by Joyce Zhang
Art by Caroline Wang
Issue: Metanoia (Winter 2017)
It is a sticky, orange-tinged heat that clings to me in my bed, hovering over glassy eyes and chapped lips. Gripping the damp sheets, I turn to the left and curl into a ball. Above, a clock hangs on the wall, engraved with little woodland creatures. Their fixed smiles droop, as if melting, when the hour approaches.
I can smell the faint lavender of the sheets. I had washed them two days ago, but the scent is still prominent, a dusty combination of sweetness and wistfulness. If I tilt my head a little towards the right, I can make out the stench of metal. My blood.
I pull away, sliding off the bed with my good leg—the one not covered in scars and bruises—reaching for the light switch. And maybe-maybe-maybe—
The floor remains shrouded in sharp shadows. They trace the edges of the balcony door, all squares and fixed lines sprinkled with the faint glimmer of the glass. When I step towards the door, an inky pool of night gathers at the base of my feet, fanning out to form a human silhouette. Reaching out my right hand, I grip the knob with my pale hand. The handle shakes and sputters, but remains stiff. I bite my lip. It wouldn’t open for me anyway.
The clock sings again, followed by a harsh crack outside. It repeats. Tick. Snap. Tock. Snap. My fingers shake, and I wrap them around my broken figure. On the floor, the shadow shifts into a crumpled, wingless shape.
There’s a rush of cool air that trickles from the cracks in the door. I hear a whistle, a hum, a growl, and then—
And then the door opens and he’s there and he smells of lavender, of blood, of the candles that had been in the room where we had danced and laughed and when—
Instinctively, I lift my chin up. He didn’t like it much when I didn’t. He leaves the door open, and my chest slowly rises and falls, taking in the evening air.
“Hello, love.” The words come out of tired lips. My teeth scrape my tongue as I speak, and my shoulders tense.
His mouth curves into a smile, his cheeks dimple, but his eyes remain the same—two orbs of murky green. “How are you, darling?” He rubs my arm, and I remember his touch from back then, warm caresses that melted the frostbitten trees and coated them with emerald-tipped buds. I love you, he had said, the words creamy and gentle under the darkening sky. Love-love-love-love—
He leans towards me, like he’s going to kiss me, but his mouth smells like rotting flesh and his nails are sharp and he’s digging into my skin, my cracked, porcelain skin.
“Dance with me,” he whispers, lips still curled in that mock imitation of a smile.
And I do, letting him pick me up with strong arms. He twirls me around the room, the half-moon shining above us. Swells of crickets chirp; in the distance, a violin starts to play, silver bow sliding lazily upon its strings. He twirls me with his tight, cold, tight hands, and we travel from one end of the room to the other. And in the end, as a proper custom, he dips me, my hair spilling like warm liquid, and bites my neck. My eyes flutter shut.
I love you, he said, once.
When he’s had his fill, he helps me up from the ground, wiping vermillion from his soft lips. “Thank you, darling. Will that be all for tonight?”
I nod. My neck frizzles, stuck in a state of numb. “W-will all be. Tonight,” I stutter out. The room pulses softly, and shadows clutter the edges of my vision.
“Good, good.” He pecks my stiff lips and straightens. His cloak sways in the breeze as he leaves, shutting the door behind him. I stare at the bed, at the clock. Tick—thump—tock.
A screaming bird pops out, and there’s only orange heat.