By A.C. Wise
The needle buzzes, setting up a whine in my back teeth. Under her careful hand, a spatter of stars—midnight blue—arc from the curve of my hip-bone to the soft flesh of my inner thigh. Sarah moves my penis aside, dispassionate, getting exactly the right angle to complete the sweep of her constellation.
I catch the sterile scent of the thin rubber stretched over her hands. Clinical. The gloves put thoughts into my head of medical exams, and tables better suited to holding corpses than living, breathing things.
My flesh puckers, pulling tight around the tiny bumps left where Sarah’s razor has scraped me clean again. I know better than to scratch, doing nothing that could mark or scar her canvas. Any imperfection will be by her design; it isn’t for me to decide.
I used to abuse my skin with foul, burning chemicals, trying to bleach moles and freckles out or existence. Sarah stopped me. What’s the point in working with human flesh, she said, if you’re not working with its flaws? I thought she was trying to protect me.
I breathe out, focus on the wall. I’m good at standing still. The pain doesn’t bother me, not any more.
I’m good at other things, too. I know my body’s strengths; I know its weaknesses. With my eyes closed, I can trace each nerve down to its end, direct sensation, feel only what I want to feel. I can will stillness, hold my breath for minutes on end. When her needle buzzes, when she’s making me better, more, I’m superhuman.
I could stop my heart and start it again if Sarah asked me to.
An ache hollows my belly, but I suppress my stomach’s urge to growl, holding my little sufferings inside. Even the minutest vibrations, the faintest stirrings of my flesh, would disrupt the fragile perfection of her work. So I’ve gotten good at not reacting when she touches me, when her hand rests on the curve of my thigh, or when her mouth is inches from my cock, her breath hot on my skin in her concentration.
“Fuck!” Sarah shatters the silence. “I need a break.” She rocks back on her heels.
The absence of her heat is sudden and shocking. I don’t realize I’m cold until she withdraws, studying me critically. But I don’t shiver. Not while she’s looking.
I stand perfectly still, wondering what she sees when she looks at me. I am skin stretched taut over bone; ink obliterates my chest, my shoulders, my arms, in swirls of ruby, onyx, amber, sapphire, viridian, amethyst, and slate. Images, like loose threads in a tapestry, trail down my legs waiting to be caught up and woven. Studs and rings glimmer at irregular intervals, denser stars in Sarah’s constellation, holding me together. This is what I am, but what does Sarah see? Shape, line, and color? Canvas and frame? Does she see only the imagined imperfections? A work that will never be finished, never be right?
Or does she see nightmares, caged for a moment, only waiting for their time?
One thing I’m certain of—she sees her art, but never me.
Sarah rises, knees popping gunshot loud. “I need a fucking smoke.”
She sets her needle down, peeling off her gloves. She turns her back, and I hear her lighter spark, a flinty sound. Smoke drifts in tendrils around her head. She won’t look at me again, not tonight. I’ve been dismissed.
As quietly as I can, I gather my clothes. I don’t dress in her studio. Now that she’s done for the night, my presence and my flaws are an intrusion on her private space. They jar and ache, an irritant that will never heal into a pearl. I creep out into the hall and close the door behind me. As I pull my clothes on under the dishwater-spill-of-light, I listen to her mutter and pace.
A meat-smell haunts the building. Blood and offal, the memory of a thousand cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep stripped to their naked components—steaks and shanks and ribs cold stored and waiting to be consumed—soaked deep into the walls.
A distinctive thunk sounds behind me. I jump. Sarah’s heavy ashtray has just hit the door, but I know better than to knock and ask if she’s okay. I button my shirt and zip my fly, hiding Sarah’s ink. I look almost normal in cotton and worn denim. I call the freight elevator, and when it arrives, I raise the grille and step inside. It’s colder than Sarah’s studio. I try not to look at the rust-colored stains on the walls or the floor as the elevator rattles and wheezes down into the dark.
Outside, the wind slices through my clothes. My pockets are empty, not even enough cash for a subway token. Although tucked deeply in my armpits, my fingers are numb by the time I reach home—a tiny walk-up halfway across town. I shoot the deadbolts, locking myself in. All great artwork needs insurance.
In the bathroom, I strip, smearing antibiotic gel on the reddened flesh pulsing hot under Sarah’s artwork. I can’t risk infection. Light gauze dims her stars, and I tape it in place around the edges before dressing once more. Everything in its proper order.
White light from the fridge bathes me. I breathe in Freon cold. The wire shelves are full of take-out cartons, noodles in sodium-rich sauce, vegetables gone limp and congealed together, sticky rice. I line up the cartons on the kitchen table, not bothering to heat them. I don’t bother with a fork or chopsticks either. My fingers plunge in, scooping icy food into my mouth, slurping, chewing, moving methodically from one carton to the next.
The gnawing hunger subsides. The food slides down to rest cold in my belly. The noodles form a Gordian knot, tangled and pressing outwards against my skin. They distort Sarah’s work, stretching her careful ink beyond recognition.
At that thought, I stand so fast my chair hits the floor. I rush down the hall to the bathroom. The lid smacks the back of the tank. I shove my finger down my throat almost before my knees hit tile. My body jerks, heaves. I clutch the slick porcelain, embracing it. I worship; my spine presses outwards as my body bucks in time to the convulsing of my stomach. It’s almost orgasmic.
When I’m done, my throat aches, bile-stripped, but I’m empty and clean. I stand on shaky legs, and face the mirror, wiping my mouth. My cheeks are gaunt, my eyes sunken; tendons and veins stand out, cords binding me together in the spaces between the silver studs and rings. I hate what I see. But Sarah will make me better. She’ll make me beautiful; I know she will.
I brush my teeth hard, wearing away enamel to leave thin edges of ivory, razors held against my lips. I would cut myself if I ever smiled. I follow toothpaste with mouthwash, mint burning away the taste of bile. I can’t erase the yellowing stains, but it doesn’t matter. What’s the point of working in flesh if you don’t work with the imperfections, too?
Bone-tired, I stagger down the hall, but I complete the ritual before I let myself collapse into bed. I stand in front of the full length mirror lining my closet door and peel away my clothes, watching my reflection. Sarah’s work is perfect. The ink shimmers. She sees flaws; I see her intent.
The ring in my right nipple winks like a star. The scar above my left pectoral, where Sarah tore a piercing out in frustration, arcs like a meteor, streaking toward collision. A universe shivers across my chest every time I breathe. And the things that inhabit it—inconceivable things, at once vast yet cramped-small, demons and nightmares devouring my flesh. Terror nests within terror, an endless regression. These are Sarah’s dreams, held fast inside my skin.
I wish she could see me the way I do.
I cup a hand over the gauze-wrapped rawness, feeling her new stars pulse with faint light. It’s worth the pain. I imagine it’s her heart I feel, not my own blood thump-thumping. It’s worth the pain.
“Look at him,” Sarah says.
Her voice is critical. I stand perfectly still. She paces, grey eyes darting, worried, as her heels tattoo a rhythm on the bare, uneven floor. My arms ache from holding them out to the sides, but it’s a good pain.
“It’s not bad, Sarah,” Lelani says. “It’s actually really good.” She’s a sculptor.
“It’s fucking terrible!” Sarah picks a fleck of ash from her lower lip.
She points accusingly at the jut of my hip where the spray of dark stars begins, threading down to my thigh. Her cigarette singes the unshaved hairs as her hand wavers. If I were less disciplined, I would wince.
“Just look at it!” She points again, the movement dislodging hot ash that drifts to land on my toes. I hold my breath until she turns away.
Simon drapes an arm across Sarah’s shoulder, a gesture full of comfort. He’s a painter. I try not to hate him. He’s only her friend, not her canvas, not her muse.
“Don’t worry, Sarah. It’ll all come together, your work always does. Besides, you’ve put your heart and your soul into this thing. It’ll be your best piece by the time you’re done. I promise.”
My pulse kicks, latching onto Simon’s words. I am Sarah’s canvas, but I am her work, too. I’ve stretched my skin taut, sharpened my bones. With every curse, every frown, she shapes me. Beneath the ink, my skin is her art; my bones are hers, too. My entire body, bent to her vision, will be Sarah’s true masterpiece.
Simon and Lelani lead Sarah to the futon shoved against the far wall. Their voices fall out of range. They’ve forgotten I’m here. Lelani retrieves wine from the mini fridge and pours three glasses, offering none to me.
They sit, Sarah in the middle, Lelani and Simon flanking her. Their heads bend together, conferring as they sip. I wish I could be on the couch beside her, my starved arm draped around her shoulders. I would whisper: don’t you realize how good you are? You’re perfect.
And it’s true. Any flaw is my own, her un-perfect canvas warping her intent. I would tell her how hard I’ve tried to catch and hold all her dreams. But that isn’t what she wants to hear.
It doesn’t matter though, because it isn’t me beside her on the couch, faces kissing-close. I stand against the wall on the opposite side of the room and breathe. I remind myself: she needs me. And nothing is too much to bear for her sake.
“I need you.” Sarah’s voice is ragged through the phone.
Even halfway across town, I feel her hot breath stirring hairs, tracing the whorls leading down to my eardrum, stroking my cochlea, teasing my nerves. I’m awake instantly, clutching the phone so hard my bones ache.
“I’ll be right there.”
She’s already hung up by the time I respond. My tongue sticks against the roof of my mouth. Too slow, always too slow.
The sheets rasp against my bare skin. My thigh itches where Sarah’s constellation is starting to heal, but I don’t scratch. It’s like sunburn, the memory of something good. She hasn’t touched me since that day, those stars. But now—she needs me.
I dress hastily. My stomach growls, the hot grease-and-cheese of the pizza devoured earlier long since flushed down the toilet. I ignore the pain.
I have a little cash, so I catch the subway. I make it to Sarah’s in record time and take the stairs, muscles burning. She’s never cried in front of anyone except me. I may not have an arm draped around her in comfort, the shared wine-heaviness of breath, but I’ve seen her tears.
I used to think Sarah desired me, and one day, she might even love me; that was long ago. She wanted my potential—the blank canvas of my skin, my willingness to absorb her pain. Once she began etching her dreams into my flesh, I wasn’t hope anymore, I was concrete and real. If she feels anything for me now, it must be hate. I’m her shed skin, all the parts of her she wants to banish and give away.
But it doesn’t matter what she thinks of me, if she thinks of me at all. I won’t abandon her. I’ll be less for her, become a ghost, make my skin translucent so her ink will shine. I will be the vision inside her head. I will be as beautiful as she wants me to be.
Breathless, I tap on Sarah’s door, careful not to damage her canvas, or do anything to mar my thin skin, so easily bruised. She opens the door a crack, the chain still holding it closed and bisecting her face. The lights are off inside. The light from the hall shows me the terror in her eyes.
Her dreams bleed through that haunted gaze. Cracked light runs in her tears, carving her cheeks hollow. In this moment, we’re the same; she’s just as fragile as I am, full of just as much need.
The chain rattles and she steps back to let me in. Her dark hair hangs loose and tangled, reeking of smoke.
“Take your clothes off,” is the first thing and only thing she says to me.
I’m barely out of my last sock when she slams me hard against the wall. My shoulder blades scrape the warped and water stained plaster.
“Don’t move.” Her voice is a smoke-raw growl.
She crouches, already wielding her needle, ready. She goes to work.
Sarah doesn’t need light. The images are burned on her skull, on the blood-lined thinness of her eyelids; she’d see them even blind. All I can see of Sarah is the top of her head, bent in concentration, the faint glimmer of strands of grey nestled in the dark of her hair.
I close my eyes, lean my head against the wall, and focus on keeping still. The needle buzzes and whines. I cradle the hurt in my jaw, clench my teeth around Sarah’s pain, holding it so she doesn’t have to. Every needle-prick is her raw, throbbing fear. I focus on it, let her work it deep into my skin.
My body tingles, arcs electric, but I keep it all inside. This is what passes for love between us. By the time Sarah is done, dawn lightens the sky. Her sigh breaks the seal on my gummed-shut eyes. I pry them open, catching a glimpse of Sarah’s face as she stands; it is blank, drained of its nightmares. She stretches the kinks from muscle and bone, and turns her back.
I bend my neck, craning to see her work. A creature, all twisted grey, all eyes and teeth, crouches on my thigh. It glares, eyes balefully red as though Sarah worked my blood into the ink, stitching it back beneath my skin.
This is what Sarah sees all the time. This is what it must be like to live inside her head. The pain twists me around. My eyes sting hotly, and I blink against her hurt, my heart aching.
Sarah is still facing the window, arms crossed, smoke threading up and down, binding her. I want to reach out to her, bridge the silence. I need her; she needs me. I do a thing I’m never permitted to do. I speak.
“Tell me about the dreams.” My voice frog-cracks, hoarse from disuse.
Sarah flinches, shoulder blades pressing against her skin. She doesn’t answer; she doesn’t turn. I wait, listen to my blood thump. Sarah doesn’t move. Silently, I gather my clothes, and leave without a sound.
My body burns fever-hot, crushed and aching beneath the meager weight of a single sheet. I cherish the pain.
Sarah’s demon gnaws at me in my sleep, riddling me with holes, hollowing me, making me less, making me more. On the edge of dreaming, I watch my body, dense with ink, rise and go walk-about. I drift, divided from myself, watching the horror I have become stalk the streets. Nightmares pour from my flesh to infect the city. I can no longer hold them in. They spill through the streets, living shadow, looking for Sarah.
A gasp, and I awake to pain; it grounds me. It spider-webs out from my right thigh, connecting the constellation of my piercings, weaving Sarah’s ink into a vast tapestry, and binding the demons safely back inside. A shuddering breath, it was only a dream.
I touch the ring in my right nipple. The metal is skin-warm. I tug lightly, then trace the pulsing thrill up to the scar on my bicep. I finger the ridge, caressing the hard seam of flesh, then move my hand down the row of studs lining my ribcage, tipping each bone as it presses sharply against the skin.
I follow the nerves from piercing to piercing, ley lines of sensation caging Sarah’s demons. If I ever fail, if I ever truly break, the darkness will wash from me like a flood and drown the world. Sarah’s ink writhes against my palm, as I slide my hand down and press it against the swirl of metal spiraling out from my navel in concentric rings.
I know this about Sarah, even though she’s never told me: she is the end of the world. It’s there, in her dreams, in the ink she’s poured into my skin. It terrifies her. So I keep her nightmares safe. I keep her safe.
I trace the whorl of metal in my belly. There’s a sweet, bruising ache around each ring, each stud. I cherish each hurt, pressing my fingers to them one by one, deepening the pain. I arch against the sheet, spine curved bow-taut. The needled flesh of my right thigh tingles. Trapped behind my skin, Sarah’s demons howl.
A knock at the door, gun-shot sharp, drives the breath from my lungs and slams me back against the mattress. My skin shrivels and puckers in fear. The knock comes again, a hollow sound. There’s enough urgency behind the knock—skin stretched over bone, slammed against wood—that I wrap the sheet around my waist and hurry to the door.
In the instant before I turn the knob, my pulse thumps with the vain hope that Sarah will be on the other side, needing me. Never once in the time I’ve known her has she come to my apartment. I don’t know if she even knows where I live.
I open the door. Two sets of eyes, shadowed with concern, peer in at me: Lelani and Simon. Surprised, I let the door hang open. Lelani’s gaze moves beyond me, then flicks back to my skin, tracing Sarah’s loops and swirls, her mad stars, her hungry demons. Lelani’s critical gaze has moved over me a dozen times at Sarah’s bidding, but even with the sheet wrapped around me this is the first time I’ve felt naked.
“Sarah’s gone,” she says, finally bringing her eyes up to meet mine.
For a moment, I can only stare. Stunned, I look to Simon for confirmation. His expression is grim.
“What do you mean gone?” My voice is just as ugly as it was in the dawn light of Sarah’s studio, just as raw.
My blood races so I can imagine the studs and hoops jumping against my skin. Sarah’s demons claw at me, longing to break free. My stomach turns, knotting on emptiness. I want to purge, even though there’s nothing to bring up.
“Gone. Just gone. All her things are there, but she’s not.” Lelani’s tone, so matter of fact, so cold, drives like a fist into my already aching gut.
I hate her more than I ever have. Even in those moments when she sat with Sarah on the futon by the wall, their heads bent close to share wine-scented breath, I didn’t begrudge her. Lelani could offer solace, encouragement as one artist to another. But she couldn’t offer the same comfort as a muse. But now, with her shit-brown eyes, and her voice so emotionless, I despise her.
I don’t even think about it. I slam the door. The moment it closes, I fall against it, pounding my fists on the wood. The doorframe trembles with the assault, and my body hitches dry. Sarah. Sarah.
I wasn’t enough. I failed. I couldn’t hold the nightmares inside my skin. They slipped the frame and found Sarah in a rare hour of sleep, devouring her with teeth sharper than any tattoo needle.
I drove Sarah away with my words, with the ugliness of my forbidden voice. I wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t keep her safe.
Hours later, or maybe years, dry-eyed, I rise from the grit of my apartment floor, clutching the door so I don’t fall. My body is a mass of tattered, multi-colored rags tied to a fragile framework of bone. It is empty of meaning; the tapestry is incomplete.
Gripping the sheet close to me, I turn the knob. My shoulders jerk against my skin, every part of my body at war with itself. I can’t stop shivering. My teeth chatter, missing the buzzing whine, the precious hurt clenched tightly in my jaw. Trailing my sheet like a shroud, I walk outside.
The world assaults me. Too loud, too bright. Traffic screams, people speak in a constant chatter yet say nothing. In my peripheral vision, I see them draw away from me, expressions stark with fear. And why shouldn’t they? I am the stuff of nightmares.
I stumble, blind, to a fountain in the middle of a traffic circle, topped with a bronze angel that watches over the damned mass of humanity. I climb over the lip, ignoring the icy water stained rust and copper-green. When the sheet gets too heavy, I let it fall to drown.
I grip the angel’s cold feet and climb, hauling myself up to stand beneath the shadow of wings spread against the sky. I lift my arms, imitating those wings. I can hold this pose for hours. I can stand perfectly still.
The wind plucks at my skin, makes it sing. The unfinished canvas thrums against my bones. Dark stars shine on my flesh. The demons writhe and whisper. I close my eyes.
I’ll stand here until the lure of Sarah’s unfinished art draws her back to me. I’ll stand here until my body fails, until the canvas frays and the wind undoes the threads, until the net snaps, and I let Sarah’s darkness out into the world. I’ll stand here until tendrils of ink bleed from my skin and infect the people passing by, slipping down their throats and stopping their breath.
I’ll stand here until the end of the world.
More from A.C. Wise
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, ChiZine, and Daily Science Fiction, among others, and is forthcoming in The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her writing, she co-edits the online ‘zine The Journal of Unlikely Entomology. For more information, visit the author’s website www.acwise.net.