Edit: the "he" in the story is a nameless, faceless male presence. My mind did not specify.
One evening while we painted stars on our ceiling with flecks of broken glass, he asked me to a masquerade ball. His face was pale, and I asked him if he was all right. He said yes; I said yes.
For me we picked out a black and red tuxedo cut for a woman. It fit me well. I preened uncharacteristically in the mirror for a while until he chuckled, having dressed in his own costume, and pulled me gently out the door.
The neighborhood was dark and as we walked I had trouble seeing him. I knew he’d dressed as a vampire, but the fitful orange light of the streetlamps played changeling with his face and once he was pensive; once his face was lined with animal rage. I felt the press of unease on my mind like a crowded train station. But I kept to myself.
I could hear the sounds of the masquerade, hosted by a friend of his who collected old houses like stray dogs but never found the time to wash or fix them, from down the street. I deliberately slowed my pace, needing to prepare myself for the wild forest of sound, heat, bodies, movement, sensation inside the house. I told him to go in without me; I’d be there soon. He nodded, smiled (and it was broken on his face), and went in. I continued down the street.
A yellow-orange blink of light on the ground grabbed my eyes. It was a large coin, almost the size of my fist. To hold it in one hand I had to keep all the fingers splayed wide. I liked it. The faces were primitive, Slavic. I tucked it into the waistband of my pants and covered it with the cummerbund. Its comforting weight immediately brought me peace. I turned around and walked back to the pulsing house, ready to face the riot.
But he and two friends came out and met me on the stoop. I smiled, but only he returned it. It took him a few tries, as if the act of smiling caused him pain. So far he’d kept his mask perched on top of his head, and I secretly begged him not to cover his face with it. Broken smiles were better than hidden ones.
He invited me to walk down the street from the way I’d come. He took my arm and led me chivalrously. We passed the place where I’d found the coin and I felt a jab of territorial, frantic jealousy for the coin. Nobody must have it. I pressed my arm against my belly and was again comforted by the coin’s steady weight and shape.
We walked, and my body began to twist in its deep places as it does when I sense wrongness like a wolf waiting just outside the ring of light made by a camper’s fire. I didn’t let the uncomfort get as far as my face. I asked him where we were going. He said “To get you a new mask. It’s a masquerade after all, and you have to have a mask.”
I’d completely forgotten about a mask. His, still cocked back on top of his head, was nothing but two black gapes for eyes and a wavering, fanged maw of a mouth. He’d done well on his vampire costume, well except for the face. I glanced behind me; his two friends walked quietly, their bodies empty of expression or attitude.
The street became pocked and turtlebacked; the houses grew shabby and sad. We walked through this blasted neighborhood and the dark began to collect in pockets and send out vines. Soon we were overrun by rank growth of darkness, and I kept my hand on the coin. It was warm, having collected heat from my body.
We rounded a corner, and light limned the edges of things. It was not moonlight or street-light, and it was still four hours too early for the sun. It was only what it was not; a sourceless sickly yellow light that threw me into doubt, doubt for myself, doubt of him, his friends, the party, the coin. Oh, the coin.
I gazed at him, pleading with my eyes, and he slid the mask down over his face. Under it, though, I saw a small, genuine, apologetic smile, lined by pointed teeth. He said, “Come on. There’s a party store at the end of this block. We can find you a mask there.”
I didn’t resist when he and his friend each took my arm. I sensed that I could have. There was nothing acting on me to slow me, stupefy me, confuse me or disable me. Only a grossly inflated curiosity, swelling my skull with hot air. I felt lightheaded and giddy and would have settled a hand on top of my head to keep it from floating away but one hand needed to stay pressed against the coin and the other needed to stay linked to his.
The end of the block was a dead end. A brick wall with a razorwire fence on top. The ugly yellow light dripped off the wire like pus.
“I guess the party store was down the next block,” he said, but did not turn. His friends, one on my other arm and one drawn up beside him, stared straight ahead like tin soldiers. He took my shoulders gently and turned me around to face the entrance to the dead end alley. We all turned. It was as if the alley had been cleared deliberately, as if the buildings had consciousness enough to part for us. Because as we stood with our backs to that wall, the street stretched out in front of us, straight and flat as the desert, arrowing to a point so small it was unseeable.
How many angels can dance at the end of a road? I thought madly, and felt my mind break from its moorings.
He stepped close to me and tenderly, gingerly untied the scarlet bowtie at my neck. His nose almost touched the line of my jaw. His thick cologne bit my nose and the sound of his labored breath rasped my ears. His friends unbuttoned my topcoat with civility but no care. They pulled it off, sleeve by sleeve, then he untucked my shirt and began to unbutton it. His friends untied the cummerbund at my back and I reflexively clasped the coin to my belly to keep it from falling. I held it there, fearing more for its safety than my own as he removed my bra. The diseased yellow light wanted nothing to do with their faces, instead slathering itself over my bared skin. The light lay on me like a sick and sleeping cat, hot and heavy and itching.
They stepped back, his friends, against the wall and into the thick shadow that suddenly grew there. Something drew my eyes to the point of road hundreds of miles in front of me, and again one of the ropes that anchored my mind snapped. There, crouched just below the horizon like the big brother of the light-cat asleep on my bare chest, was the source of the light. I knew in a moment it would rise like a bastard usurper son.
Suddenly I felt a bright flare of pain high on my side, near my right breast. He had slid a wicked-looking knife between my ribs. It slid in easily at first, dizzyingly easily, then hit resistance. He stopped, balked by my body, hesitant to continue. I thought, “Hurry up; it hurts. Put your back into it.” Then the not-sun’s yellow-grey light pierced the horizon and raced toward me faster than I could see. I stood with my naked top half, my breasts bare to the light but still I felt the knife go no deeper. I looked over at him. His eyes were closed.
Now I knew why he seemed too small… because he was lying down, asleep. Now I knew why nobody felt real; because nobody else was really there. It was only him and me in our bedroom. I lay in bed with a knife between my ribs, and I knew I had done it. The small sounds and squirms of my death may have reached him lying next to me, but he only stirred and moaned lightly. The pain of my body shutting down, little by little, was exquisite.
But then there was more than the pain. My body ceased shutting down (the knife fell from my side and clanged on the floor) and began to change. This was painful too, but painful as growing is. Itchy. Achy.
The pain abandoned me completely, and I felt new. I was aware that I had arms, legs, a body. Time. A mind. Strength. Teeth.
I took a breath. I was aware of heaven’s drawn-in experience like a brush of fine sand across my cheek.