of the village and the women and the old couples playing Shogi, there came a sound like a dagger across glass. Kano clapped his hand over his ears as the sound pierced his chest. Rising to his feet, he turned his back on the cove, towards his village, hoping he could still hear the oblivious notes and melodies of a world where this wasn’t happening. But still the sound came, again and again. He never imagined that dolphins could scream, always imagining that they died like fish with glassy eyes and, flopping and silent.

                When he looked back and saw that the mouth of the cove was bleeding, the bright red tide waving out into the water like fire, he started running. But even though his heart was telling him to run home into the arms of his mother, he ran down the winding street towards the water, his short hair whipping in his eyes. He wanted to know that it wasn’t happening, that that noise was not the sounds they made, that it wasn’t this horrible, that what his father had been doing was honorable and right and…

                They had been herded into the shallows, and the water churned into a stormy foam. The massive bodies crushed against each other, and their black eyes watched the fading world around them with an awareness that frightened Kano terribly.  He couldn’t make out any distinct shapes of the dolphins, but the water was full of tails and fins and teeth and that same scream, again and again.

                The lifeless bodies that had already been pulled from the fray lay draining on the sand.

                The outline of his father stood out against the white light of the afternoon, spear in hand. His arm would hang in the air and then strike, over and over, ending and ending.

                He could just barely hear somebody yelling and pointing from another boat. Not at him, he realized, but into a section of the driven creatures. His father didn’t pause and didn’t acknowledge the other fisherman. Kano looked, and he knew what he saw. A hand. A face. Only now and then, of course, as it was driven beneath the fright and panic of the dying, but…yes.

                He was running again, and this time the yelling and pointing was at him. He yelled too, trying to get the attention of the child in the water, but the face would just bob up, mouth opening as if joining in the cacophony of passing souls around it, and then sink again. His feet hit the water, the salty blood warmer than bathwater, thicker. It swallowed him whole.

                Immediately, he was assaulted by both sides. Water went into his nose, and he threw it out his mouth. A blinding pain in his side, his hand. He tried to watch for the face, for anything, but he was under the water too. The force of the dolphins was too much, and there was no running away from it now.

                Then, his hand found something. Another hand, the same size as his. He squeezed.

                For a moment, he could see through the foam another pair of black eyes with a small nose and wild hair and sharp little teeth. The girl pulled back – she could only have been his age, but she was strong like his father – but he dug his nails in. Then, there was a grip on his neck, and he was hauled up from the water, both of them dropped into the bottom of his father’s boat.

                The blows came fast and fierce on his ears, but his father’s rage was interrupted by the girl. Her pale, naked body scrambled, slick fingers trying to find purchase on the boat. She had one of those little hands outstretched to the water as if trying to pull it back to her. His father pulled her back by the shoulder, and those sharp teeth found his arm. He howled. When he managed to pull her off by the mane of midnight-colored hair, the crescent moon wound shone with blood, and he shouted a command to a man at his stern. They moved away from the cove.

                All the way home she made that same horrible noise, and Kano could feel the eyes of his neighbors on them. He felt beaten bare, and he found himself staring at the girl, the first female body he’d ever seen. Looking at her too long resulted in an extra cuff in the neck.

                Word must have travelled faster than they walked, because Kano’s mother was at the door. The girl had become exhausted throwing herself to the ground and hung limply as his mother picked her up, though she mewled softly in protest. She was taken to the bath where his mother washed the cove from her hair before placing her in the tub. She bobbed lifelessly, clicking softly in a way that started at her teeth and ended in her throat.

                Kano stood with his father at the doorway, where the man stared ahead, his dark face determined and worn and old. The blood and water on his fingers dropped freely, creating a dark clay mud. He said nothing to Kano as he walked away, down the street to the temple. He emerged after a day and night with his clothes torn and a long cut down his chest. Kano threw his arms around him, sobbing “Gomen, gomen nasai” but there was no sound. No heartbeat, no breath. Only the rhythmic crashing of his blood, hollow and slow, like a wave in a cave.

                His father died on the eve of the festival. As the lights went up in the paper lanterns, he simply extinguished on his futon, where he had stayed, eyes open, staring at the ceiling.

                Mika – that’s the name Kano’s mother started to call her by, because of that clicking she had made in the tub that day – smiled throughout the entire funeral. “She has the face of a dolphin,” Kano heard one of the villagers say to his mother. “Always smiling in the middle of misery. She will bring you and your family only sorrow. Better you should turn her out.”

                “No,” his mother said, picking her up and holding her in a way she had never held him. “He brought her from the water, and I will not disgrace his memory by casting her away.”

                The oldest of the elders approached them when they left the burial site, so old that his eyes always seemed closed, his lips invisible. But even as quiet as he was, Kano heard him say, “Then you cannot stay.”

 

                If asked, Kano, now eleven, would say that he would rather have his village and his father than the little barbarian girl.

                The city was huge and loud, far from the sea. They could only afford a tiny apartment, where they shared a single bedroom and a tiny living space. Mika became sick and feverish for a time, and Kano’s mother stayed with her throughout the nights, touching her face with a wet kerchief. One day, she woke up not only with that same smile but that same heat. She practically immolated with the rage in her and burned them whenever possible.

“Kano, let’s play.”

                The boy cringed, looking up Mika’s grinning face. “I don’t want to play, Mika.”

                Behind her, other little girls from school were giggling. She had acquired a following from the younger girls because of her pretty face and tough disposition. “I didn’t ask. Let’s play. I go first!”

                Kano cried out as she punched him hard with her knuckle. His arm throbbed and his sleeve stained with blood. “No, Mika! That hurts!”

                She didn’t stop smiling, but she did step back as the blossom of crimson grew bigger. She dropped something on the ground: she had been holding a sharp shell between two fingers. “I win.”

                He didn’t cry until they ran off. His mother didn’t come out to check on him. She never did anymore. Now, afternoons were spent napping or cleaning up messes Mika had made. Most recently, she had kept the water pumping into the tub after it filled up, flooding the bathroom and creating a swamp in the two rooms below. The landlord had threatened to take it out of their rent if Kano’s mother didn’t repair the damage.

                “Do you miss Father?” he asked after bandaging the cut.

                His mother smiled, only as bright as a candle light from where she was lying down. “When I have time to, my dearest.”

 

                If asked, Kano, now twelve, would tell you that he was at least glad that Mika isn’t just turning her wrath on him anymore.

                Standing at the window of the classroom, he could make out a circle of girls in the far corner of the yard below. They were closing in on a small, huddled classmate, a junior student named Rui. She shook in fear, and he could just hear the shrillness of Mika’s voice in the distance before the laughter.

                When Rui came in later, her jumper torn and a cut on her cheek, Kano offered her his personal first aid kit. “I always try to be ready for my sister’s monsoon. I know she is a bit difficult. Gomen nasai.”

                She smiled, a tiny splinter of joy across her face. That’s what they had said when they moved into the city: Mika was his sister. And his father? Best not to talk about it. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”

                When they walked through the hall together, Rui held Kano’s hand. It made him feel special, appreciated, and he kept her away from Mika, who watched them when their backs were turned. They shared their lunches packed from home, and one day Rui let Kano kiss her cheek after they played with her kitten, Hana.

                A few days later, Rui stopped talking to Kano. She avoided him in between classes, and when he tried to stop her outside, she said, “I’m sorry. I can’t be around you.”

                “Why?”

                She ran away without answering. Heartbroken, Kano turned to go back inside the building, almost running into Mika. Her eyes were glassy, everything in her face cruelty. “I know I’m a bit difficult,” she said in a mocking tone. “Gomen nasai.”

                She dropped a tiny, kitten-sized collar on the ground. It was soaking wet.

                That night, Mika bled for the first time in the tub, and Kano felt nothing when he heard her screaming.

 

                If asked, Kano, now thirteen, would rather not talk about Mika. Mika, who had never been anything but cruel to them, had started spending more and more time with him. Mika, who had never tried to fit into a normal society in lieu of her wildness, the savagery in which she was born, was now going out with other teenagers to get special clothes.

                Very nice-looking clothes.

                One day, when caught staring, Kano’s mother took him aside and hissed, “You cannot. Kano, I know how old you are now, but you must not. Our life here depends on you remembering she is your sister. It is all anyone knows.”

                “Of course, Mother,” he said as he tried to think how he could avoid the images he had of Mika’s body.

                After dinner, they snuck out together to a movie theater downtown. She kissed him as the film played, and he could only see bits of her in the ebb and flow of light and dark. Kano had a sudden reminiscence to that first day, to the cove.

                “I want to take you back there,” he confessed to her, his breath soft on her lips. “To the sea.”

                She laughed and cried into his neck, and he started planning immediately. When they had their summer break, he could take them back to the shore by train. He bought tickets in secret, and they made tandem plans so they could sneak away from his mother without suspicion.

                At the train station, Kano waited for her by the turnstile. When she arrived, she got out of a boy’s car. He was at least three years her senior, and they kissed deeply, shamelessly. Kano felt a fish in his gut.

                When she came up to him, his shock did not affect her. “What?” she asked. 

                He tore the tickets apart.

                Mika didn’t come home after that, and Kano felt nothing.

 

                If asked, Kano, now nineteen, would say how much more quiet it is in the apartment without Mika.

                When Mika disappeared from the bus station, she started living with other people. She escaped the city and stayed with a commune for a year. After that, it was a string of boyfriends and girlfriends. The only reason he knew that much was because, after he left to attend university, he would get calls from his mother. “Mika asked me for money,” she’d say, “She and Asuho are moving into a garage with a band.”

                “Mother,” Kano reasoned, telling from her cough that she had given the spare dollars to Mika instead of to the doctor. “You cannot keep giving her money.”

                “Your father would not have pulled her from the water for me to see her on the street,” she said. She coughed again. It sounded like pieces of her were breaking off with each sound.

                “Mother…”

                “She told me to give you her number. So you can call her. Do you want it? Write it down.”

                “I’m listening.” He didn’t move. He just let the numbers pass between them like bits of static over the line.

                One day, after a thick and heavy rain, Mika appeared at Kano’s door. She was soaked, and her skin had this ashy gray tone, like that of a dead person. Her eyes drooped, and he caught her as she fell into his living room.

                He pushed everything off the couch and laid her body down. She was so light, so fragile. In the still quiet of the apartment, he could hear the small clicks she made when she slept.

                She didn’t move for days.

                And she still hadn’t moved when a knock came to the door. Kano answered, certain he would find a fellow student or a teacher chiding his absence. Instead, it was a long, tall, dark man. A man so huge he had to bend at the knee to get in Kano’s door. He took off his slender hat and shoes, respectfully, but even then he was still several heads over Kano.

                “She is dying,” the man said as he sipped his tea.

                “No. She can’t die. We saved her.”

                “You did once, yes. But she has always been more dolphin than human. She will never tell you how bad it has been, but know, boy, that she is dying.”

                He reached over and smoothed her hair. There was still a crease in her cheek, where she smiled even in sleep. Her flesh was cool to his touch, all that heat dead. “What must I do?”

                “I can save her,” he said, his giant fingers folding together. He talked about his caravan of monsters, of the magic that he possessed. Kano said nothing. “She will never be completely human, just as she will never be completely dolphin, but I can give her a life that is a little bit of both.”

                “How has she lived so long, if what you say is true?”

                “Your father gave the village spirit his heart. He spared her, for a time. Now, that time is ending. Without the sea, this world is drowning her.”

                “I could take her to the ocean. We can get a home there together. We…”

                The man set his cup down hard. “She will never love you. And you will never be happy.”

                The words sat between them, echoing in the air like the beats of a gong. Kano didn’t want to know that was true, but it settled in him, facts made of stone on his heart. “She can decide.”

                The man agreed, and he sent for someone – a red-haired, speckled boy in a workman’s shirt – to bring him a small vial of red liquid. He pressed it to her lips. “What is that?” Kano asked.

                “Shark blood,” the man replied. “From the Great Barrier Reef.”

                The next morning, she was awake with the man before Kano had even gotten out of bed. She looked like she had cleaned herself, washed her hair, and she smiled at him. He smiled back. Without any discussion, the man stood up and put on his shoes and hat. “Ready?”

                Kano opened his mouth to protest, but she said, “Of course,” and headed towards the door after him.

                The man met Kano’s gaze. His expression reminded him of old men from his village who would win a game of Shogi and neither be pleased nor dissatisfied with the result. Winning and losing were as natural as living and dying.

                “Stay,” Kano said, quickly, barking it. “Stay with me.”

                “No,” she said.

                She kissed him, then, when his mouth was still open. It tasted like blood in the ocean, made him sick and hungry. His fingers found her hand, like it did so long ago. He squeezed.

                She left without saying another word.

 

                If asked, Kano, now much older than nineteen, would say that it was only a matter of time before he came back.

                The village isn’t at all the way it was when he left. It has given birth to a town. The road from the hill to the cove is paved, and cars travel on it. The house where he grew up with his mother, father and the girl is now a beautiful villa, a vacation home for tourists. He takes the money he would have used for school and finds a small room being let out by an old woman. Then, he buys a boat.

                The temple is gone.

                When he goes down to the cove, he is surprised to see that there aren’t as many boats. When he asks about the killing season, people drop their heads and do not reply. He knows what time of year it is, though. He can tell from the heat that builds in his blood and the glow that comes from the sky.

                He has shaped a harpoon. When he stands in his doorway, waiting for the moment to leave, the soft light from inside the house casts his shadow on the ground. The spear is heavy in one hand, and he holds it up and strikes at the ground, over and over. Ending and ending.

                He will always hunt the dolphins.