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Featured Story • March 2015

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Editor’s note: The following story comes with a content advisory.

 
 

Pureland

 

Livia Llewellyn

 
 

The Closed Unsink

Half an hour after Darin, Laith and Mal went downstairs for more beer, Exene knew something was wrong. It was a five minute walk to the nearest on-campus store—where the hell were they? Exene stumbled to her feet and wandered the gloomy halls of the unfamiliar dorm, her drunken fuzz disappearing as the silence grew. The air smelled of cigarettes and paint molding off damp walls, but that wasn’t anything new. Still, something had happened, intuition told her. Traces of a cut-off sound lingered in the air, the kind of silence following thunderstorms, when the alien city lay shocked into submissive, uneasy peace. Something had happened.

She found them in the basement laundry room, standing over the body of the girl. Except, it wasn’t a girl, Darin insisted. “That’s not Kylie. It’s just her shell.”

Exene stared at the girl. She was a sophomore, from one of the floors in her own cinderblock dorm, far across campus. Just another offworlder like Exene, a girl who liked to drink and fuck. Tonight she was a girl with a slightly deflated body. Rivers of flat beer and broken glass lay around her, an emerald and amber cape. Her skirt had been flung up, revealing smooth skin, sticky-wet. Exene stepped back, her nails biting into her fists.

“You raped her?”

“No!” Laith’s voice cracked. “I swear, we didn’t do anything—”

“She came onto us,” Darin said. “She wanted us to buy her booze, in exchange for blow jobs. She suggested down here—”

“—so no one would see,” finished Mal. “We didn’t force her to do anything. She totally wanted it.”

Exene stared at the body, then looked up at the boys. Laith’s jeans were unzipped, and his belt buckle clinked against the metal teeth.

“She was going to blow all of you? Just for booze?”

“I swear, we didn’t hurt her—not at first, not until—”

“She doesn’t believe us,” Mal said, silencing Laith. The boys looked at each other. “Show her.”

No one moved.

“Show me.”

Darin reached down with a shaking hand, and pulled Kylie’s left foot out of her shoe. The leg flattened like rubber, long and smooth. Exene’s mouth opened, but only a low moan escaped. Darin curled the toes, followed by the foot itself all the way to the heel, then started on the calf, pressing the air up through the rubbery body as he rolled her leg like a carpet. The air escaped Kylie’s mouth in a low sigh, as if tired of the demonstration.

“She’s a fruit roll-up.” The words tumbled out of Darin’s mouth. Mal giggled, a high-pitched sound that died against the concrete walls.

“No bones. No anything inside.” Darin stopped at her knee, then let go and stood up. The flesh held in a soft spiral for several seconds, then unfurled in a languid wave. “See?”

“Yeah. I get it now.” Exene turned away to one of the large metal sinks, and threw up. It didn’t help. Her vomit only reminded her of the mess behind her—specks of flesh spattered across white washers, droplets of blood shining on the boy’s faces and clothes. The air smelled like rancid fat and dryer sheets. Exene gagged, but clamped her lips tight. She had to keep it together, even though she was freaking out, and didn’t really get any of this at all.

“You study dead people, right? This is right up your alley, you can help us. Are you gonna help us?”

Exene turned the faucet on and cupped her hands, first washing out her mouth, then cleaning the sink with splashes of iron-flecked water. Dark chunks swirled around and down, disappearing into the wide holes of the drain. Some of them caught, and Exene used her fingers to push the soft sick through. It didn’t bother her. It was just from her body, after all, and she was used to cleaning up messes like that. That’s what you did when you were human. You got used to it. It’s what you were.

She knew what she had to do.

“I need a plastic bag, something small that we can roll her up into, and duct tape. Also, lots of rags and cleaner. Bleach, if you have it. Geez, you guys made such a mess. Couldn’t you have just shot her?” It was a disgusting joke, but Exene let herself pass from horror into delirium. It was the only way she could cope.

Mal shrugged. “We were drunk.”

“That’s no excuse. When aren’t you drunk?”

“She wouldn’t stop moving.” Laith gulped back a sob. He looked like he was going to pass out. “Her arms kept growing and growing, she was all over me. I couldn’t unwrap her—” His hands scraped up and down his arms, as if trying to exorcise some invisible trace of the girl still clinging to his skin. “It was like getting caught in seaweed. She wouldn’t let go. Her mouth kept opening wider, and she just wouldn’t let go—”

“Besides, we didn’t have a gun,” Darin chimed in. He was the cutest of the three, but only by a margin. Exene had a hard time telling them apart, even though she spent almost every day in the library with them. She knew she’d wanted to fuck one of them tonight, which was why she’d agreed to come over and have a few beers. But wait—wasn’t it Laith she’d wanted to screw? It didn’t matter now. She never wanted to see them again.

“We don’t have all night. Get the stuff. Laith, stay outside the door. Don’t let anyone else in.”

The boys filed out in silence, only Laith looking back with horror as he closed the door. Exene sat on one of the dryers and stared at the mess below her feet. All her fear had fled with the last of her puke, and now curiosity burned through her, bright and clean. Kylie lay on the floor like an abandoned pupa, an unfinished sentence. Somewhere in the boy’s wet mouths, in the warren of unlit rooms, an unspoken ending lay hidden. Under the harsh florescent lights, Exene stared at the paper-thin girl cloaked in the amber-emerald cape, willing her to somehow rise up and whisper the answer, the end to the sentence. But there was nothing left of her, at least not enough to speak. Only folded skin, shadows and creases—directions of a sort, if you knew how to read them, if you could unfold or fold them the right way.

“You’re the answer,” Exene whispered. “I just have to learn how to read you.”

Ten minutes later, the door handle clicked, and the boys crept in one by one. Darin clutched a waterproof sleeping bag cover in one hand.

“It’s small, but if we roll her up—” he said.

“Give it to me. I’ll do it.” Darin and Mal didn’t argue as Exene slid off the dryer and grabbed the bag from his hand, then kneeled onto the floor.

“She’s really dead, isn’t she?” Laith asked.

“Yeah.” Hesitant, her hands hovered over the flesh. What would it feel like?

“We can help,” Mal began, but Exene knew he was lying.

“It’s ok,” she said as she began to caress the skin into a soft coil. “I’ll get rid of her body. You do the rest.” The boys sighed in relief as they backed away, already ignoring her, already joking, laughing. Beneath Exene’s moving hands, Kylie sighed once more. Boys are all the same, she seemed to say.

The Twist Fold

Exene didn’t get rid of the girl. She took Kylie back to her dorm, tucked neatly in her backpack next to the last six-pack of beer, weeping condensation from the warmth. The boys would never need to know.

The Open Double Sink

“I heard she dropped out of school.”

The toothbrush in Exene’s mouth slowed as she picked up snatches of conversation on the other side of the bank of sinks. Green foam bubbled at her lips, threatening to spill onto her chin, but she ignored it.

“That wouldn’t surprise me. It’s not like she ever went to classes. I don’t know why she even bothered to be here.”

“She likes college cock.”

“Don’t we all.”

Witchy laughter bounced off the chipped tiled walls. Exene leaned over the sink and spat.

“Has anyone been in her room? She has, like, five of my shirts.”

“Just wait another week. Her parents pay for everything, she’ll show up when she runs out of money and has to beg for more. There’s nowhere else for her to go.”

Exene turned the water on and bent over the sink. Out of the corner of her eye she watched two girls round the bank, pausing to stare at her before they disappeared into the hall. “Prairie whore,” one whispered, the words lingering like steam.

Ignoring them, Exene tapped her brush and turned off the water, grabbed her tube of paste, and pushed open the door. It was well after midnight, and the labyrinthine hallway lay empty, filled only with faint echoes of the girls’ voices. She hurried back to her room, barely opening it enough to squeeze in before locking it tight behind her. Better safe than sorry.

In the dark, Exene felt her way over to the window, raised the blinds, and cracked open a grimy pane. Beyond the feral borders of the wooded campus, an ocean-bound megalopolis spread out in all directions to a dun horizon spiked by neon-tipped steel. Slow-moving lights streamed in lines of red and gold, like wires being pulled from a carpet of deep grey. Constant murmuring of machinery and engines, sirens and horns—Exene pressed her cheek against the cold glass, comforted by the sounds. When she’d entered the floating city six years ago, after spending two centuries cocooned in a decrepit SLT cruiser, she thought she’d be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place, the never-ending panoply. Sometimes, when she ventured away from the urban oasis of the campus, she still was. But in these quiet moments in the middle of the night, it soothed her, like the distant rainstorms of her quiet, empty homeworld. Those girls were right: at her core, she was still prairie.

A bitter-cold gust pushed past her, and papery whispers rose from the corner of the room. Exene closed her eyes. She knew what that sound was from. Behind her, Kylie swayed. Exene had clipped the body to a skirt hanger, and every evening for a month, she’d taken her from a garment bag in her closet and hung her on the hook behind the door, letting the flesh dry in the winter air. Kylie’s skin had cured to thick paper, dry but flexible, creamy and dappled like an elegant invitation. Exene turned, stared at the O’s of Kylie’s eyes, the gaping lip-lined mouth. Every night at this time, with the wind blowing through the room, Exene fearfully hoped Kylie would break her silence, tell her what happened. Not tonight, it seemed.

Exene drew the blinds, then turned on the lamp as she settled down before her homework. Two sagging shelves of textbooks cast shadows onto a desktop cluttered with papers and journals, essay exams marked heavily in red ink, notes from classes and symposiums. She needed to study, had to study, her student loans depended on it. The people and planet she left behind depended on it. Kylie’s hollow stare pressed hard against Exene’s neck, sliding beneath her flesh down to the bone. Exene shivered, eased a fat anatomy book from the shelf, and flipped through it. This was homework, of a sorts.

Ink outlines of bones and muscles, detailed and delicate, flowed past her fingers as she turned each page. Eldritch, human and xeno anatomies, as open as lovers, displayed veins and vessels and mounds of organs with dispassionate, painless precision. What kind of clues she sought in those cartographies of flesh, she couldn’t say. The drawings were complex, ornate, weighty. Exene rubbed her stomach, aware of coiled masses and sticky fluids bound beneath the thin layer of skin. What had happened to Kylie was the exact opposite. She’d opened up, and everything flew away, leaving her purged, uncomplicated, pure.

The black phone on her bedstand shuddered out a death rattle ring. Exene grimaced, but she knew it wouldn’t stop until she answered. She reached behind her and scooped the heavy receiver off the stand. “What.”

“We need to talk.”

One of the boys, she didn’t know which one. They’d all sounded the same. After they helped her clean up the laundry room, they’d seemed anxious to never speak about it again. She should have known better. They must have followed her home that night. Something bad was going to come of this—she felt it deep in the thumping muscle that supposedly housed her soul. That’s why she gave them the same answer every night he called.

“I told you a thousand times, I didn’t tell any one, so fuck off. It’s over, leave me alone.”

…leave me alone.

“But you already lied about getting rid of her. What else did you lie about? We can’t trust you. Give her back.”

“I don’t have time for this shit.”

…time for this shit.

The bad connection echoed her words in static whispers, as if acting out the conversation for unseen listeners hovering on the lines.

“We’re going to get her, whether you like it or not. Stupid bitch.” In the background, boozy laughter. “Cunt.”

Exene rolled her eyes and hung up. Once they started with the profanities, the conversation, such as it was, always devolved. Still, she had to smile. He’d said the word as if he’d just discovered it, with all the fresh acidic joy of a child popping a stick into the eyes of an animal carcass. She turned back to her books, but the mood was broken. After a few minutes, she closed the onionskin pages. Up on the shelf, in front of two hard-won undergrad diplomas, a framed photo of her parents stared down at their only daughter, their weathered faces as hard as the land behind them—Exene was never unaware of their presence, blessing and cursing her. It had been her dream to be a doctor, someone who could save her people from the alien rot that nibbled at their bones. Except, there were no universities on their planet, only continents of grasses and grains, and the vast machines that harvested them. So her parents traded a round-trip ticket and two decades of schooling for her solemn promise to return and help solve the medical mysteries of a desolate farming planet becoming more casket than breadbasket. They were long dead now, transmuted by alien cancers into the very land they’d tilled, fertilizer for mimetic weeds and carnelian-colored corn.

They’d changed, just like Kylie. And Exene was changing too. The solid sleep of space had arrested her life—but only momentarily, and this wild new world and sprawling city were reforging her. The promise she made centuries ago was working itself from under her skin, just like Kylie’s bones. A single thought, once a droplet in an ocean of expectations, had become a constant trickle in the back of her mind. Exene turned off the light and opened the blinds again. Soon the trickle would look like the city’s horizon—wide and rushing, uncontainable. Beauty and blight inerasable, changing the landscape of her life forever.

“It’s been too long,” Exene said to her glass reflection. “I don’t think I can keep my promise.”

…keep my promise.

Exene turned, ice-water slow. Kylie glowed, her hollow skin holding the city light like a waxy candle shell. Exene walked over, rose on her toes and whispered into the pale mouth.

“Forgive me. I’m changing.”

Kylie rustled, catching the sounds and playing them back like dune grass mimicking the kiss of the wind.

…i’m changing.

The Water Bomb Base

Cross-legged, Exene sat on the remains of a rusted bench at a desolate, undeveloped edge of the waterfront of Serpentine Bay, one of seventeen long and curving bays that gave the city its starfish shape. Below the legs of the bench, the ground sloped away and disappeared under a massive jumble of weather-worn stone blocks, ancient and eons-old ruins of the city’s original buildings and foundations, carved by a long-extinct race. At this bleak stretch of the waterfront, it was rumored that if the waves drew back far enough, you could make out the face of a colossal statue, wave-smooth and hollow-eyed. Whether the face was human or something else, no one had ever said.

Boo, her boyfriend of last summer—her ex now—perched on the bench’s edge beside her, smoothing his herringbone wool skirt over cabled leggings. She handed him half her sandwich, and they ate in silence while looking across the bay, at a skyline glistening under light afternoon rains. They’d met last summer, bumping into each other during a hot night of searching for parties on the nearly empty campus, and had been inseparable until fall semester—even now, he was still her closest friend, the only person she could confide in. The fact that they broke up the day after Boo revealed he was transitioning to female was merely a coincidence. Studying was her life, Exene told him, she had no time for anything else. Boo didn’t believe her. To be fair, she never fully believed herself.

“So,” Exene said, as she brushed the crumbs off her jeans. “What do you think?”

“About what?” Boo’s voice hadn’t changed, still crisp and dusky. They used to sneak up to the rooftops, stare out at the wooded campus surrounded by the bright sparks of the city, watching giant aero-cnidarians, air-born jelly fish, drift in glowing strands overhead. Far underneath the floating creatures, they drank and dreamed and made love, adding their own noises to the ocean of night.

“Very funny,” Exene sighed. Across the edge of the distant shore, a series of flashing red lights slid, like rubies running down the neck of a corpse. Police cars, perhaps escorting some mysterious dignitary to or from the spaceport. “She’s a fruit roll-up. And she whispers. All the time now—bird calls, the ends of sentences. She’s a wind chime with playback.”

Boo stared at her, his brow furrowed. “Maybe you should sew bells on her and hang her in your window.”

“Fuck you, Boo, this is serious. If anyone hears her, or finds her—” Exene shivered and pulled her scarf tighter around her neck. “I’m so screwed. I should have burned it. But the body is—I couldn’t get rid of it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not normal.”

“Not normal.” Boo smiled. His lips were the same rich shade of red as the winking lights on the shore. “And that made you think of me.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Well.” Boo inspected the weave of his skirt. “I wouldn’t know about fair, now, would I?”

Exene didn’t take the bait. “I know this sounds insane, but I think she’s still alive. I just don’t know how she could be. I have no way to prove it.”

“I thought this was your thing. Death and transmutation and the mysteries of the flesh?”

“Please. I’m not a doctor, I’m barely in pre-med. I am so in over my head.”

“Sneak it into a lab, leave it there. Let some professor with a hard-on for paper dolls find it.”

“Don’t be gross. I don’t want her cut up or experimented on. That’s just cruel.”

“As opposed to leaving her hanging in a garment bag all day long, and a bathrobe hook all night?”

“If they find the body, they’ll hand it over to campus police.”

“People go missing all the time, accidentally and on purpose. Especially on campus. No one cares.”

From underneath the continual hum of traffic and machines, a sonorous gong sounded, followed by another that echoed over the bay. Exene stood up and walked to the edge of the ruins, letting waves splash at her boots as she watched.

“An ocean cult,” Boo said, fumbling in his backpack. “Shit, I don’t have my camera.”

At the far left curve of waterfront, the front end of a flotilla of junks and boats appeared. Several of the junks were trailing balloons—wind-filled figures of round and puffy sea creatures that rose in the air like mini-dirigibles. One boat sailed a balloon man, a cream-colored stick figure whose fabric body undulated and shimmied as if dancing across the buildings lining the shore. Around them, air jellies hovered like gossamer flowers, unaware they were courting versions of themselves that could never love them in return.

The gong sang out again, and Exene heard the far-off cry of human voices, chanting to their unseen water god as they steered their way to the open ocean, never to return.

“We should get back,” Exene said. “It’ll be sunset soon. This place gets creepy after dark.”

“You loved it here during the summer.”

“Everything’s easy to love in the summer. It’s winter now.”

Boo laughed, and shook his head. Exene’s cheeks burned. “You’re a real piece of work, Exene,” he said, as he threw his sandwich crust onto the rocks for the waiting gulls. “I don’t hear from you for six whole months; and then this. No apology, no ‘how are you doing—or stupid me, I thought for a split second you might have— No, it’s just blah blah, me me me, my problems. Except, it’s my problem now, because I know you have the body of a dead girl stashed in your dorm room.” He stood up, the wind ruffling his black curls. “Thanks, Exene. Because, you know, I just didn’t have enough to worry about. Hey, at least now I know how I really have to change if I want to hold your interest.”

“I’m sorry I wasted your time. I won’t bother you again.” Exene grabbed her bag and started back through the rubble and overgrown weeds to the road.

“Don’t you want to know if my penis is gone yet?”

“It’s none of my business!” she shouted back.

“No? You sucked it enough times to make it your business!”

Exene reached the edges of the cracked stone road, and began walking at a brisk pace, eager to reach the subway station before the light faded. She heard Boo catch up to her, his footfalls keeping time with hers as he trailed behind. Out on the water, the cult’s flotilla disappeared into the wide curve of the bay, and the steady beat of the gongs fading into the city’s perpetual ambient thrum. Exene shivered and tugged at her scarf again, little protection against the saltwater winds. She should have worn a heavier coat; she’d forgotten how much colder it was along the shore.

“Here.” Boo stepped up beside her, his large eyes catching a spark of the remaining light. They stopped, and he pushed her hair back, slipping his fur ear muffs over her head.

“Thanks.” Exene reached up to adjust them, and he grabbed her wrists. Slowly, gently, he moved her right hand down to below his waist, placing it firmly against his crotch. Exene felt her cheeks prickle in embarrassment, but she didn’t pull her hand away. His body felt smooth beneath her palm.

“You’re looking for me in the wrong place,” Boo said. He placed her left hand on his chest, in the hollow between two small, new breasts. “I know nothing stays the same. But inside, there’s something that does. You fell in love with what I am inside. That hasn’t changed. Do you understand?”

Exene kept her hand on his heart, and moved her other up to his face. His skin was soft, like liquid glass. “You know I do. But, the way we look, how we grow and change and decay—that also makes us who we are. And it makes the people around us change, whether we want it to or not. I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Boo’s voice caught on the words. Exene reached up to brush a stray tear from his face, and a movement beyond his shoulders caught her eyes.

“Boo, look.”

From across the bay, barely skirting the white-capped waters, the large balloon man floated toward them, broken free of the flotilla. Behind him, a translucent air jelly jetted, its fragile body expanding and contracting as it rode the wake of its intended mate. As the silk cords hit the stony shoreline, the balloon shot up again, buoyed by a sudden gust, and the jelly soared in unison. Exene watched the figures move inland, over warehouses and factories, her smile fading as they grew smaller. Small as humans. Translucent as human skin.

“Some things never change,” Boo said.

“Everything changes,” said Exene. “And yet, everything stays the same.”

The Simple Crimp Fold

Exene woke up with a start.

Laith.

She slid out of bed and tiptoed to her desk. In the moonlight, Kylie looked on in black-eyed curiosity, her mouth a portal of questions. Exene slid the campus phone book from out of a stack of papers, and flipped through the pages, her finger sliding down the names until she found him.

“What time is it—what’s going on?” Boo, from the bed. She’d brought him back to her room to look at Kylie, and he’d ended up staying the night. Exene had been reluctant, but they fell asleep only spooning, and nothing more. It had been lovely. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed talking to him, how well she still fit in the embrace of his arms. In her arms, she corrected herself. In hers.

“Sorry,” Exene whispered. She dialed the number on the rotary, and waited.

“Yeah?” A sleepy male voice answered.

“It’s Exene.”

Silence. Then: “Oh.”

“What did you mean when you said, ‘I tried to unwrap her’?”

More silence.

“Did you know what was happening to her?”

“No, I—” His receiver fell, and Exene heard fumbling. He was crying, she realized with a start. Boo moved beside her, and they sat on the bed together, heads pressed close to the phone.

I couldn’t unwrap her. You knew,” Exene said. “She wasn’t attacking you, you were trying to help her. How did you know?”

“I’m sorry about the calls,” Laith said. “But I didn’t know what to do, and you wouldn’t give her back—it’s never happened like that before.”

“What’s never happened?”

“They walked in on us, Mal and Darin, I had to tell them something, and make them lie—they thought they were protecting me. But you have to understand—I didn’t kill her, because—”

“—she’s not dead.”

Laith fell silent. Exene’s heart twisted in her chest.

“You said this happened before. Are you like her? Is this going to happen to you, too?”

Barely-whispered: “Yeah. Maybe. Like I said, it’s never happened like that before.”

“This happened to other students?”

“Haven’t you seen it yet?” His voice sounded so small in her night-filled room. “It’s happening to all of us. You, too.”

Silence filled up the lines.

Exene felt her mouth go dry. She could barely move her tongue. “Are you human?”

“Are you?”

“What does that mean?”

Exene held her breath as Laith spoke, his crackly voice sounding centuries away. “People say they adapt, but we have no idea what the word means—it’s not anything we do. We’re a part of this world, this ocean, and everything in it. Can’t you feel it?”

Exene pressed at the pain in her chest. She thought of the great machines plowing up the mysterious skin of her homeworld, of settlers wasting away into rotting vegetable husks, black flesh scattering into the pink skies like seeds. Like carnelian colored corn. That would have been her someday, if she’d stayed. But she’s here. What would happen if she removed her fingers from the hollow between her breasts? Would her cnidarian heart break free, and float away?

“We’re being terraformed,” Exene said.

From the door, Kylie swayed in the heat of the clanking radiator, a phosphorescent glow traveling through her gossamer skin.

“You haven’t hurt her, have you?” asked Laith.

“No, of course not. Why didn’t you say something that night? I would have given her to you, you know, if I’d known.”

Laith blew his nose. “I don’t know. I was scared. And drunk, and I couldn’t get away from Mal and Darin. I didn’t know how to act around all of you. Everything’s still so new. You have to understand, I don’t know what happens next—I don’t know what to do.”

Boo whispered into Exene’s ear, he’s just a kid.

“Laith, I know it’s the middle of the night, but why don’t you come on over? I think I know how to help you and Kylie both.” Do you mind, she mouthed to Boo, who nodded no as she slipped from the bed. “Yeah, I’ll give you directions. Yeah, get a paper and pen.”

Boo opened a window pane, and night air bled through the warm room, scented with the salt and metallic tang of city and sea. She turned back and grabbed her clothes from the floor—Exene watched as Boo looked up, pupils black and wide. Sparks of green floated through them, phosphorescent dots that flared like fireflies.

“You were born on this planet, weren’t you?” Exene said.

Boo only stared down, an enigmatic smile at her lips.

…weren’t you.

“When you said you were transitioning, I thought, I just assumed you meant surgery, but you meant—”

Boo shrugged. “I just changed. I just—became myself, finally.”

…myself, finally.

The Valley Fold

Exene wrote a letter to her homeworld, gave it a single fold, then let it float into the O of her trash can, leaving the silver courier packet empty on the desk. No one there remembered her, anymore. She took the photo of her parents and pressed it to the window, so they could see what she saw, see the living city spread out across the ocean’s curve like a galaxy of starfish sailing through the night, and forgive her. It wasn’t just the best she could do. It was the best she could do.

The Mountain Fold

Morning dawned clear and dry, with pale blue sky overhead, and a spring foehn wind that set trees rattling down to their roots and flower petals flying—she’d been right. What a difference two months made. Yet in two months more, the summer heat would blast all this frail beauty away. Nothing stayed the same here very long. Exene dressed warm, and packed her bag carefully. She glanced at the back of the door before opening it, ran her hands over the clamps of the hanger. It swayed at her touch, clacking against the wood. The sound just wasn’t the same.

Boo waited in the downstairs lobby, her hand clasped tight in Laith’s grasp. Exene had seen the signs, weeks ago. She was glad for their newly-found happiness, although slivers of regret still pricked at her heart. In silence they filed through a maze of burnt orange furniture and lounging students, and out the glass doors into the quiet campus, and then past thick stone gates into the chaos of the day. Boo consulted the subway map, and they made their way through thick traffic and crowds to the nearest stop, descending underground and onto the 14 line. “It’ll take at least three hours to get there, maybe more with all the stops,” Boo had warned, but Exene had been insistent, and Laith agreed.

After ninety minutes, the train switched from underground to elevated: Exene pressed her face against the scratched glass panes, Kylie heavy against her back. She’d never been this far inside the city—it was inland, far past the industrial sections and suburban sprawl. It was country. Low buildings and wide spaces instead of the claustrophobic crush of skyscrapers, with fields and wood-ringed clearings. There were real houses here, real roads, and endless sky—this floating, feral city was a continent, she realized, its vastness a place she could free herself in, not be trapped by. Something in her heart broke free, and soared. It was as if she were going home, all the centuries scrubbing themselves away.

Another hour of travel took them to a series of foothills, craggy mounds dotted with jagged pylons and gnarled trees. They walked from the empty station on a gravel and dirt road that wound its way up through pitted wrought-iron gates, and into a cemetery that covered an entire hill—one of the oldest in the city, long abandoned. “Up there,” Exene pointed, as the winds whipped her hair into a frenzied dance. They made their way over paths and lawns choked with weeds, until they reached the apex. Exene slipped the bag from her back, and handed it to Boo, who held it out to Laith, as she turned in a circle.

From all points below, the city stretched out and away, so far that its tips were lost in mist and haze. Dirigibles and copters caught the light as they flew back and forth around the slivers of glass and steel—it all seemed so calm from here, so manageable. Exene held up her fingers, pinching them to pretend she held each building in her grasp. The wind up here was only itself, carrying no scent of ocean or manmade sound.

“Exene.”

She lowered her hands and turned to watch Laith unfurl Kylie from the bag. Exene had rolled her up again last night, this time handling the fragile skin with all the gentle respect due a metamorphosing being. Boo and Laith held Kylie’s body still, as Exene threaded a silk cord around her waist, careful to knot the end just so.

“You’re sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Yep,” Exene said to Boo. “I used to do this all the time back home, all the kids did. I haven’t forgotten.”

They waited. Below, the city glinted in the sun. The wind gusted, a long hard wave that knocked the leaves in roaring pinwheels from the trees; and Exene began to run, the end of the cord wrapped tight around her fist. And when she shouted now, Boo and Laith let go. Exene looked back as she ran, watching the silk cord rise, watching Kylie rise. The girl caught the air, her papery skin inflating, plumping out. Laith and Boo caught up to her, watching as Exene guided Kylie through the currents, sending her higher and higher into the skies.

“I hope that’s me someday,” Laith said. “I hope she’s not lonely till then. What if she gets lost, or leaves?”

Kylie looked down at them from below—for the first time in months, her toothless mouth was closed, but her lips seemed to be remembering what it was to smile. Exene returned the smile as she watched Kylie’s limbs move with and against the currents. Testing the waves, so to speak, before she took off on her own.

“I’m sure you’ll find her again, wherever she goes.”

“I just don’t want to be alone. I mean, I don’t want to be the only one. You know?”

Exene glanced at Boo.

“No one does,” she said.

Above them, spring wind rushed through Kylie’s openings, playing the hollowed flesh like a flute as it gushed from her mouth. She sang—high, pure notes that floated through the air like a nightingale’s call. Exene felt Boo’s hand steal into hers, her fingers warm and strong.

“Do you think they’ll ever be a time when we understand each other?” Laith asked. “When all of us truly belong?”

“Does it matter?” Exene replied. She gave the cord two quick tugs, and it spun down to the ground in silky spirals. Kylie floated away, singing as she soared.

 
 

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Livia Llewellyn-1Livia Llewellyn is a writer of dark fantasy, horror and erotica. Her fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Subterranean, Nightmare Magazine, and Postscripts, and her short story collection Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. You can find her online at liviallewellyn.com.

 

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