©2012 (826 words)
He thinks it disappointing, the way the initial sensations—the blade slashing his arms, his chest, the searing, briny sting of sweat seeping into open wounds—have all bled away, deadened by endorphins. Now there is only the pressure of her fingers on his wrist like the ghost memory of a limb gone dead in the night—that and the cold, numb weight of gravity when she lets go.
“You asked for it,” she says, her breath like a blast of spearminted winter when she leans over the tub. “What a mess. There’s like, blood—everywhere.”
Strange that he can still hear her given the ringing in his ears.
For a moment he thinks to open his eyes, to pull her into focus one last time. But it is too much effort and there is no need anymore. He’s seen her well enough.
“Christ!” he’d exclaimed that first afternoon stumbling upon her in one of his tenements. “You were nearly the death of me.”
She’d never flinched.
“Wait,” she’d begun, brandishing her lip gloss. “A girl has to like, prepare.”
He’d appreciated that—appreciated the way she took the lead, certain that he would follow her into the derelict lavatory. He’d appreciated that everything about her looked thieved: the heavy makeup (purloined at the mall?), the schoolgirl-plaid pinafore, those god-awful clodhopper boots scuffing up splinters (lifted from Goodwill?).
“You’re trespassing,” he’d countered, unable to tear his eyes away from her crazy-making legs as she preened before the mirror.
“Says who? Anyway, this place is like, a dump.”
He’d made up his mind right then—the chilblains prickling at his groin—how it would be.
“Yes, but it’s my dump,” he answered. “You can’t be here. Unless I say so.”
It was when she moved out of the shadows that he’d noticed her forearms—the scrimshaw network of pencil-thin scars and scabbed over incisions, dozens etched into the pale under flesh. Some of them still beading blood.
He’d been unable to stop himself snatching at her arm.
“How can you do that? Cut yourself?”
A more cautious man would’ve anticipated how sharp she’d be, the knife (in the folds of her skirt?) suddenly at his throat. She’d been accurate to the millimeter in pinpointing his pulse.
“I scratch,” she purred leaning close enough for him to see the proof—the knife-shaped gaps in both irises, like black slashes in amber. “Coloboma vision, it’s called. Eyes like a cat,” she said, grinning. “And I’m ambidextrous. I can do my makeup and slit your throat at the same time.”
Most men would’ve been afraid.
“It was a simple question,” he’d deadpanned. “No need to overreact.”
She’d liked that.
“I’ve only like, broken the skin,” she replied, tossing the knife into the sink.
He remembers the louche mobility of her mouth, her skill at summoning precisely half a smile.
“You guys are all the same,” she laughed. “You’re what, like forty? In the crime of life, living off ruin?” she said gesturing around them. “Don’t tell me you haven’t drawn blood.”
Yes. Laughable, he thinks—the inevitable lead up.
Three times he’d come to her there, the price always higher—before she’d let him watch. Before she’d let him see how standing in the rust-streaked tub she drew the blade across the underside of her arm.
“It helps to feel something, don’t you think?” she’d said. “But you need to like, know the major arteries. The jugulars, the carotid in your neck, femoral in your thigh. I’ve nicked around all of them, ‘though it’s best to start small.”
Two cuts, then a third was her standard practice. Each one a shade deeper.
Together they’d watched the crimson bloom, watched the beads become thin rivulets splattering on rusted enamel.
Weeks passed before she’d handed him the knife.
“Remember how I showed you,” she’d said, taking his money. “No pressure on the first cut. Just the weight of the blade on your arm. If you can get that far, the rest is easy,” she’d assured him.
But she’d been wrong.
A foregone conclusion, he understands—how he could never have done it on his own. He can smile at the truth now. At what it takes to commute a life sentence. As little as two words.
“Help me,” he’d said, offering her the knife. That simple.
“Too late now,” she sighs.
Her voice is fading fast. Fading into darkness.
“I read it takes like, five minutes when you get the jugulars; only two or three if you go for the carotid. The smaller ones empty slower.”
He imagines her repairing her makeup—and suddenly, he is sad for her, wonders how long she will wait. And where she’ll find help.
“They’ll say I’ve like, committed a crime, won’t they?” she laughs. “They’ll claim I need to be incarcerated for life.”
Yes, he would laugh too, if he could. Laugh at the notion that need has anything to do with it.
Author note: I wrote this piece for a writing contest sponsored by Central Florida-based Pulse Magazine. Entries were to be “inspired” by the work of local artists. This story owes its impetus to a Steve Williams photograph that you can see here (scroll down). PS: I didn’t win the contest.