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by Kelly Barnhill

 

It was not until the scars of my Alteration faded from purple to pink that I was allowed, at last, out of doors. Prior to that, I, and the other shrouded patients had to content ourselves with an electronic sun, softened by a fanned breeze which had been scented with the manufactured essences of lilac and mown grass. Not that we remembered the scents of lilac or grass. Or the sun, for that matter. Not that we remembered anything.

In the early days of the Program, they allowed residents into the enclosed yard and courtyard immediately following their operations to take some sun through the bandages. In the early days. However, as the Program expanded to different states, opposition grew. Congress on one hand, and the Governor on the other, began to fester and fuss. The Director became concerned that it was easier than not to point a satellite on the yard of the convalescing, thus jeopardizing their fulfillment as a New Person. So we were kept indoors from the moment of our Alteration until we were well, whole and utterly unrecognizable.

“We have developed a clear, positive alternative to an untenable situation,” the Director testified before a panel of grim faced Senators. We saw it on television two weeks after I woke from my operation. Language wasn’t easy for me then — it wasn’t for any of us at first. But I could pick up a little here or there. I wouldn’t have known it was the Director at all had it not been for the man who had green eyes and yellow hair. The man who was later named Carl, though for some reason he didn’t look much like a Carl to me, and he wore the name with some discomfort, like a collar that itched.

“That’s the Director,” he said to me. I stared at him, licked my lips. The creation of the “d” sound was easy enough to observe and replicate, as was the “o”. But the passage from “D” to “r” with a middle sound that looked like a sneer, or maybe a bad smell as it played upon the lips, well that was another matter indeed. I nodded instead, and tried to master the transfer from the click of the “c” to the bite of the “t”. It would not be long, of course, before words would come without thinking. But two weeks after my operation, I had to think, and think hard. Perhaps this is the reason why the memory of unknowable words avails itself to me now. Perhaps this is why language now unfurls itself before me like a map lovely and crafted and clean.

On television, the Director said, “What began as a pilot program has now revolutionized how we understand the nature of crime, the nature of personhood, the irrefutable truth of human dignity and goodness. We are on the cusp of eliminating the need for prisons in this country. Eliminating them. And by understanding the origins of crime, we can eliminate crime as well. Can you imagine it? The permanent eradication of crime! Is there any greater gift we can give the next generation?”

I stared at the television, watching his mouth shape words. I did not know all of the words then, but I can remember them now. It’s like that with most words I hear, both in those cloudy days after my alteration and even now. I record words, fasten each one into my memory and they are never lost. I don’t know if I could do this before the alteration, or if it is a consequence of the tinkering they did when I lay on the cold, silver table, the folds of my brain open and delicate, its mysteries laid bare, its secrets exposed, exorcized and erased. If I knew words before then, I don’t remember the knowing. Come to think of it, I don’t remember the unknowing either. Now, instead of memories, all I have is the relentless cataloguing and filing away of words, their order and shape and timbre. I remember who said what and when. I don’t know if the others are the same way. I never asked. Something tells me it’s better to keep as much to myself as possible. So I do.

“Director,” the man who would later be called Carl said again. He pointed at the television “Can you talk yet?” His green eyes poured into mine. He took my shoulders and gripped them tightly. “Can you understand a goddamn word I’m saying?” His eyes floated, swam and spilled over. His pale skin grew blotchy and red, and the scars along his hairline and temples glowed purple.

“Whoa, there,” said a voice behind us. Randy the orderly hustled across the hall and gently removed the green eyed man’s hands from my shoulders. He put his arm around the small of his back and spoke gently. “Hey there buckaroo,” he said to the man who would be called Carl. I looked away from Carl and at the orderly. I wanted to tell him that the green-eyed man, the man who would be Carl, didn’t look like a lot of things, and he certainly didn’t look like a buckaroo. I couldn’t speak yet, of course, so I stood quietly, my eyes tilted to the floor. “Let’s change the channel, what do you say?” He strode swiftly to the television, just as another man sat at the microphone, his fleshy face blood red and quivering, and immediately began to sputter and shout. In his hands, he held two photographs. One was of a woman with a shaved head and large green eyes. Her lips were pressed tightly together, as though she was holding her breath. And the hood of her left eye crinkled slightly, as though she knew something that the rest of us did not. The other was a photograph of a hand marred by a large tattoo showing an open mouth full of very sharp teeth. I stared at the pictures and ran my tongue across my own teeth, surprised, actually, to find them smooth.

The other residents, some bandaged like me, others forcing themselves not to scratch at their scars looked away, embarrassed. Randy the orderly changed the channel to the painting show, where a man in brown corduroys demonstrated the way a simple instrument can grow mountains and storms and lonely trees on a broad, white space. I was disappointed. I wanted to see the photographs again.

“I’m sorry,” breathed the man who would be Carl, “I’m so sorry.” His breath hiccoughed in his throat, and his eyes and nose leaked, snorted and flowed over his red and white face.

Randy the orderly slipped a gloved hand across Carl’s waist, hooked around the small of his back and led him back down the hall. “Nothing at all to be sorry for,” he said, his voice soft and pleasant, like music, as it drifted through the white walls, over the gleaming floors. “Everyone gets upset when we see those jerks in Washington on television. But you don’t have to worry about the Director. He can hold on to his own.” They slipped into an open door and disappeared.

• • •

Six weeks after my operation, the bandages came off. I do not know what I look like now. The nurse said that when I’m moved to my permanent home, there will be mirrors to see my reflection and windows made of glass instead of plexiglass. I do not know what a mirror is. I have read the word in the dictionary, of course, and heard it spoken. I know the press of the “m”, the sensuous delicacy of the “r”, as though biting a very soft peach. But the mechanics of the word — its sensation and definition — are different than the thing itself. I must have looked in a mirror before, although really, who knows? Judging at how the nurse went on an on about the mirror, I assume it must be the most common thing in the world. When she turned her back to dispose of the old bandages, I laid the length of my fingers against my cheeks, temples, eye sockets, chin and forehead. I walked my fingertips along the sure stretch of cheekbone, the sharp cut of my jaw. I lightly touched my eyelids and marveled at the sensation of the eyeballs rolling around in their axes. The nurse turned just as I was tracing the bridge of my nose with my pinkie. She smiled.

“Trying to see yourself with your hands?” She said, unscrewing an unlabeled white tub and dipping her fingers inside.

“No,” I said.

 “Of course you were,” she said, applying ointment to my chapped hands and rubbing hard. “Everyone does. It’s perfectly normal. Everyone wants to know what they look like. They said on a nature program I watched the other day that it was a classic human behavior. Animals, they don’t care, you know?” I nodded as if I did. I’m sure I knew what an animal looked like before my Alteration, but I don’t know now. We aren’t permitted to see images of animals — even the television blots them out. I closed my eyes and tried to conjure an image but only came up with a blank blob hovering in front of what I could only assume was the sky.

“I have no interest in what I look like,” I lied. I looked one way before, I look this way now. Who cares, really? But I did care. I cared a lot. From the first moments after I woke under the florescent glare of the hospital lights, I cared. Even when all of the rest of my words had dissolved under the insistent hand of a nameless surgeon, one word remained. Me. It is my only clue, and while I have searched for others, they have vanished in the clear white space that is my Old Person.

The nurse taught me how to locate each scar with my middle finger, how to rub each one with cream once a day until I was allowed outside and three times a day when my skin came in contact with ultraviolet light. She undid the bandages on my left hand as well, and taught me to begin in the center and spiral salve outward. Each touch felt like the bite of very sharp teeth, but I pressed my lips together and said nothing.

“We want those scars to fade and disappear, but the sun slows that down,” she said as she traced the edges of my face with her middle finger. It hurt. But I didn’t tell her that. “You’ll have your first time outside any day now.” She walked out the door without looking behind her. “Lucky girl.”

• • •

It was, in truth, many days after that. Twenty-two, to be exact. Charlene, my life coach, told me over breakfast. She wore, as always, a complicated network of multicolored beads hanging from each ear. Her lobes had stretched over time and dangled under the bleached and puffed sculpture of hair like two thin tongues.

“Hello, gorgeous,” she said. “Today you get sun. Tomorrow, you get a name.” She laid her hands on the table. Each fingernail was elongated and painted a thick, shiny blue with tiny stars spangling the edges. She tilted her head towards me. “Can you believe it?” She smiled wide. Her teeth were long, too long for her mouth, with daintily curved edges. They were astonishingly white. I squinted.

“No,” I said. “I really can’t.”

She nodded and enveloped me, once again, in a hug. I squared my shoulders and tucked my chin to my chest. I always did this. She didn’t seem to notice. “We are all so proud of you, honey. So proud.”

And it was true, too. She was proud. They all were. Everyone was excessively proud. They told me at my Naming.

Normally, Namings were small affairs, or so Charlene told me. The resident, their life coaches, and maybe a couple of the nurses that were present at the alteration would attend. Sometimes, there would be cake, though usually it was bagels, pre-spread with a thick layer of cream cheese. Every once in a while, one of the surgeons who performed the procedure would come as well, but as the Program expanded, surgeons were expected to do more and more alterations until they could train more doctors to pick up the slack, and the presence of even one surgeon was rare.

But at my Naming, not just one, but all three surgeons arrived, looking important, though rather uncomfortable in dark gray suits. And instead of a Judge’s Proxy, I had a real judge as well. And all of my nurses. They touched my shoulder and arm and back and face. They tilted their heads and smiled. They told me they were so proud of me. So very, very proud. They remarked at the color of my eyes, at my perfectly straight teeth. They said that the surgeon made me beautiful. They marveled at the scar on my hand. “It’s healing so quickly,” they said, their voices thick with admiration and love.

Everyone came, I assume, because the Director came. In the early days of the program, the Director came to every single Naming. I know this because one of the nurses is a previous resident. This is, apparently, rare. But it happens. She told me the Director was at her Naming too.

“It was like meeting Jesus,” she said. “Or Ghandi.”

I didn’t say anything. It was before I took any of my required Society Reintegration courses, and had no idea at the time who Jesus was. Or Ghandi. And even after, it was easy to get either one confused with the other men who were hauled out and killed just when they had something interesting to say.

• • •

The man now called Carl appeared in my room the next day. He was not dressed in white, like the rest of us.

“Your pants,” I said, “they’re blue.”

“Yes,” he said. “They are New. I’ll—” he stopped. “I’ll be leaving soon. For my permanent home.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes.” We were silent. He was, I know, embarrassed to find me still in my bedclothes, and I was embarrassed to be still in my bedclothes, but additionally I was annoyed that he did not knock. He should have knocked. “I’ve been Named,” I said because Carl began shifting his weight from foot to foot, and clasping and unclasping his hands behind his back.

“I heard,” he said, and then, suddenly, his face brightened. “I’m here to take you outside. Why don’t I stand on the other side of the door while you get changed?” And with an audible sigh of relief, he closed the door with a satisfying click.

• • •

Charlene had arranged that Carl would lead me from my room to the courtyard. A small table had been laid with a pitcher of lemonade, two cups, a bowl of fruit and two blue plates. The other residents milled around by the gardens and the fishpond. Some, like me, had broad scars across their left hands. One of them removed her sandals and dipped her toes into the murky surface and allowed the brightly colored fish to mouth the tips of her rosy nails, and later, the pale arch of her foot. Carl pursed his lips and shook his head.

“They eat their own feces, you know,” he said as he grabbed the chair and pulled it away from the iron table with a sharp scrape, jerking his hand downward. I sat.

“Who,” I said. “The residents?”

He stared at me and sat heavily on his chair. He glanced behind us. Charlene and two other life coaches were leaning casually against two red-leafed trees and writing things down in their blue covered notebooks. “No,” he said finally, “the fish. Lemonade?” He lifted the pitcher. I noticed for the first time that his left hand had a broad, pink scar on the back, just like mine. I did not mention it. It seemed rude.

“Oh, of course,” I said as he filled the cup, splashing juice onto the dusty surface. “Fish. Oh. And thank you.” I remembered the script from our Normal Human Interactions class. “For the lemonade. It looks delicious.”

He poured himself a cup and brought it to his lips and was about to drink when one of the life coaches cleared his voice loudly. He put the cup down with a smack and rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand.

“This is hard,” he muttered quietly under his breath “so quiet, in fact, that I’m not sure that he said anything at all.” Finally, he raised his glass and looked at me, with excruciating purpose, in the eyes. “Will you raise your glass with me?”

I did. He brought his glass to mine and clinked it, harder than he probably meant to, and lemonade spilled on his hand and my hand. My left hand had a scar — has a scar — a broad oval running parallel to my knuckles that stretches across the complicated network of ligaments and tendons that operate my fingers. Sometimes it hurt to grip or pinch. The lemonade burned. I gritted my teeth but I did not cry out. Something has told me from the beginning that pain is better kept to myself.

“To, um, new beginnings,” the man called Carl said. “And,” he faltered, “to the outdoors. And to perhaps seeing one another in our resettlement.”

“Not a good idea, Carl,” one of the life coaches said from his post by the wall. He scribbled something on his paper. Carl blushed.

“Anyway, cheers,” he muttered.

Carl’s resettlement was delayed after that. No one told him why. I sat next to him in our Understanding American Values class for three days. Then they moved him to a different section. No one explained that, either.

• • •

The personnel at the program have gone out of their way to ensure that we do not see ourselves before what is deemed an appropriate time — that being, the day we renter the world as a New Person. On that day, we are given a mirror. From what I have heard, it is pretty to look at and pleasing to hold — a comforting weight that fits just so in the curve of the hand. I have seen a picture of a mirror. Still, it is difficult to imagine. Or, even more difficult is the very idea that a picture of me will look back. That the me that I do not know would organize itself into so small a space — that it could exist and not exist at the same time.

Gwendolyn, my favorite nurse, has told me that people have burst into tears at seeing themselves for the first time. They have fallen to their knees in overwhelmed prayer or psalm or the speaking of tongues. One man died apparently happily, but really, who is to say? She said that one woman began to sing and she never stopped. She said that the woman’s name and picture are now in a book that catalogues and records the limits and excesses of human behavior and endurance.

“Her new name or her old name,” I asked Gwendolyn.

“Come again, darling,” Gwendolyn said while skimming her hand along the edges of my white sheets, her hands, blotchy with age and sun, making sure creases and deft lines until they lay stacked and quiet in the closet.

“In the book. Did they use her old name or her new name?”

Gwendolyn opened her mouth. Then she closed it again. “Her new name, of course. Her Old Self no longer exists. Surely you know that now.” She looked at me strangely. As though I had suddenly turned purple or green. As though I had suddenly turned into something else.

• • •

Carl will not talk to me anymore. I have asked him to come walk the courtyard with me. Perhaps we could drink lemonade. Perhaps we could clink our glasses together and some could spill on my hand. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt this time.

• • •

Randy the orderly follows Carl around wherever he goes. Any time Carl raises his hand in hello or turns in my direction with a smile, Randy the Orderly clears his throat and shakes his head. When he does this, Carl shoves his hands into his pockets and looks at the floor. I do not like Randy the Orderly. He smiles with his lower teeth and has a large, sharp lump at the front of his throat that wiggles when he talks. There is something that I wanted to remember about the throat. It seems that there was a time when the throat was important, and I have found myself attempting to peer inside the mouths of people talking, just to catch a glimpse of the strange, quivering layers of pink flesh curving sweetly to black as it twists along its passageway to the center of the body. I watch their necks as well. The way the flesh stretches over the bumpy length of the esophagus and dips softly on either side. The paler the skin, the bluer the dip. The quieter the person, the easier it is to watch the pulse and flow of blood as it flutters from heart to brain, from heart to hand, from heart to lung and foot and mouth.

One night, I snuck out of my room and went into Carl’s. This should not have been possible. We are not allowed to have any close associations with other patients, except for the purposes of Socialization and Interpersonal Skills Training. Also, we are not supposed to be able to leave our rooms at night.

It wasn’t hard.

It was supposed to be impossible.

It wasn’t hard to notice the fragile curl of thin plastic at the corner of Gwendolyn’s nametag. It wasn’t hard to unclip the tag from its perch at the far corner of her nurse’s scrubs (pale blue with brightly colored balloons, as always). I simply made the pretense of wanting to give her a hug. I never hug. Gwendolyn was thrilled. It wasn’t hard to slip the clear plastic in between the latch and the jamb. Gwendolyn never noticed that the lock never clicked into place. Gwendolyn never noticed a thing.

• • •

The doors of our rooms had one-way locks. We could go into our rooms whenever we liked, but we needed to call a nurse to let us out. This, I suppose, was intended to decrease foot traffic by the convalescing New People, while still allowing nurses easy access to rooms without having to fumble first with keys or thumbprints or retina scans or anything else that would be a bother when one’s hands are full. There were other rooms, of course — rooms where even nurses were not allowed unless accompanied by a doctor — and these had all sorts of security accoutrements. One would only allow the Director inside, and only after he had blown into a tube for his breath to be analyzed. All this was explained to me, first by Charlene and then by Gwendolyn. Both assumed that I was only asking out of idle curiosity. It is more than that. Though I did not know — and am only now beginning to guess — why.

I waited for over an hour before venturing out. The halls were dim and quiet. No bandaged new residents shuffled aimlessly in the halls. No long-term residents stopped annoyingly in their tracks to ceaselessly itch at healing scars. There was no one but me. Even the night crew gathered in the staff lounge, piled together on the couch, their faces pointed towards the flickering blue light of the television set. I watched them from the shadowed edge of the hall. They did not turn towards me. I turned and walked towards Carl’s room.

• • •

Carl slept on his back. His pillow had fallen at some point to the floor, and he lay with his forehead tilted back, his mouth open to the air. The room was dark, but the moon was just starting to peek over the high wall outside, it’s pale blue light leaking through the window and onto the floor. I sat down next to him and peered into his mouth. With each breath, his throat quivered with a snore. His teeth had been removed as part of his Alteration and his gums were scalloped and pink as melon. My own mouth has new teeth as well, but mine are implanted and seared to the bone. Each one of us had assets in our Old life, but all were absorbed by the Program. The more assets we had, the more our former families could request in our Alterations. Apparently somebody wanted me to have teeth, but I cannot think why or who.

It was in this moment that I remembered something.

I asked my love to take a walk/ Just a walk a little way.

We had heard music, of course, on the television, but it was only swells and phrases that were meant to accompany the images on the screen. I had never heard a song. In truth, I don’t know if I had even heard the word song since my alteration. But, sitting next to Carl, his mouth open, the dips in his neck pulsing gently with each beat of his heart, I knew song. I knew it.

So only say that you ll be mine/ And in no other’s arm entwine.

I sang these words softly, my throat scratchy and dry, my lips shaking at each new note.

Carl’s eyes snapped open. “I know that song,” he said.

“Me too,” I said.

“How,” he said. I didn’t know, and didn’t answer. Instead, I laid my lips upon his lips and breathed in. He sighed and I sighed, and the sigh was a note that buzzed on our astonished lips and became its own sort of song.

Later, though I was sweaty and sticky and still breathing heavily, I left Carl sleeping on his bed and slipped out of the room.

I held a knife against her breast
While in to my arms she pressed
She cried, “My love, don’t you murder me,”
For I’m unprepared for eternity.

So only say that you ll be mine
And in no other’s arms entwine.
Down beside where the waters flow
On the banks of the Ohio.

I knew the song. And I knew Carl. And by the way the scar on my left hand burned, there was something I needed to remember there too. I kept to the shadows, listening to the song spin over and over in my head. In the staff room, the night workers leaned and slept on each other’s shoulders as the television blinked ceaselessly in the dark. A woman’s voice read high and clear over the images of dead bodies and crime scenes and police mug shots. “You cannot,” she said, “surgically remove evil. Crime deserves punishment, not a fresh start. It’s time for the madness to end. Let’s put a stop to the criminal New Beginnings Program — and let’s do it together. Vote yes on Proposition 421.” I stopped in the hall. The last picture was of a woman with a shaved head and green eyes. I had seen her picture before of course, but this one was different. She had a black smudge under one eye, and scratches along her forehead. She smiled broadly, despite the swollen lower lip that bled freely from her mouth onto her cheek and down her chin. Her teeth had been sharpened to points. I ran my tongue along the inside of my lower lip, and felt a scar’s undulating ridge. It felt like a friend — an old friend.

• • •

When I woke up, the Director was sitting on the little chair under the window. I sat up, clapped my right hand over my left, and pressed my lips together. I did not say hello. It seemed unnecessary anyway. The Director didn’t notice me. Or, at least, he pretended not to notice me. Instead he read from his newspaper. The front page had a picture of him on the lower left corner with a caption saying, “Public Enemy Number 1? Story on page six.” He sat, his thick lips pulled into a frown. Finally, I spoke.

“Charlene says I’m not allowed to have guests in my room,” I said. He cleared his throat but did not speak. “Male guests, I mean. Well, any kind of guest, I think.”

“Charlene,” the Director said without looking up, “says quite a few things. But you, I understand, like to do what you want.” He closed his newspaper, folded it neatly and laid it on the windowsill with his picture facing down. “Did you have a nice stroll last night?” I opened my mouth but did not speak. The Director continued. “I certainly hope so. It was, by all reckoning, a lovely moon. And Carl, I might add, looks particularly smug. A dreadful thing to do to a young man.”

I rubbed the scar on my hand. I thought about that song. I could hear my voice singing in my head, but I would not let myself sing out loud.

I came home tween twelve and one / crying oh my god, what have I done?

 “You have been named,” the Director said standing up. “How do you like it?”

“I don’t,” I said. “The name doesn’t suit me.”

“Which one would you prefer?”

I told him and he flushed to a deep purple along his sagging jowls.

“You are confined to quarters, my dear. Until further notice.” He strode to the door and slipped out before I could say anything.

• • •

For two days, I watched the sun rise through the plexiglass. I watched the shadows shrink and lengthen over the course of the day. I watched the colors of the strip of grass, the hedge, the high wall and the fringe of far away trees. I watched how they became bright, then whitewashed, then bright again. How as the afternoon dragged they became muted then shadowed then dark. My meals were delivered through a slot next to the door. Three times a day a tray slipped through with soup and crackers and some kind of tough meat. Jell-O or butterscotch pudding for dessert. Three times a day I shoved the dishes back through. I heard them clatter to the floor. I didn’t care and I don’t think anyone else did either.

At dinner of the second day, Gwendolyn left a note on top of the container housing my peas and carrots. “You are here,” the note said, “because someone believed you good. And you are good. All of us are.” I do not doubt that she believes this. As far as I can tell, everyone — except perhaps for Randy the Orderly — believes this. When I first met Charlene — I still could barely speak, but I could understand mostly — she showed me a picture of my brain. A slice here, she showed me, a cauterization there. Memories, of course are elusive, and their storage sites various, but rather than going at it the old fashioned way with a nasty knock to the head, they learned to locate the brains secret caches of memory, and thereby eliminating the Old Self.

“You see,” Charlene explained to me, “we are creatures of habit. We start out good, and if we only learn to do good things, we stay good. When we learn to do bad things, however, our brains make pathways that assume bad things. But if you disrupt the memories, you see, if you force the brain to make new pathways because it doesn’t remember where it is and how it got there, then there is only the goodness left. Your goodness. From now on.”

I have no doubt that she believed it. But as she said this, the scar on my left hand itched and burned. I didn’t tell her that even though no one had told me, I knew that if I had something sharp, I could cut her. I knew that if I cut her, she would bleed. I knew that if I cut her at her throat she would die more quickly than if I cut her at her belly. I knew those things. I did not know how.

• • •

I didn’t eat my peas and carrots that evening. Or anything else, for that matter. It felt like it would be lying to even try. I shoved my tray back through the slot and I heard the soup slop onto the floor in a clatter of plastic. I heard the rubbery meat hit the linoleum in a sodden splat. I heard someone say “Fuck,” and stomp away. I didn’t care.

• • •

The moon was only just rising when Randy the Orderly came into the room. He had always been thin, a collections of sticks moving chaotically in a pale blue shapeless uniform. But now he looked as though he could blow away if I breathed too hard. His face, barely lit by the half moon, was all angles and dark hollows.

“You’re awake,” he whispered.

“So are you,” I did not whisper. I sat up. It was hot in my room and I had taken my shirt off an hour earlier when I was first trying to sleep. In my Society Re-integration class, we were told to guard against public nudity because it made people uncomfortable. It didn’t make me uncomfortable so I did not cover up. My breasts were heavy and silver colored in the moonlight. He cleared his throat. So, I thought, it works. Randy recovered himself.

“You don’t remember me.”

“Of course I do,” I said. “You’re Randy. You don’t like me.”

 “I know what you are.”

 “Well,” I said, “that makes one of us.” That wasn’t entirely true. I knew some things. I knew that parts of my self hovered just out of reach — a song that I couldn’t quite remember. But I knew that I could if I thought hard enough.

Randy removed the glove from his left hand. The back was a knot of purple and white, a complicated topography of scars. “See that? I cut it off myself.”

“Your hand?”

“You were always so smart. They always try to leave the I.Q. untouched, but maybe they made an exception with you. I cut off the mark. Your mark. I loved you. Worshipped you. And you knew it.”

“That was my Old Person. Now I am New.”

“Bullshit,” he said, and I wondered if he was right. “Maybe for everyone else. Maybe everyone else is born good. Not you. You were a foul seed from the beginning and you’re a foul seed now. We all loved you and believed in you. We killed for you and stole for you and a bunch of us died for you. You didn’t care. Why would you have? I wised up when no one else would. Told the Director where you were, where everyone else was. He was glad of course. Kind of a pain in the ass when you’re a famous criminologist and you’re stuck with a daughter whose a famous criminal. So he rewarded me. He always rewards the people who are good to him. That’s why you will end up with nothing. That’s why you deserve nothing.”

“If I haven’t changed,” I said, inching my back upwards along the wall. My breasts swung slightly as I did this, rippling in the silver light. Randy the orderly whimpered slightly. “If you loved me then, can I assume that you love me now?”

“No,” he whispered pressing his body against the door.

“You worshipped me then,” I said as I slowly stood up. I brought my hands to my hips and hooked my thumbs under the rim of my waistband. “Was it because I was beautiful and terrible and strange?” Randy gasped and began to sink towards the floor. I walked towards him, placed a hand at each shoulder and pushed down until his legs splayed out. I knelt, squeezing his hips with each knee. “Or was it because I was known to bestow the occasional blessing?” He laid his palms against my waist and I remembered. I remembered that I ran away, that I screwed for money, and screwed for drugs and screwed for the sheer pleasure of screwing. I remembered the first man I ever killed, and the first woman and the first child. I remembered a room full of men and women with their teeth sharpened to points, their tattooed fists raised in salute, their devotion to blood and fear and me. I remembered that I could make men and women shiver with one wink of my large green eye.

“I could kill you,” he said in a pathetic squeak. He held his knife upwards in his open palm. He held it like a little child offering a sweet to a sweetheart. I took the knife. He leaned his head back against the door with a thud. And again a thud. And again.

“No, darling,” I said bringing my mouth to his neck. “No,” I said, slipping the knife between his bottom two ribs, pointing downward to pierce the diaphragm to prevent a scream. “You never could.”

Randy gripped my breasts and trembled and thrust — his last great ecstasy before going beautifully still. Standing, I found a shirt, Randy’s keys, and a drink of water. I cleaned the blade so it would not rust and bent down to kiss Randy’s cooling lips. They tasted like lilac and mown grass. They were sweet as memory, as song, as a long-awaited journey out of doors.

 

 

Kelly Barnhill is a former schoolteacher, former wildland firefighter, former bartender, former park ranger, former coffee jerk and former janitor. The sum of these experiences have prepared her for nothing, of course, save writing, which she has been doing for the last five years. Her work has appeared in Weird Tales, Postscripts, Fantasy, The Sun and The Rake. Her first novel, The Boy Without a Face, a YA fantasy, will be published by Little Brown in the spring of 2010. She lives in the lovely — though chilly — city of Minneapolis with her three zany children, her hardworking husband and her emotionally unstable.


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ISSUE #18

October 2008

FICTION