by Joyce Zhang
Art by Christine Cheng
Issue: Serein (Summer 2016)
The invitation’s all white and clean when I slide it out, the smell of flowers—mostly roses, I suppose—wafting at the surface. I scratch my nose.
Tonight. 10—? Upstairs at—
Droplets rim the edges of my eyes, and I set the letter back down on the table, wiping my stinging sight. I pick it up again, crisp paper softening under my touch.
—bring food! The rest is smeared, but it doesn’t matter anyway. The message was from yesterday, probably. Tucking it back into its envelope, I dump it next to an advertisement about a furniture store going out of business and an old magazine that I had forgotten to read.
Dinner is cold, and I drift off soon after.
It’s loud, echoing through my room. As I force my eyelids to lift up, it starts again. Tap, tap, tap!
My head hurts. Sliding out of the bed, I turn the corner, reaching for the light switch.
Tap, tap, tap! This time, it is followed by a series of short scratches. Rubbing my forehead, I narrow my eyes.
“Coming!” A giggle sounds, only to be muffled by the wooden door.
She’s all sparkles and light when I first see her, drenched in the hallway’s amber glow. A pair of pointy ears decorates her disheveled, copper hair, and when she grins, her teeth glint silver. She titters again.
I reckon that it wouldn’t be so polite as to shut the door and lift the safety latch, so I try for confused. “Do I know you?”
Her green eyes turn up at the corners. “’um to the party!” she slurs.
She grabs me, her nails—sharp ones at that—digging into the soft curve of my forearm. I wince, and open my mouth.
“Should be ‘ere.” She points to a wall.
I wiggle my arm, but her grip is surprisingly strong. “Look, maybe you have the wrong person?” I pull again.
She bites her lip, and looks up at the ceiling for a moment. It’s an awkward fifteen seconds before she decides.
“Nah,” she manages to wobble out, and tugs me out the door. I barely have time to slam it before she’s stomping through the hall, the ground vibrating under her heels.
We turn a corner, where she stops suddenly. I try again. No luck, and my arm remains locked under her hold.
“Ah!” She breaks into a charge, dragging me up a series of stairs. Rounding the corner, she pauses at an ivory-painted door.
“’s ‘ere.” She smiles, taffy-pink coating her cheeks.
“’ease let me,” I scour the humid air for my breath, “go.”
Of course, she doesn’t. Huffing, I watch as she flicks out a finger, tapping this door—one, two, three. Two scratches and a moment of silence follow it.
Then it starts. A trumpet squeals. A shout, and then a cheer flitter through the thin walls. Panicked squeaks. A forewarning hiss.
The door creaks open.
“’inally,” the girl mutters, and we step in.
Pinpricks of needles shoot up my arm as she releases me. The door clicks shut behind us, but I don’t notice that. Shaking my arm, I look up.
There are eyes—some curved in amusement, others shot wide open in shock—that peer at us, at me. Ears of various sizes litter the heads of people dressed in suits, covered in papery masks, or ensnared in collars and chains. Someone coughs. I flinch at the heady silence plastering the room.
“What a cute bunny!” someone shouts, and the room buzzes. A person wearing eagle wings picks up a violin. Glasses clink, and voices begin flooding the area.
“Kitty, where did you find that?” A girl wearing a brown coat and bear ears approaches us.
Kitty blinks. “Who?”
“The bunny, silly!”
Someone grabs me, tugs me backwards. Large hands stroke my head, and they slip something on.
I lift my arm up, cupping the tip of my long ears. They’re a little rough under my touch and my real ear itches a little.
“Aw! It’s so cute!” The bear girl chortles.
“Is that the new one?” Another one—a wolf—approaches.
“’bout time. Was getting dry here,” an otter adds. I scrunch my nose.
Figures start crowding around Kitty, and I turn away, surveying the rest of the room.
A pair of fish twins play in the makeshift pool nearby, splashing water on a flamingo child, who begins to cry. A tawny-haired mouse scuttles across the room, eyes darting every now and then to the large clock hanging above the bathroom door. A crocodile opens his mouth, yawning. I sit down on the floor.
I look to the left. A turtle glares at me.
“Why did you follow her?”
My nose twitches, and I shrug. “Didn’t have much of a choice. Besides, it’s just for a few hours anyways.”
He snorts. “Yeah, right.”
I furrow my eyebrows. “What’s that mean?”
Rolling his dark eyes, he rubs his back. “Means we’re not going to make it after the Bath.”
I can hear Kitty’s group again. The bear girl growls. “What Bath?”
“You’ll see.” The flamingo boy is still wailing. The mouse has stopped traveling across the room, staring at the clock.
The turtle’s voice is soft now, only a murmur in the roaring rage of the room. “Sixty seconds,” he says.
Someone starts to cheer. The otter drowns his third glass of the night.
“Thirty,” he squeaks.
More cheers. Kitty giggles again, her pupils in her emerald eyes narrowing into slits.
“Ten.” The turtle sucks in a breath. Breaths out. And then back in.
The crowd chants, laughs becoming jeers. The mouse curls up into himself.
“Nine, eight, seven, six!” The animals shout.
“—four, three, two,”
The Turtle shakes his head.
The lights dim, tinting my skin red-red-vermilion-red.
Run. I start to stand up. Smell sweat, meat, spit.
“Don’t. You’re making it easier for them.” Turtle lays flat on the ground, curled up in his backpack-shell.
It’s too late anyway. Someone hisses.
Teeth. A pretty, silver set of them. They grin down at me, pools of spit forming at the corners. I gulp, and I crawl backwards.
“Come to me, yummy,” she hums, her voice gentle, her claws sharp.
“Don’t. Move.” Turtle breathes.
But I do, and she races after me, dropping her smile, tearing off her heels, and then—
There is vermilion on my lips, scarlet on my neck, roses blooming and racing down my arm, down my leg, down.
Run. She digs in with her teeth, silver, silver teeth. I reach out my arm. The door…
It’s on the bed, staining the snowy covers, coating the walls. Red-red-vermilion-red. On the ground, splattered on the carpet.
She bites my ear, and both pairs hurt.
Run. But I can’t—I can’t—I can’t—I—