Even In This Skin, A.C. Wise

Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.

skin1“How are you doing?”

“Same old.” Jamie offers a lopsided almost-smile, lifting one shoulder to match.

Shadows tuck beneath his skin. His gaze cuts right, a pointed look to the empty seat beside Mar; neither of them are surprised, but it still hurts.

“Did you bring me the shiv I asked for? Or the cake with the file baked inside?” Jamie looks pointedly away from the empty chair, smile broadening into a grin, but one without real feeling.

The joke falls as flat, same as the last three times. Mar places a pack of cigarettes on the table.

“Mom did ask about you at least. She wanted to know if you’re eating okay.”

“Nice of her to call you to check.”

“It was an email.”

“Three squares a day, since she asked.” Jamie pats his stomach.

It’s flatter than hers; his jumpsuit hangs loose around an already narrow frame. His hair is buzzed short, and there’s a new mark above his ear, dark ink beneath the shadow of stubble.

At fourteen, with Jamie sixteen, Mar had come down the basement stairs to find Jamie’s friend Val giving him a homemade tattoo on the inside of his left forearm with a broken pen. Most of the tattoo had washed away, not deep enough to last, just deep enough to leave a faint scar from infected skin Jamie couldn’t stop scratching. This is how they’ll know you’re one of us, Val had said.

She doesn’t look away quick enough, but Jamie seems unfazed. “You like?”

He turns to show the stars marching crookedly up the back of his skull. At least none of them look infected.

“Jamie.”

Her hand is already halfway across the table between them, wanting to touch the stars. She pulls her hand back, and Jamie’s smile falters.

“They look great,” Mar says.

Hurt flickers in his eyes, but he schools his expression, the smile coming back at half force.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Jamie says. “Promise. I’m done with that shit. Really. They’re just stars.”

“I know.” Mar answers as quick as she can, but it’s not fast enough.

At sixteen, with Jamie eighteen, the flat crack of a gun -a sound like a branch breaking, like a fracture dividing their lives into then and now and no way to build a bridge between them – is indelibly imprinted on Mar’s mind. She ran, feet thudding on the pavement, trying to be as swift as she’d been when they were young and running through the woods, but she was too late to tell who fired the shot. Val and Rico and Tommy and Jamie all stood around the boy on the ground, and Jamie looked at her with stricken eyes, I didn’t do it, Mar, I swear.

Jamie pulls the cigarettes across the table.

skin4“Don’t spend them all in one place.” It’s her turn for a joke that falls flat, smile feeling tender and bruised.

She plows on and they talk about nothing as the time ticks down. Then chairs scrape back from tables.

“Same time next week?”

“I’ll be here.”

Mar’s heart turns over, wanting to escape; only the comforting press of the binder keeps her heart in place. She leans in for a quick hug, tight and hard, because it’s easier than looking Jamie in the eye.

“Be good.” She brushes lips against his cheek.

At the door, Mar looks back. The angle of sunlight slanting through the barred windows washes out Jamie’s face. She steps outside, leaving her brother and the other faceless men in the prison behind.

A ghost dogs her footsteps across the parking lot, the echo of a gunshot. I didn’t do it, Mar. She’s never doubted him, but he still chose. He put the gun in his hand at some point; his fingerprints were on it. Val and Rico and Tommy’s fingerprints were on it, too, and none of them were fast enough when it came time to run. Mar hurries her footsteps, doing her best to outrun the ghosts, though she knows she’ll never be fast enough either.

At six and eight, Mar and Jamie are in the woods behind their house, running. Even this young, they understand their mother doesn’t care if or when they come home. They are hungry, not just because the groceries haven’t been bought for the week, and their mother forgot to leave money for a pizza before she went out. It’s a different kind of hunger, tied to the one in their bellies, but separate. They fill it with wild motion, the sleek burn of their muscles and the relentless pulse-beat of their footsteps in the dark.

In their future, Jamie will try cutting. Mar will be the one to find him, flimsy disposable razor in hand, blood plinking against the white curve of the sink. Later still, Mar will try starving, something she can control even though food is scarce. But with no one to see, and no one to care but each other, they will give up these things. They will revert to the knowledge they have now – that their hunger is deeper than skin or food, and they will learn different ways to cope.

But for now, at six and eight, they run. Tucked beneath the leaves and roots closest to the cul-de-sac where they live, there are rotting tires, broken bottles, worn-out porno magazines. Mar vaults over a fallen log, crossing a boundary where, if she looks back, she won’t be able to see the softly-glowing crescent of houses anymore.

Between one heartbeat and the next, the night shifts. The space between the trees thickens to blue-black, then the purple of a bruise. The trunks stretch taller, slender and silver smooth. Footsteps drum around her, a steady rain of shifting, fleet shadows.

Hooves and horns, wings and claws. Skin. Hybrid, impossible creatures. All running toward something Mar doesn’t understand, but wants so badly she can taste it, a salted sweetness on her tongue.

Then a flat crack, the sound of a branch breaking, draws her up short. Mar stumbles, knees barking leaf-rot and hands catching her fall. The shadows slipping past her fall to silence, leaving only the drum of her pulse in her ears. A shape moves ahead of her in the dark.

“Jamie?”

No answer. Light spills between tree trunks, outlining a tall, slender figure. Not Jamie. Not human? Mar doesn’t know how she knows this; the truth of it is simply down in her bones. A catch of breath and Mar realizes the figure is animal and human, bound in one flesh.

For a moment, her heart refuses to beat, and when it starts again, the tempo is strange. There are two hearts inside her skin, and for once, the hunger in her belly is still.

Mar stretches out a hand. Another crack, a bone-snapping sound of more branches breaking as Jamie blunders through the woods, calling her name.

“Mar?”

She can’t see her brother, only hear him wading through undergrowth, clumsy feet tangling in low branches, roots, and dead leaves. The impulse to shout go away rockets through her. The shadows seep back, retreating. She wants to beg them to stay, but Jamie is ruining everything. Her pulse rabbits, and a terrible thought strikes her. If Mar curls herself small, if she holds very still, Jamie won’t see her; she can stay and hide forever in this magical version of the woods that aren’t the woods she left behind.

“Mar?” Panic edges Jamie’s voice.

“I’m here.” Guilt twists and she jumps up, heart slamming back into its normal rhythm.

Jamie rushes toward her. The tall, thin figure is gone. All the shadows with their horns and hooves and feathers vanish. Cold seeps in around the edges of the night. Mar shivers, and Jamie throws an arm around her shoulders. He’s limping, and there’s a long gash on his shin.

“A branch. I tripped,” he says.

Mar lets him lean on her, despite being younger and shorter, taking his weight.

“Come on, let’s go home.”

She looks back one more time, but the light between the trees is only gray now; dishwater-dirty, touched orange by the city’s glow burning through pollution. Headlights sweep by beyond the trees, and the woods are finite again, bounded by the neighborhood on three sides. No mystical shadows pace them in the dark, no two-hearted creature waits for Mar to take its hand.

With her arm around Jamie’s waist, and the weight of his body against hers, they walk slowly home.

The line outside the club inches forward. Mar jams her hands into her armpits, trying not to shiver. The men around her – and it is mostly men – are under-dressed. They breathe steam in the cold night air. She imagines them stamping hooves. Bulls. Minotaurs. Ready to run.

skin2

She’s packing tonight, but the strut isn’t there. She keeps thinking of Jamie, lost and falling behind, his face washed out by the sun in the prison visitation room. She fingers the outline of her phone in her jacket pocket. There’s an unanswered message from her boss, trying to change Mar’s mind. Before she left work on Friday, he offered her a new position, a transfer, with a higher salary and relocation costs paid.

Mar turned it down, hunger gnawing in her belly as she did. A new city, a new life, but it would mean leaving Jamie behind. A half a dozen times tonight, she’s pulled out her phone to erase the message. A half dozen times she’s been poised to call her boss and turn in her resignation. She’s been sick, her mind running around it in circles. Tonight, she doesn’t want to think about anything at all.

A fug of cigarette smoke and pot hangs in the air. Light from the club’s neon sign tints the bodies around her cool blue. It highlights the bulk of shoulders, the line of jaws. Looking at them stamps an ache into Mar’s skin. At the same time, she can’t stop herself from scanning the crowd for someone she recognizes, but doesn’t know. Someone like her who isn’t just one thing, but everything. Someone who will understand.

Mar reaches the front of the line, fumbling bills into the bouncer’s hand with chilled fingers. Inside, lights strobe, shocking her blind. Then everything kicks loose all at once. Bodies pack tight, sweat-sheened and writhing. Heat pulses from Mar’s groin to her throat; the bass thumps inside her ribs, replacing her breath and heartbeat. She’s un-fleshed, her whole body a raw nerve, open to the night.

She doesn’t bother with a drink. She flings herself into the fray. It’s as good as running. The only important parts of her body are the muscle and sinew moving her limbs, her feet pounding hard against the floor. She doesn’t have to care about moving forward, or turning back, making a choice. There’s only here and now.

The bass-thump moves her blood to mirror her feet flying over the forest floor, over fallen logs, dodging roots, showing her teeth to the night. She’s not looking behind to see Jamie’s eyes, wide in the mirror, blood plinking against white porcelain. There’s no ink on his skin, and she doesn’t have to ask how he suddenly has extra cash to buy a car that isn’t a piece of shit, get her new clothes – tight layers, sports bras doubled up, one backward one forward, bandages, and finally the binder, anything to change the curve of her body. There’s only running, and if she’s fast enough, the gunshot sound will never come. She’ll outrun it this time. Outrun the stricken look in her brother’s eyes, wordlessly saying I need you, help me, please don’t leave me behind.

A hand touches Mar’s arm. She whirls, lips peeled back from feral teeth. The man flashes teeth in turn, mistaking her expression for a smile.

“Buy you a drink?”

She has to lip-read the words for the ear-shattering music. Mar crashes back into her own too-human skin, dizzy. The hand on her arm becomes a steadying one, holding her up.

“You look like you really need one.” He screams the words next to her ear.

Without waiting for her answer, the man guides her to the bar. Mar sips the blue-sugar sweetness pressed into her hand. It steadies her long enough to take in a square jaw, frosted hair, eyes that would still be blue even out from beneath the flashing lights.

Mar forces herself to smile. It’s only slightly quieter away from the dance floor. They shout an exchange of names. Chad – at least she can put a word to her regret, if it comes to that. A second drink, one she doesn’t remember asking for, and more, continually finding their way into her hand. Alcohol blurs the edges of the night; she forgets to be afraid.

The reassuring bulge between her legs makes her widen her stance, broaden and square her shoulders. In the flickering light, she can believe she is the wild, changeable thing she wants to be. Narrow hips, sharp cheekbones, a creature straddling two worlds. Chad’s hand strays to the small of her back. His lips find her ear.

“Wanna get out of here?” His breath raises hairs on the back of her neck.

The music steals her words, but she follows him, sweaty fingers tangled in his. They stumble into the alley behind the club. It’ll be okay, Mar promises herself, directing Chad’s hands carefully, her hips, her shoulders, her ass. Keeping him away from her shirt, the binder wrapped tight around her chest. Keeping him away from the front of her pants for any touch longer than the faintest, teasing brush of fingers against denim. Then she’s on her knees, his fingers in her hair as he groans, thrusting into her mouth. This is good, it’s safe, she can do this.

Then he says, “Wait.”

Mar’s stomach flips, sick with excitement. Chad’s eyes are liquid, unfocused. “I don’t want to come yet.”

The husk in his voice suggests otherwise, but with remarkable self-restraint, he pulls her up.

skin5“I want to feel you.”

His fingers go for her fly, surer than hers, despite the drink. Mar’s whole body is a string, taut. She almost lets him. Because, oh god, she fucking wants this. Just bodies. Contact. Flesh against flesh. Pleasure the only definition between them, and no need for Mar to be this or that, to choose.

Her mouth crushes his – the taste an echo of too-sweet drinks and the memory of ash from a cigarette hours old. Mar wants to melt into him as his hands slide lower on her body, but panic slams adrenaline through her brain. The bulge in her pants feels wrong, not because it isn’t her, but because it is still a solid choice. It defines her and pins her when she wants to be liquid, quicksilver, wild and strange.

“No.” She slaps Chad’s hands away, shoves him hard.

His eyes widen in confusion. Mar wraps her arms around her body, holding herself in. Her jaw clenches tight, tensed for a strike. Whatever he thought he would find when he unwrapped her, she won’t give him the chance. If the disappointment of not knowing is too much for him, maybe she can define herself by pain instead. Bruised flesh is still flesh. Bones cracked in rage are only bones. Everyone is red on the inside, no matter their shape otherwise.

Chad shakes his head in disbelief, stuffing himself back into his jeans.

“Fuck you, then.” He slams her with his shoulder as he moves back into the club, but nothing more.

Mar sags against the wall, letting the bricks take her weight. The trembling starts at her feet, making its way up her body until she’s clenching her teeth against the enormity of it. As much as she wills them not to, tears come, and she’s a mess of salt, wiping at her face.

It’s a moment before she registers the scent of cigarette smoke. Not soon enough to brace herself against the soft voice that comes in its wake.

“What if you could have everything you wanted?”

Mar jumps, scrubbing her eyes until black spots burst behind them. The owner of the cigarette melts out of the shadows – tall, sharp-featured, and with gold eyes that must be a trick of the light.

“What?”

“Everything you want.” Two slender fingers, holding the cigarette and trailing smoke, point at Mar’s chest.

Mar’s breath stalls. Even though the club’s blue neon still shines on them, the stranger’s hair is shockingly red.

The ghost that has been dogging her since leaving the prison crashes into her. Mar is back in the woods, looking through blue twilight at an impossible figure, tall and thin, a flickering creature refusing to hold its shape. She blinks, shaking her head. Too much alcohol.

“Where did you come from?” Mar looks around, pulse skittering; was she being watched the whole time she was on her knees, the whole time she cried?

“I smelled your tears.”

The stranger closes the distance so smoothly, Mar doesn’t have time to step back. A tongue sweeps over the wetness of her cheeks like a dog licking her pain away. But the hands framing Mar’s face and holding it still are human.

“Honey,” the stranger says. “Your tears taste like honey.”

Mar shakes her head again, huffs a sound that isn’t quite a word. A hollow ache presses against the back of her eyes.

skin3“I’m Fox.”

“Okay,” Mar says, voice squeezing up from the depths of her.

For the first time since she started wearing it, her binder crushes her. Or maybe it’s only her heart beating too hard in her chest, her lungs going haywire. It occurs to her, over the frantic drum of her body that she doesn’t know whether the stranger said ‘Fox’ or ‘a fox.’

“Okay,” she says again.

The drinks catch up with her and Mar turns away, dropping to her knees to be sick this time. A hand touches her back, comforting, or merely keeping her in place. After a moment, a napkin is offered. Mar wipes her face, cleans herself up as best she can, and climbs shakily to her feet.

“What do you want?” Mar asks.

“It’s what you want that’s the question. Do you know?”

She’s about the say she wants to be left alone. The words are like her boss’s, still saved on her phone. What do you want, Mar? You need to think about your future, and what’s best for you. The world won’t wait for forever. Don’t let opportunity pass you by. Before Mar can say anything, Fox steps close again.

Lips graze Mar’s jaw, sharp teeth behind them. Fox’s cigarette vanishes, leaving hands free to roam. Mar braces for the panic, but it doesn’t come this time. Fox’s touch is gentle, a question Mar’s flesh shivers to answer. There’s a scent like fallen leaves, like earth, tucked just under the cigarette smoke. Beneath her clothes, Mar’s skin pulls taut, her bones shifting, her body hollowing and swelling in accordance with each movement Fox makes.

Mar catches her breath, an audible sound. Fox draws back, amusement shining in gold eyes, a half-smile resting upon lips. The shivery buzz recedes in the absence of Fox’s touch. A cigarette flicks back into place between long fingers, conjured from thin air.

“Shall we find out?” Fox asks.

Mar doesn’t trust herself with words, not yet. Instead, she follows; Fox leads. The streets twist away, the city becoming unfamiliar. In Mar’s peripheral vision, houses and buildings stretch tall into the sky, thinning into smooth trunks with branches and leaves lost deep among the stars. She stumbles over a tangle of roots, or her own feet. Streetlights blur in the afterglow of rain, making everything shine.

Through a door, up stairs, and through another door into a messy, close space smelling faintly of animal musk and juniper berries. Mar allows Fox to lay her down on a bed, push her into a nest of covers. She’s dizzy, but in a pleasant, dream-like way – past sickness and back to buzzed. The edges of everything are rounded and vague. Safe.

She lets Fox undress her. Fox sets the prosthetic aside. At least Mar thinks so; a ghost weight lingers beneath her legs, stirring to heat and proximity. Fox leaves the binder in place – even when everything else is stripped away – with a preternatural understanding that it is essential to Mar. It was her first act of defiance against the shape she was born into, her last line of defense against the world. This simple act leaves Mar shaking with gratitude. Gratitude and desire. The shaking doesn’t stop as Fox’s hands trace over her again. Tremors wrack her body, tiny earthquakes smoothed or awoken by Fox’s hands.

The world blurs further; not just the edges, but reality itself loses cohesion. Mar’s skin and bones are liquid honey, made soft by Fox’s touch. Malleable. Her flesh changes, solid one moment, rising to Fox’s hand, hard flesh to be grasped; concave the next, so Fox’s fingers sink into her and Mar answers with a shuddering gasp.

The only thing Mar is certain of is that Fox’s eyes are indeed gold; it wasn’t a trick of the light. Then Mar surrenders, ceases thinking at all. Nothing matters but muscle and blood. Like dancing. Like running. Pure motion. She lets her body talk, scream, and arch into Fox’s touch.

When the shuddering is done, Fox reaches for a pack of cigarettes, showing shocks of red hair sprouting from beneath armpits. Gold eyes assess Mar; Mar gazes back, blinks. Fox’s chest is smooth, but swelling slightly where breasts might be. Or not. Fox’s nipples are small, hard, dark like winter berries. Mar cups a hand over one, then runs her palm downward. Her breath snags, thrilling to find a whole line of equally hard bumps beneath her touch. Fox pushes her away, not unkind, but business-like.

“Now,” Fox says, breathing a stream of smoke. “Do you know what you want?”

“I…”

She wants to melt under hands that touch her the way Fox does. Always. She wants to feel her bones stretched like taffy, her whole being infinitely malleable and capable of remaking itself from one moment to the next. She wants to flicker and run and never have to choose.

“The world doesn’t work that way. Not quite.” Fox places a finger against Mar’s forehead, between her eyes, smiles sly.

Mar squeezes her eyes closed, lashes rimmed with tears harder than the ones she shed before. These are like frost, unfalling.

“Not choosing is still a choice, but every body has to take a path, sooner or later. Every choice comes with a cost, but if you don’t step onto the path, you run the risk of being dragged along it.”

It sounds like a fairy tale, but Mar knows that isn’t what Fox means. In the woods, she chose; she turned toward the city and a wild, strange thing slipped away from her. Jamie chose to put ink on his skin, a gun in his hand. It’s not as simple as trading the name of a child for straw spun into gold.

Jamie sits behind her eyelids, small in his prison jumpsuit, shoulders curled inward and ink marking his skin – the image printed there like a bruise. It isn’t fair. Any choice she makes seems to leave Jamie behind. But if she doesn’t choose, if she stays here forever, then she’ll curl inward too. She will grow smaller and fainter every day until finally, she disappears.

“I don’t know.” Mar breathes out, opens her eyes.

Fox rolls slightly to face her, propped on one elbow.

“I could eat your heart.” The words are matter-of-fact. Mar stares as if the words will show in the curls of smoke circling Fox’s red, red hair, waiting for them to make sense.

“Think how much easier it would be to go through the world heartless.” Fingers trace the edges of Mar’s binder, but do nothing to pull it away.

Gold eyes watch Mar, unblinking. If any tears should taste like honey, they should be from those eyes, not Mar’s, but she can’t imagine Fox crying.

Is that what it means to be heartless? Never in danger of tears, but never in danger of love either? Mar studies Fox’s narrow face, the impossibly sharp cheekbones. A wild animal, a myth. Both. Neither.

The suddenness of Fox’s body over hers startles Mar. Fox’s teeth rest against the edge of her binder; gold eyes pin her in place.

“I could bite through,” Fox says, “and you wouldn’t feel a thing.”

“Before, or after?” Mar says.

She means the words as a joke, but they don’t sound like one.

A shadow flickers beneath the surface of Fox’s gaze. Hunger. Wanting. A space that can’t be filled devouring by hearts; an emptiness too big and complicated to name.

skin6“Yes,” Fox says.

Mar’s pulse trips, insistent at her wrists, between her legs, in her throat. Fear, real, sweeter than any she’s felt before.

Her body responds. Heartless. Yes, she wants this. But she needs time to think, and right now, with Fox’s lips grazing her belly, and moving lower still, she doesn’t want to think at all.

“You look happier than I’ve seen you in a long time,” Jamie says.

The hard plastic seat cups her uncomfortably. A hum of voices surrounds them, a susurrus of conversations half-held, everyone saying too little and too much in the short window of time they’re allowed. Her cheeks warm.

“You finally meet someone?” Jamie’s grin is sly.

But there’s an edge to it; the corner of his mouth quivers. Guilt needles her. She hasn’t made a choice, but sitting here feels like a lie, like she’s hiding something good and secret when Jamie has nothing at all. Jamie runs a hand over the stubble field of his scalp. One leg bounces, restless, under the table.

“Are you okay?” Mar leans forward.

“You know me, I’m always okay.” The lines of Jamie’s smile dig deeper, determined, like he’s got something to prove. The stretch of his skin shows his skull. Mar’s heart cracks, her binder too tight again.

She reaches across the table, catching Jamie’s fidgeting hands.

“Jamie…”

Her voice fails. She can’t look him in the eye, not just because she’s afraid he’ll see the shadow of her leaving, the possibility that she’ll choose something that will pull their worlds apart. She’s afraid she’ll see a shadow in his eyes, too. Doubt. Guilt. And some sick part of her wants to see it there. She wants to know he chose, that some action led him here and not random chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Would it make it easier if Jamie confessed? Could she walk away with a clean conscience? No. Jamie would still be written on her heart, her brother, no matter what he did or didn’t do. If she lets Fox devour her heart, what happens to Jamie?

“Don’t,” Jamie says before she can even try to go further. “One of us should be happy, Mar.”

At the pressure of his fingers on hers, Mar can’t breathe. She closes her eyes. They’re running together in the dark. The smell of churned-up leaves, the trees lengthening around her, the light bruising to a new color. His legs are longer than hers, but hers carry her ahead. A branch cracks under his weight; Mar’s heart cracks. Jamie trips, tangles, and Mar is alone. At six and eight, a shadow comes for her, and Mar turns away, back toward home. And now? Her heart cracks again, fracturing beneath the binder, drawing a line through Jamie’s name.

“Just keep running,” Jamie says. “And don’t look back.”

The fact that he knows her so well, can read her thoughts even as Mar hides her eyes makes it hurt all the worse. She forces herself to look at him, she owes him that much.

The smile sliding across his face is almost real this time, shadow-touched, sorrowing, like he understands. Jamie releases her hands, and it’s a moment before the world rights itself.

“Jamie.” Tears thicken the name in her throat. She doesn’t try to go further this time.

When the time is up, Mar hugs Jamie as hard as she can, feeling the bones move under his skin, letting the pressure of her touch say goodbye for her where the word itself refuses to form.

Mar doesn’t know where to find Fox, but she knows where to be in order for Fox to find her. The woods behind the house are a little more unkempt, the trees a little more ragged, a few more years of secrets and discarded things lodged among the roots. Empty bottles, cigarette packs, used condoms. The woods are where people come to test personalities, passions, and vices before they let the world see them.

“You’ve made a decision,” Fox says.

There’s no cigarette to herald the appearance this time. Fox is simply there in the space between two trunks, hands in the pocket of a long coat that nearly brushes the ground.

“What are you?” is what comes out of Mar’s mouth, a question instead of an answer.

“You already know.” Fox’s head tilts to one side.

Fox presses a hand against Mar’s chest. Mar’s pulse thumps beneath her binder and her skin. She imagines sharp teeth, biting through muscle, through bone. Fox promised she wouldn’t feel a thing.

“Are you ready?” Fox asks.

Mar nods. Fox takes her hand, leading her deeper, where the trees grow straighter, less ragged, where stranger secrets than sex and addiction are hidden between their roots and their leaves. There’s a hollow where the earth has been tamped down by the shape of a body curled nose to tail.

The sky is flat white above trees whose branches have been stripped for winter, but shadows still dapple Fox’s cheeks. Broken sunlight filters between the non-existent leaves and a wind warmer than the one Mar left behind stirs over them. The shadows in between the patches of light on Fox’s skin are the color of a bruise.

“Will you let me eat your heart?” Fox asks. “All your wanting, all your pain?”

Dark lashes lower over eyes the color of amber with insects trapped inside. Beneath those lowered lids, something shifts and flickers in the gold crescent of Fox’s eyes. Fragility, hope, love, fear. None of the words sit easy on Fox’s shoulders. They slide around, come back to Mar like a flutter in her belly. Not one thing, but all of them. Old and young, terrible and lovely. Human and not.

What would it mean to let Fox eat her heart? And what kind of creature would want such a thing? A dangerous one? Or simply a tired one, wanting to be hollow instead of full, soft instead of hard? Mar catches her breath. There’s another choice she can make, with a different cost attached to it.

She could eat Fox’s heart instead of offering up her own. It’s what she’s always wanted. Two hearts in one skin. Animal and human. Male and female. Both and neither. Melting and changing, swift and quicksilver and remaking herself at will.

But with the swiftness come the shadows. If she keeps running, she leaves Jamie behind. If he picks up the gun, there’s a flat crack, the world sundered and they can never go back again.

There is infinite patience in Fox’s honey-colored eyes. And impatience as well, jaws snapping at Mar’s heels.

Hunger. Wanting. Mar knows about hollow spaces that cutting and starving can’t fill. She knows that some desires go beyond skin.

She closes her eyes, breathes out. She conjures Jamie’s face, his voice calling to her through the dark of the forest, his eyes fixed on hers saying I didn’t do it, Mar. Lying curled small in the forest, wishing for the shadows to stay, it wasn’t only guilt that needled her to turn back home. It was love. Jamie is her brother, and he’s always known her. He will know her still, even in this skin. Her heart, beating strong and true beside a second heart, wild and strange. Together, they will be enough to fill her. She wants this. She is sure.

Mar opens her eyes.

She presses her lips against Fox’s mouth. She tastes salt and honey. Liquid gold, Fox’s heart melting on her tongue.

Far distant in the woods, there’s a flat sound – a gunshot, a branch breaking, Mar cracking wide. Breathless, she leans back, licking clean the last drops of salty sweetness with her tongue.

“Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”

end-of-story-nov

A.C. Wise
A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise’s short fiction can be found scattered around publications such as Uncanny, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2015, among other places. In addition to her fiction writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and contributes a regular Women to Read: Where to Start column to SF Signal. Her debut collection, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, was published by Lethe Press in 2015. Find her at www.acwise.net or on twitter as @ac_wise

 

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