3LBE #12
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The Starfish

by Lisa M. Bradley

 

Sunshine

Sunshine had red hair and black clothes and spent most of her time reading in her bedroom. Her skin was waxy and freckled, not fair like most redheads, and her hair was long, shiny, and fickle, curling when it wished to and lying flat and stubborn when it didn't. She read books about planets far away, worlds that did not exist, and was bitter that they did not exist but in those yellowed, coarse pages.

There were black trenches beneath her red-tinged, yellow cat eyes, from spending too many nights poring over books by the harsh, unshaded lamp beside her bed, and these trenches made her thin face appear old and haggard. She had a fine line etched permanently between her full, golden eyebrows that got lost somewhere before it quite reached the bridge of her long straight nose. Her mouth looked out of place, for though she rarely smiled and was too bored to complain, she usually pursed her lips to one side or the other, where they garbled the ends of her words mercilessly. She was long limbed and tall, but not willowy, nor overbearing, just there and undeniably real. Perhaps her appearance made her grouchy and thus affected her disposition, or maybe it was vice versa.

Her name was not really Sunshine (that would have been far too ironic), but her grandfather had called her Sunshine before he died in an April years before. He too had been a great aficionado of old sci-fi and aged fantasy, and he too had had a dry sense of humor coupled with too great a heart, and so become somewhat bitter. Though he loved Sunshine he saw a lifeless, terminally boring future in store for her — not because of anything lacking in the girl, but because of something critical lacking in the world to which she'd been born, a world no match for those in their novels. And he had had a great sense of irony, and he therefore had christened her Sunshine…

• • •

While waiting for the bus, Sunshine took no notice of the day, for she had long ago decided there was nothing worth looking at on this planet. The sky was white like rain, tinted with a dissociated sun brightness. The streets shimmered with a clean heat Sunshine did not feel and echoed with noon traffic she could not be bothered to hear. She sat on the weathered bench and opened her book, unmindful of how the car-thrust breezes played with her black linen skirt.

As she labored to keep the pages of her book from falling out, a man tried to strike up a conversation with her, commenting on the black pebble anklet she wore, inquiring as to the meaning of the runes. She impatiently crossed her legs the other way and mumbled that she didn’t know what the alien figures meant. Though, of course, she did.

On the bus, a man with a newspaper in his lap moved his briefcase so she could sit beside him. Sunshine pretended not to notice and sat in the back, alone. When a long-haired, lanky guy sat across from her and asked what she was reading, she pulled the stop cord and got off a block from her true destination, just to be away from him. Aggravated, she wondered why — if there were at least three girls prettier than her on that dumb bus — she was the maggot magnet.

She tucked her paperback into her loose sleeve when she entered the gift shop, heading straight for the wall of crystal pendants. But a girl stood between her and the pendants, gazing silently at a glass tree that held a myriad of colored-glass balls, and Sunshine never quite got where she was going. A mirror behind the tree reflected the girl at her: her streaming black tresses, the distilled whiteness of her skin, her lips like bruises, and (though Sunshine later thought this some trick of the light) one emerald eye and one jade. Instinctively, Sunshine wondered what world this girl came from, where everyone had unbalanced eyes glinting with precocious insanity. There seemed a palpable heat emanating from her lithium body, a heat Sunshine vaguely desired to warm herself by. Then the girl pried her intent gaze from the crystalline webs of color caught in the glass and looked back at Sunshine. She seemed fascinated with Sunshine’s brassy hair.

Sunshine took a step back.

The girl moved past unnerved Sunshine and walked calmly from the store. After a few seconds, Sunshine followed at a safe distance while the mad girl folded herself into the mall crowd. She glided toward the wavering nexus until a male voice hailed her from the escalator.

“Marah,” called a tall, blonde man, jolting both girls from a trance-like state.

“Marah,” Sunshine muttered, pretending to chastise herself for bovine stupidity. She returned to her crystals and, after a few moments, stopped expecting Marah to pop up behind her.

 

Kane

Sunshine did not know him, this boy who looked like a wolf, for he was as alone as she. His hands smelled like metal all the time, like the mortician who cannot rid himself of the noxious smell of his trade. But where a mortician merely took inventory of the dead and facilitated the customary burial preparations, Kane took inventory of the dead and then brought them back to life.

He worked with metal all day. Tiny pieces, large pieces made up of small pieces, cranks and wheels, levers, plugs. Intricacies not accounted for by any but him. There was no true reason for him to do so, other than that he was inspired — driven to do, to solve, to fix and repair, to create when need be, but mostly to understand. On his worktable, beside countless parts, pulleys, and engines, were scraps of notebook paper covered from margin to margin in his impatient, unpracticed scrawl — numbers, equations, figures.

Kane himself was a glorious machine that none took account of. He hunched over his work, licked his thin red lips, chewed the inside pink of his mouth, the tendons in his neck straining when something required a bit of force, his beautiful, shiny eyes glittering over his obsession. He did not have time to reflect on the utter uselessness of everything around him; his objective was to master everything and not concern himself with its initial value. Some part of him insisted that value as defined by others would rarely coincide with the truth, so he did not worry over it. It was unavoidable and stressing himself over insoluble situations only took time away from the important matters, such as understanding the mechanics of it all, however inane…

At one of the few parties he had ever, or would ever, attend, Kane walked into the kitchen looking for some more punch that wasn’t really punch and found Marah instead. He stood in the doorway, his empty glass stained red with not-punch, like his spit and lips, and watched her staring at a long kitchen knife. Her straight black hair shaded one green eye, the greener one, he would later learn, but still he could see a frightening, restrained madness there. It was frightening not by virtue of its madness — for madness could be dull and vacant and utterly nonthreatening — but because it was restrained so ably, so carefully. Instinctively, he wondered what was off in the gears and pulleys of her psyche, but he blinked the thought away because he knew better than to try to understand the machinery of a mind. People were not toasters.

He clutched his glass tighter, perhaps sensing that broken glass was not a happy variable to introduce to this situation, and began backing out of the kitchen. She glanced up when he was almost free and he found himself babbling, “Nothing, never mind.” But her glittery, one-eyed gaze got caught on his abused mechanic’s hands and never quite made it to his face, so he was able to escape.

Back in the hubbub, Kane found Del playing speed chess in a corner.

“What, what?” Del asked impatiently, skiing his pieces across the board.

“There’s a girl in the kitchen,” Kane said. “Kinda pretty, real white, long black hair down to her waist, green eye, and purplish lips. What’s her name?”

“I don’t know! I don’t care! Marah!” Del screeched, picking up pawns. His opponent grinned into a mug of beer and retaliated in epileptic kind.

“Yeah, well, I think something’s wrong with her,” Kane continued uncomfortably. He watched Del make stupid mistakes and his opponent make stupider.

“Don’t tell me,” Del griped, losing his bishop, “tell her date.”

“She’s with someone?” Kane asked incredulously.

“Yes! Now go away.”

“Who’s she with?”

“Oh, fuck,” Del groaned, losing a knight. “I don’t know who she’s with. Some guy. Looks like a date raper. Go away!”

Kane waited until Del lost, then tapped him on the shoulder again.

“I'm leaving now.”

“Of course you are,” Del said, turning around and glaring at him. Del’s young-alcoholic eyes were swimming with beer and cigarette smoke. Kane heard the challenge in his voice, but refused to complete the circuit.

On his way out of the zoo, Kane saw a tall, blonde man who looked like a date raper, but Marah was nowhere in sight. Probably off mooning over sharp things.

It was still early, so Kane walked home slowly. Not-punch and Marah flavored his wandering thoughts, but eventually he returned to his machines. Later, Del called, and Kane’s hands were already greasy with oil, his hair pulled back into a scraggly ponytail.

“So,” Del’s voice labored drunkenly over his party noise, “you go home to masturbate over your Popular Mechanics?”

“I don’t masturbate and I don’t read Popular Mechanics,” Kane said, fiddling with a loose screw.

“Oh, everybody masturbates,” Del maintained with a slur in his voice. “You want me to show you how? I’ll jerk off for you, if you want.”

“You’re drunk, Del,” Kane explained in exasperation. “Leave me alone.” He was about to hang up, but Del went on.

“Marah’s frigid. Don’t even think about it. She wouldn’t want you,” Del insisted.

“Who’s Marah?” Kane said carefully, pausing over his engine carcass.

“Who’s Marah?' he says.” Del laughed, not falling for it, even drunk. “Forget her, Kane, for real!”

Del was a simple system to master. Kane picked up a wrench and went back to work.

“You’re drunk,” he repeated. “Leave me alone.”

 

Marah

Her life was a practice in restraint — a study in discipline. She denied herself the release of acting on her countless, sudden impulses and instead lived her life as though her existence was to remain silent and serene in the confines of a glass cube, the walls unmarred. No one knew the almost painful thrill of tension running through her braced body. No one knew the almost torturous eroding of her brain as she held it tight behind stone granite walls. She let no one know, that was part of her practice in self-denial.

Marah was never so conscious of herself, of her ultimate strength, as when she denied what meant so much to her, those immediate and inexplicable instincts. Whenever she stood before a bridge, she held herself back, knowing how exhilarating it felt to stand above so much empty space, only a thread of concrete between herself and oblivion, and refusing to allow herself that pleasure. Then, when she deemed her suffering to have been great enough, and abated, she let herself step onto that bridge, but not to hurry, or look over the edge, crushing the pleasure it would have granted her and filling herself instead with the raw sorrow of forsaken wishes. Then she would stop, slowly, solemnly, at the crest of the bridge, survey her surroundings with a calm, all-encompassing gaze — not to fix the moment forever in her mind, but to delay the certain, boundless joy she would experience upon looking down. Then, when she felt the excitement still in her chest, despite all that was done to crush it, she threw her gaze down where it would have been riveted all that time, had she been a frivolous tramp. And try as hard as she did to refuse the pleasure tearing her up inside and infusing every single cell in her body, she could not. She felt an inexplicable urge to jump from every bridge, tower, 17th story she found herself on — not to die, but to live, to indulge in a maniacal, chaotic sensory overload of pure ecstasy. But she wouldn't. Instead she forced herself to turn from that happiness and walk steadily down the remaining length of the bridge, not studying the cracks beneath her feet but looking straight ahead and never turning back. It hurt her insanely, but she liked the power of her pain.

She kept a bottle collection; not because she admired the fine, smooth, curving lines of the glass, or because she enjoyed the way the light caught in the bottom of their bells or their graceful necks, reflecting out onto the ceiling in facades of sparkling stream or placid lake, or even because she adored the tinkle of her fingertips striking their musical shells, but because sitting on her bed, staring at them for hours, she fought a terrific urge to destroy them, to sweep them off their shelves with a merciless arm and dance with naked feet upon their jagged shards. She wanted to kneel into the white light of the glass shreds and pray to the pleasure and the pain. She wanted to crawl over the sharp chunks and rub her entire body along the needles, feel them grinding against her belly, her back, her elbows, knees, face and neck, her breasts and outstretched hands, inner thighs and shoulders. She suffered so for the pain. But she denied herself and felt a greater pain, an intensification of that she felt when she resisted the urge to clamp her teeth down on champagne glasses. She resisted and relished, calmly, the gratification of her own self-imposed discipline.

At night, the full of her concentration was devoted to blocking any dreams, any fancy, any half thought, from her starving mind. She was not to remember, create, or analyze anything, and she berated herself upon waking if she caught only the shrinking form of an unbidden image. She would close her eyes — for to stare up at the ceiling was too easy — and refuse…

 

The Starfish

A Tuesday afternoon, while waiting for the bus, Sunshine heard a peculiar sound sneaking from the expected, ignored clump of sound waves she was used to. It was like crystal voices. Breaking glass, falling to cement and tinkling hollowly, but strangely clear, as though calling her.

She closed her book and followed the sound, trailing it through busy streets and around traffic snarls. Gradually she became aware of a young, wolfish-looking man following the same trail across the street from her. She did not know what she would find, nor even what she expected, but she immediately recognized the black gloss, the white blankness, the meditative stance of the girl placidly watching a wrecking crew. Neither Sunshine nor Kane spoke, but perhaps Marah saw them in a reflection of falling glass. She turned around smoothly, pinning them where they stood, together but unconscious of one another, both absorbed in the green gaze of her brutal self-discipline.

• • •

Kane lives in a one-room apartment and does not know his neighbors. There are no complaints about his noise — the sawing, the hammering, the drilling — because his neighbors are similarly noisy, though Kane is not aware of it.

One day on his way up the stairs with the heart of a motorcycle in his arms, and thoughts of Sunshine and Marah in his mind, he is stopped by a short girl who asks if he is a sculptor of some sort. Kane does not think much of the question one way or the other, simply says, “No, a mechanic.” She continues, says it’s his hair that makes her ask — strawberry blonde getting longish again, the faint curl that curves under his thin chin — his eyes — “angel eyes” a drunk and frustrated Del had once called them, black and direct and obtusely naïve — his mouth — pink and lean and innocently erotic. Even his hands — battered and stained as they are?

There’s a tree outside his wide window, a mesquite that he loves to stare at in the moonlight, when the street lamps glow through the reedy leaves and make them soft and elegant and willowy. In the dark he can’t see the scabrous bark or the inch-long thorns lacing the branches. He can’t see the arthritic landlady watering its impassive base, just the light fluttering through an illusion of green wispiness, mist rising from the darkness, glittering. He never feels as lonely, or as fulfilled, as when he gazes out at the night and his tree.

Even now, it is already too late. Marah will kill herself in that tree, hanging herself as Kane watches in mystified, spellbound silence and Sunshine sleeps in his lumpy bed. Kane will feel himself aroused as he watches Marah’s body fall, snap, jerk, and sway. She will strangle quietly, the rope bruising her neck and bulging her extinguished green eyes behind her veil of black hair. The tree will look more beautiful than ever.

Kane will rouse Sunshine and send her away so she doesn’t have to face the police and the questions. Sunshine will walk out and under Marah’s swaying height. She will slow her steps, feeling Marah hanging over her, perhaps gaze with her yellow cat eyes into the darkness and see Marah’s white and blackness amidst soft mesquite shadow. But she will continue walking, perhaps let her long fingers brush the craggy bark as she goes. There will be the scent of cooling asphalt and, faintly, the setting sun.

• • •

From the beginning, both Sunshine and Kane were mesmerized by Marah’s power and madness, her purity. So maybe it was always-already too late.

One night Sunshine and Marah slow danced to an eerie, lilting song with an electronic, filtery sound to it, the sound of the dead unwillingly resurrected. Kane lay on the floor, his head propped up uncomfortably with a pillow. He watched as they swayed, hands clasped and hanging down at their sides, their bodies barely touching, their heads touching at the temples like abandoned marionettes. Marah was calm and white and blank. Her green eyes glittered with candle and feeble green stereo light, but the madness was so contained, she seemed completely still. Kane realized his hand was in his lap, lightly stroking through his jeans. The girls took no notice as they revolved in the stray lamplight streaming in his window, the light catching first the polished red satin of Sunshine’s hair, then the faintly glimmering black lace of Marah's. Later, Kane braided their hair together, tendrils of sunlight and darkness. Later still, they kissed, all three at once, just pressed their lips together in a gentle starfish before sleep.

• • •

Slipping into sleep, Sunshine felt the beginning but thought it a dream induced by the pulp fiction she still devoured in Marah’s incomplete absence — incomplete because, even when Marah was nowhere near her, Sunshine could feel her own thoughts like cilia reaching out, scenting after the girl; incomplete because, even when Marah was beside her, Sunshine knew Marah was apart, maintaining her insulated purity.

A sea. The sea is yellow like the pages of her books, but instead of the dry, crisp scent of her precious paperbacks, Sunshine is drowning in the mildew and ink smell of decaying textbooks. History, she thinks, wiping her stinging cat eyes, straining to see a coastline. She hears the sky above, the atmosphere laden with sandpaper whispers. I don’t remember this, she thinks. E.R. Burroughs? Clark Ashton Smith?

Thoughts give way when she senses the mouth of a cavern beneath her treading feet. It begins absorbing her, and, to her own surprise, Sunshine allows herself to be drawn under.

She woke to find herself curled into Marah, head and knees together in a fetal position that tried to burrow into Marah’s side. Wonder had jerked her from sleep and even now coalesced around her speeding heart. She looked up to find Marah watching her silently in the darkness, green and greener eyes glittering by the light of the street lamp. One phosphorescent hand rested lightly on Kane’s damp forehead as he slept on her other side. Looking into those mad, alien eyes, Sunshine realized she hadn’t been dreaming. Even her own dreams failed to fascinate her any longer. Not dreaming, but receiving.

She started to pull away, but Marah was warm, warm enough for the three of them, even more. And Sunshine couldn’t bear to be cold anymore. She nestled back into the curve of Marah’s body, vaguely jealous of the careless touch Kane received. But instead of pressing her forehead back to Marah’s brittle ribs, she looked up into her mismatched eyes.

“Really, I haven’t been dead,” she whispered through a throat swollen with sleep and invisible tears. “I'm not jaded or cynical, not really. I haven’t been empty. Just… tired, so tired I can’t even see or breathe. I'm not like them, really I'm not. I'm just tired. I’ve been tired for so long.”

But Marah’s eyes were not those of judge, jury, or even executioner. Instead, they held the blank, expressionless gaze of a court stenographer.

“Then sleep,” Marah said. She closed her eyes as if to shut Sunshine out, but when Sunshine closed her own eyes and slid eagerly into sleep, the images were there again. Brighter than dreams, warmer than their tangle of bodies on Kane’s floor.

• • •

Despite the sometime spark of jealousy Sunshine felt toward Kane, like the pins and needles of a waking limb, she had no thought of concealing Marah’s nightly gift. Even with the mad girl wedged tightly between them, the two loners were falling together like suicidal stars.

“Does she do it for you also?” she asked him timidly.

Kane looked away, chewing the inside of his lip speculatively.

“No,” he said after a moment.

Sunshine was secretly thrilled. The memory of Marah’s hand on Kane’s forehead flitted once more through her mind, then was gone, to hurt her no more.

“What does she do for you?” Sunshine asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, still avoiding her eyes. She knew it meant nothing. He often looked away when looking for an answer.

“There’s death in those dreams,” he said finally.

“And resurrection,” Sunshine said calmly.

“But death first. And most.”

“Some people are so alive that death is the only option,” she replied. Then, as if she had said nothing yet, “Marah is alive enough for the whole world.”

Kane nodded. He looked into her yellow cat eyes and felt a pang of jealousy, that she and Marah had stared at each other in the night while he slept. Then it was gone, and he reached for Sunshine, satisfied with the secondhand warmth.

• • •

When Marah’s mind finally reached out to him, Kane was surprised to feel himself recoil. He had thought his conscious mind might shrink from her touch, but that his dark, desperate mind would succumb with relief, dragging the rest of him down with it. Instead he found his entire being rebelled, as if her searching fingers had suggested suicide. She merely blinked at him, then let him be.

In the following days, she wore him down, but he made no effort to get away. It would have been like abandoning a formidable puzzle — he knew the puzzle was himself. Slowly, bit by bit, she worked him into submission, but carefully, as though etching a particularly fragile piece of glass. He did not balk at her tenderness; he was grateful.

First she takes his sight, enveloping him in a blanket of dark, darker than his own angel eyes. Then, like the geometric blossoms he saw behind his clenched eyes when he was a child straining for sleep, blinding flares rush at him from the black, stinging his lids and sockets. He can see the backs of his own eyeballs with each burst of light and his body is paralyzed with revulsion, as if his stiff, unyielding body can cancel out the sinuous, slithering tendrils on the backs of his eyes.

“Stop! Please, stop,” Kane moaned, and opened wet eyes to find that she had. Immediately he clenched his tearing eyes closed again and rubbed them fiercely, trying to undo the reversal he had just experienced, struggling to wipe away the visual echoes still piercing his eyes like hot wires.

When he opened his burning eyes again, he could tell from Marah’s silent gaze of fascination that he had a nosebleed. He wiped away the red gumminess and stared at the floor, struggling to think.

“I never knew,” he whispered, watching the floor waver beneath him. Gradually he realized it wasn’t his eyes, but something emanating from Marah that made the floorboards look “virtual,” manifestly unreal. He swallowed hard and looked her in the eye, the saner one, as best he could.

“I look out at things all day long, trying to understand how they work and why,” Kane said, trying not to whimper. “I look so hard, but it’s never been as hard to look out as it is to look in. I’ve never seen what I see with. To think that’s inside me, inside my head.” He rubbed his arms, though he was sweating.

Marah did not offer up a reassuring smile or touch his arm comfortingly. She gave no sign that she was even listening. Kane knew by now, however, that she wasn’t looking through him. She was looking inside him. And whatever secrets lurked beneath his skin, they were far more interesting to her than anything he was saying now.

“There’s more, isn’t there?” he asked, his stomach plummeting and rising at the same time.

For the first time ever, Marah seems to look at him, to register his existence as Kane, a human being in front of her. The corners of her purple mouth twist in the closest thing to a smile anyone will ever see on Marah’s empty face. In his peripheral vision, Kane sees the walls of his apartment suddenly go transparent. The world around them drips, as if melting under a giant magnifying glass. Then Marah is still again, and all returns to normal.

“Much more,” she said.“What happens when she can’t control it anymore?” Kane asked.

• • •

Sunshine shrugged from where she sat in the open window.

“What happens?” Kane repeated, turning back to a machine. Four times as many machines as usual were strewn about his room. He slept much less now and accomplished even more.

“Marah can never lose control,” Sunshine said, grateful to have his eyes off her. Sometimes he made her feel interrogated with a single glance. “You can feel the power in her, like the hum of a million bees hiding inside, and she never lets the reins slip, not once.”

“That’s not true, and you know it,” Kane said. He picked up a rag and wiped his hands. “The reins are slipping left and right. And we’re causing it.”

“Marah knows what she’s doing,” Sunshine insisted.

“How can she, if she’s never done it before?” Kane pushed back his chair impatiently and strode over to Sunshine.

“How do you know she hasn't?” she asked.

“I know. And so do you. She’s pure,” he said, drawing her from the window. “And by the time we realize she can’t hold it back anymore, it’ll be too late.”

“Haven’t we already realized?” Sunshine said, leaning against him. “Isn’t it already too late?”

“We’ll kill her,” Kane said, his black eyes worriedly darting around the room.

“Marah is immortal,” Sunshine said quietly. “We can never hurt her.” She pulled Kane to her and kissed him deeply. The lie tasted bitter, like blood on chrome.

• • •

If it is true that every beginning contains its own end, then on another Tuesday afternoon, they will go to Café Nowhere. Sunshine and Kane will meet first, sitting at a tall table in front of the plate-glass window. None of them will have been to the café before, but seeing the name once, Sunshine never forgets it and she will bring them here. Sunshine and Kane will eat nothing, though Kane will drink a glass of Sprite absently, chewing on the ice, working at it while Sunshine watches, dipping her finger in the spilled tea in her saucer. They will take little notice of the other people milling about the smoky café — except for one girl. Everyone revolves in concentric circles around her, whether consciously or not. She wears violet, octagonal sunglasses, her helmet of baby blue hair swishing back and forth across the lenses. Everyone else will fade into irrelevant shadow. From wide, cynical lips painted ripe red, the girl will aim a smile at Sunshine and Kane, a strange, teasing smile, a smile that will not betray teeth.

“Wow, she’s beautiful,” Sunshine will murmur breathlessly, thinking of her as a stubbornly hardy orchid. She’ll not have forgotten that orchids are poisonous.

“Mmm,” Kane will reply in wordless affirmation, though the phrase “drop-dead gorgeous” will throb insistently in his head.

The three of them will stare steadily at one another, feeding, devouring, stoking invisible fires, until Sunshine speaks up.

“Let’s go talk to her,” she will say, eyes glittering, cheeks flushed. Before Marah, she never would have thought to approach the bright girl. By now she will be so hungry, so primed for release, her body will make all the decisions.

“I don’t know if we should,” Kane will say.

Sunshine will smile teasingly, touching his sharp chin with warm, wheedling fingers. “I’ve seen that look on your face before.”

Kane will blush, but his eyes will not lose their intensity. He has never cared to mask his desires, and now will be even less inclined. He will feel a heartbeat between his thighs and, turning to Sunshine, find a matching rhythm in her held breath.

Together, they will rise.

Marah will appear in the doorway, but stop, frozen, on the threshold. Her green eyes will flash from one corner of the triangle to the others, her purple, chapped lips seeming to skim over silent words. Sunshine and Kane will freeze too, faces burning at being caught. They will look back at the bright girl, but she will be unconcerned. Her eyes veiled with her violet shades, she will laugh in Marah’s direction, her full red lips parting just enough to reveal small, strong, sharp teeth. Marah will run and Kane and Sunshine follow, only slightly slowed by the warmth still tingling in their veins. Eventually, they will catch up with her, but they will never speak of the almost-betrayal.

• • •

But time will pass, feelings mend, warnings go unheeded. And without any fanfare, the star-crossed trio will slip past their final, invisible, inevitable, event horizon. They will arrive at one last Tuesday afternoon.

The three will go somewhere outdoors and secluded, find themselves in a glade, a basin of greenness where civilization is but a distant throb and a few rooftops bristling over the tops of weaving trees. They will hold hands — Marah in the middle — and walk from one end of the depression to the other and back again, Sunshine and Kane sketching the afternoon in sacred corners of their minds. They won’t talk, but absorb the light and the fragrance of the moment through their skins like blessed amphibians. Kane will wonder idly what it would be like to see Sunshine’s bare skin against Marah’s in the sunlight, the bronze freckles against the whitewashed canvas. He will gaze at their clasped hands and imagine running his fingers over a gentle slope of SunshineMarah. Sunshine will lazily recall Marah and Kane washing their hands under a faucet in the park, the earth-warmed water uncovering twins of flesh, Marah’s manicured, Kane’s old with injuries. Marah’s thoughts will be impenetrable and locked away, easy after years of practice, and gilded with a facade of serenity.

Marah will fall to her knees, lilac white, and scream, screams that sound like refusal and yet like something ripping open, ripe and overburdened. Her hands will tear from Sunshine and Kane’s and grasp the earth as she tries to brace herself against the pain and the inevitable release. They will feel helpless as she screams at their feet, screaming like sobbing and like ocean waves. Her purple lips will open, her green and greener eyes will clench shut as the change tears through her.

Spilling from her knees, spreading from beneath her palms and reaching toward Sunshine and Kane, rippling under their feet and pooling over the glade, Marah’s power comes out. Kane feels its complicated charge pistoning through his legs, trembles as it washes up toward his heart and mind. Sunshine thinks it an alien weight or weightlessness spreading up through her long body, tastes it as acid starlight on her eager tongue. Marah, mercifully, does not feel it… now.

They strain to see the city beyond the woods, but cast into crude shadows by Marah’s unleashed energy, it is but an unconvincing caricature in the distance. Meanwhile, Marah’s power, tempered into brilliant violence by years of suppression, is altering the entire glade.

Kane goes blind, synapses like supernovas eclipsing his sight, rushing out at him like shrapnel blossoms in the dark. Unwillingly he sees the spidery tendrils lacing the backs of his own eyes, like twisting vines on a trellis, only partially obscuring what is never meant to be seen. Instinctively, his body turns to stone, unyielding yet helpless while the machinery that is Marah works him over. Fluidity sweeps him backwards, into himself, through unseen barriers, and swirls him through the convoluted chambers of a seashell that is its own self-contained universe. His mind touches, then recoils from, then touches once more, starlarge structures, the invisible gears and bolts of something that is its own motive force. A god that is will.

Sunshine swims in a yellow sea that smells of history and stings her yellow cat eyes with pungent fire. Above her, she feels a green sky throbbing with psychic whispers, like sandpaper honing delicate spindles, and below her treading feet, she senses the mouth of a cavern. This time, with no surprise, she lets herself be drawn through the warm, elastic barrier and turned head over heels over and over and over again until there is no up and no down, only the sound of life in her ears and the bubbles of her own breath in her nose. She surfaces in a crimson sky punctuated with stars and a ring of moons glowing like a halo around her slick head. Warm hands wipe away her caul of blood, she is cradled, and the world is new, a mobile dancing over fresh eyes.

Sunshine will fall to her knees and grab Marah, who will no longer be screaming but only keening, rocking herself to a plane of forced numbness. Sunshine will wipe Marah’s dark hair from her face and stare into green eyes, mad, but no longer a madness to be restrained. Only an increasingly dull, vacant, nonthreatening madness. Marah’s nose and lips will bleed and Sunshine will kiss the redness away.

Kane will kneel before the girls and pull them into his arms, joining the kiss with a hunger he has never known before. The starfish will soon die, but in this last second it is gloriously alive, throwing off energy like electric sparks and melding their mouths together one last time.

All the barriers in Marah’s mind tumble away. She is above, below, and surrounding herself simultaneously, reeling from the sensory overload until the other two touch her, bring her back to an earth she’s never known before. A starlike aura embraces them all, shielding the world beyond from the surging power they have unleashed. Inside the aura, it is pink and tight and brilliant as a hot summer day when the light bounces off chrome like comets. Marah helps consume herself, not knowing just what it is on their lips that tastes bitter but bright, slippery and metallic, steely and strangely nutritive.

 

 

Lisa M. Bradley - “The Starfish” takes place in South Texas, where the sunset indeed has a scent and light does bounce off chrome like comets. The setting is burned into my mind’s eye, which is why I return to it again and again for my fiction and poetry. To experience more of Texas's gothic-desert glory, read my poem “Immobility” in Champagne October magazine.


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ISSUE #12

Winter 2003

FICTION

ART