Dawn folds itself over the sheets. Her fingernails on my chest, finding the rise and fall of my contours, reading the thin words of my flesh.
“This one?” she asks. Her index plumbs an indentation in my belly.
“Seventeen,” I answer. A fish boning knife. She traces the shape of a soldered worm on my side, vestige of a razor.
“And this one?” she asks again.
“Four,” I say. She nods. Like she understands.
“How many more until you finish your list?”
I sigh and shrug, keep my eyes on the oil lamp. Count the slow flickers as it chokes.
Stark trees still in hibernation, he turned the lamp down. Flushed the light from the shutters. Drew the locks across the doors. None had found this hideaway yet.
His fingertips found his wards scrawled into the doorframe wood. Hoping they would buy him time, should she return. He had let her in once and still paid for it in lost homes. Self-care had come too late.
He counted the tools on his belt and settled into the armchair to sleep. For another night, he waited for the light of the hearth to wane. Listened for feet on the gravel path.
The skin of her fingertip held together with a clamp, she applied a line of superglue. Took in its scent as it bonded the two halves back together. A dressmaker until the need for dresses died, she had slipped with the knife she was using for her work. Cut off a larger piece than intended. Unfamiliar with the new medium, she’d have to grow accustomed to it soon. Once the glue dried she would start work on the mask again. Any more failures, and she would have to get more material. She crossed her fingers. She cared very little for the tanning process.
The brief summer love now stretching her shirt had him asking questions of himself. Counting the options on his fingers. Am I a provider? Am I capable of unconditional love? Will biology fail them like it has failed me? He turned the weight from one palm to another. Considered the matter objectively.
He broke the action and filed his choice away. As one palm grew lighter, so did his conscience. This course of his had the least amount of pain, in the grand scheme of things. Despite the heat, the metal still felt cold. The hammer clicking back like relief.
“Fuck you, pal,” the old boy spits. His spectacles as wide as his face, accentuating his other frog-like qualities. I bogart my cigarette. Just the three of us. Nothing to stop it getting further out of hand.
“You sit yourself down in a smoking area and then tell me it’s rude to smoke when other people are eating?” I cloud. “Do you go into doctor’s waiting rooms and demand the sick people leave?”
“When to smoke is a choice,” he continues, putting his wife’s coat on her shoulders. She glares an old woman glare. I throw her a wink and drink in the disgust.
“So is your being here,” I say. “And in the cosmic order of things, I was here first.” A deep drag. Maintain the eye contact.
But he doesn’t bite. They leave, throwing curses and middle fingers over their shoulders. I sigh. Put another tally on the notepad. Count the number of tabs left in the box. If someone doesn’t take the bait and swing a punch at me before long, I am never going to get to claim self-defence if the police come calling. A bet is a bet, and this one is going to expire soon. Then I’ll really be in trouble.
A sword, glum and without sheen. Too ugly to be a display piece, but there it was, above the mantelpiece. Dormant, without its scabbard.
“Why’d you keep that hideous thing up there, Uncle Vernon?” I ask. He had invited me for dinner, unusually. We hadn’t spoken in years. Not since our argument. He called me a wastrel, pissing away his dead brother’s nest-egg. He wasn’t completely wrong. Two years later and I’m penniless.
“There’s an old family legend, lad,” he says over his brandy. “That this weapon must take a life every fifty years, or our house will fall into ruin.”
I drain my drink to the ice. “You said this dinner was about a job opportunity, Uncle,” I say with impatience.
“It is,” he says, unblinking. “Let’s wait for our dinner to go down first.”
The corrections officer ran the biometric scanner up Graham’s breast. Bold, digitized, red, it declared: EXPIRED. Many observers would have still called him a child at his sentencing, those decades ago when the implantations began. The need for prisons crashed when repeat offenders carried explosives somewhere on them.
Graham had knuckled down. Studied hard. Added letters of all sorts to the end of his name. Stayed whole while other boys from his gang tried again. Lost arms. Faces. Lives. He would be a model example of the project’s positive effects. Took a role in the implant factory to prove his route to reformed citizen was complete.
The officer waved him off, a free man. He left, cycling the serial numbers he’d memorized. The list of duds he had approved for use. Graham would contact their owners tonight. He had just the job in mind.
The flare casts a ghost light over that landscape shorn of trees or shelter. We conscripts knew the hills where the enemy dwelt and assembled the last guns known to the sane. Laid fire on the mountainside until nothing remained. Trees splintered and threw themselves into matchwood. The aftermath of a windless storm. Only raw earth to bury the very green of this world’s last goodbyes.
Now we man posts on this barren and forsaken expanse to our doom. If a figure moves in the midst of that friendless waste, our orders to fire again. Yet naught but stillness for months. Food runs low. The men wonder if we are the only ones left. I order them to stare down their sights, and throw flares hopelessly up to the black.
The fellow sits in the car, his bare feet on the dashboard. The same position all night. Waiting for something to snap. Waiting for the woman from the nearby convenience store to make her way home. Then he will cover the speaker on his smartphone, steal images known to none but himself. They will be pulled out after, in silence, to grease his palm. She looks back at him the way one regards caged hyenas. With curiosity. Fear.
He will take more later. Of mannequin poses to compare with the ones he admires online. This just another exercise in reconnaissance.
It was not yet winter but they had come dressed for it. Thick overcoats and balaclavas to hide what parts of them were human. I knew they were boys from school. The dating profile had been created with them in mind. To prevent my suffering from becoming another’s.
I will not give anyone the satisfaction of recounting their nightmare again in full. Those details are mine, facts to fuel my revenge. I’ll show them my true face once before they go. The pair of them wait in the bathroom. Tied wrist to ankle. Face down in the tub.
The choice of a bullet gave way to the more contemplative process of running water. I’ll check back in a moment. To see if it’s time I can cross another two names off the list.