Katrina’s father started taking her skin when she was thirteen.
“Research,” she told me when I poked at the gauze wrapped around her forearm and then took another bite of her sandwich. Mrs. Papillo shot a look our way and frowned, a witchy finger pointing to the red card at the head of our lunch table that meant we were supposed to be silent.
I waited for Mrs. Papillo to turn away before I nudged Katrina between the ribs. “For what?” I mouthed to her, but she shook her head, turned a small tangerine over and over in her hands.
I did not eat the carrot sticks my mother had packed for me but spent the rest of lunch watching Katrina. Waiting for her to stretch her arm across the table or move in such a way that the gauze would ride up, if only for a second or two, so that I could see that patch of skin her father had taken from her, how he had marked her as different. As something special.
When the lunch period ended, Mrs. Papillo passed a hand over each of our shoulders, her voice a harsh, violent thing when she paused next to me. “Mary Anne, you didn’t eat your lunch.”
“My stomach hurts,” I said, and she stared, those pale eyes passing through me, like I was nothing, like I was a ghost, and then she nodded her head, and I stood with the rest of the class and filed past the trash cans. When it was my turn, I buried the carrots, the veggie wrap, and a sugar-free pudding beneath a stack of napkins. Pressed what I would not put inside of my body into plastic and tried not to think about how my stomach pooched over my jeans.
For the rest of the day, Katrina tugged at her sleeves, covered that strip of gauze so that only the edge of the tape peeked out.
On the bus ride home, she didn’t sit next to me, and I tried to ignore her ponytail, the silver butterfly clip she always wore refracting the sunlight into a thousand pieces. Devor Birmingham sat next to me instead, spent the entire ride scribbling a single dark line in his notebook, a sweet, sour smell of sweat all around him.
When our stop came, I scrambled past Devor, but Katrina did not wait. Ahead of me, she walked quickly, her face trained on the ground, her legs flashing white under her dark skirt as they carried her further and further away.
“Katrina!” I called, but she did not slow, and I would not run after her, I would not, and she stumbled, the notebook she clasped to her chest tumbling to the ground, and then she was running up her driveway, the door opening for her as if by magic, and then the darkness swallowed her, all of that blackness reaching out and then there was nothing left in the space where she had once been.
There, on the browning grass, I knelt, her notebook clutched to my chest, and I watched the curtains, waited for my best friend to appear, her hand pressed to the glass, a smile playing at the edges of her lips, but she did not. I counted to fifteen, and then I went home, Katrina’s notebook burning against my skin.
In my bedroom, I flipped through the pages, but every one was blank, all of that white space waiting to devour the fingers hovering over it, and I shoved the notebook under my bed.
The next day and the day after that, Katrina did not come to school. Both days, I pretended to eat my lunch, balled up bite after bite before dropping it onto the cold linoleum, and Mrs. Papillo smiled to see my empty lunch bag, and everything inside of me felt light. Like air. Like clouds.
During art, I cut a piece of printer paper until it fit against my forearm and taped it down. I hoped that I would bleed, that maybe Katrina’s father would somehow know that my skin was beautiful, too, but nothing happened and so I crumpled up the paper and left it next to my desk.
The next day, Katrina was back at school, and a puke yellow bruise snaked along her collarbone and up her neck, and she looked at me from eyes too dark for her pale face.
I passed her a note during math. “What’s wrong with you?” it said, but she folded it up and put it in the little white pleather purse that she carried and did not look at me for the rest of the day.
That night, my mother placed celery on my dinner plate, a square of soggy lettuce, a baby carrot, and I cut them into smaller and smaller pieces until there was nothing left, and my stomach felt like a small, shriveled thing.
“You really do look better. Thinner,” my mother said, and I curled my palm against my stomach, thought of what it would be like for Katrina’s father to slice away the flesh just under my belly button; what it would be like for him to place me inside of his mouth.
On Monday, gauze streaked across Katrina’s upper arm, and I tried to catch her eye throughout Social Studies, but Katrina focused on Mrs. Papillo and her stupid maps, and I spent the rest of the period wondering what it would feel like for a knife to trace out pieces of me, lift me out and into the air so that there was somehow the same and less of me.
My stomach cramped throughout lunch, and I watched Katrina. She stared at something I could not see, and Mrs. Papillo didn’t notice that neither of us had eaten. When I got back to my desk, there was a note with the looping, curved letters that betrayed Katrina’s handwriting. It was addressed to me, and I cupped it against my palm, waited for something to happen, for something to change, but there was Mrs. Papillo at the front of the classroom, and everything identical to every other day, so I opened the note.
“Under the tree. When it gets dark,” it said, and I held those words inside of my mouth for the rest of the day. Like honey. Like a jewel.
After I pretended to eat the dinner my mother made me—a spoonful of brown rice, steamed snowpeas, and a sad, rubbery slice of chicken—I locked myself in the bathroom and stripped down to my underwear—a stretch of baby pink cotton cutting against pale flesh, and I pinched and pulled my skin until it was something that I didn’t recognize, and I wished for something sharp.
Dark was a long while coming, and I stayed in the bathroom, listened as my mother washed our plates, tried not to listen when she closed her bedroom door behind her, the lock echoing through the empty house. I tried not to listen to her cry, and when she called out my father’s name into that nothingness, I covered my ears with my hands.
I didn’t see Katrina at first, but my eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark, and she stood behind the tree—our tree—a large maple whose leaves painted the dark with brilliant fire. Deep orange and russet burned against the night air, and there was the heavy scent of smoke all around me, and I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry.
It technically didn’t belong to either Katrina or me, but stood between our houses and marked the halfway point between us. For five years, we’d stood under those branches, whispered back and forth, and the leaves were heavy with our secrets.
“Up here.” Katrina’s voice came from above me, and I looked up. A pair of dark eyes stared down, and I squinted, tried to make out the rest of her, but she shrank backward. “Come up.”
One foot over the other, hands scrabbling against bark, and I was up, the ground falling away from us, and the stars burning large and bright. Katrina sat beside me, her hand guiding mine beneath the gauze, her fingers showing me all of the holes that her father had left.
“Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know. I can never remember if it does or it doesn’t.”
If it was me, I would remember. I brought my fingertips to my mouth, but I could not taste Katrina.
“You’ve lost weight. So small. You’ll shrivel up and drift away.” Katrina wound a strand of my hair around her fist. “He thought I was asleep last night, and when he came in my room, I didn’t make a sound, pretended like I was a mouse.”
I held my breath and the branch swayed beneath us. I wondered if we fell, which of us would remain in the dirt.
“Will you come with me?” she said, and her hands were my hands, and she was squeezing and squeezing, and her eyes were pools of inky blackness as if the pupil had swallowed up everything else, and I felt all of the lightness in my stomach, all of the food I had not eaten and how it filled me up. I thought of my mother sitting alone in her bedroom and swallowing her tears, and my father who found another woman more beautiful, and I told Katrina yes, yes, I would go with her.
When she smiled at me, it was like sunshine, warm and soft against my skin, and we slipped out of the tree, ignoring the rough bark tearing at our legs, and we moved through the night. Katrina laughed, high and bright, and it was almost like nothing had changed, like there had never been a thin, white piece of gauze to come between us, and I matched my pace to hers, and we moved faster and faster through the shadow world.
Katrina’s house was dark, the shutters like old blood against white wood, and she led me around back, pressed her fingers to her lips, and then opened the back door. A deep smell, like earth, like rainwater gathered into an ancient pool, came flooding out, and I coughed into my hand, but the smell was also somehow right. Something that had always been.
Katrina led me through the kitchen where we had spent afternoons baking cookies, eating batter off of wooden spoons; where we huddled over bowls of Frosted Flakes on Saturday mornings while her father slept on in his bedroom. In all of those years, Katrina’s father would hover just behind us, and if I glanced over at him, he would smile, his brown eyes crinkling at the edges. Sometimes, when I woke before Katrina, he would pour a bowl of cereal for me, ask me about school or about what T.V. shows I liked. He would push the sugar bowl toward me and laugh in all of the right places. Nothing at all like my own father who glared when I helped myself to a second bowl of bran flakes and mumbled under his breath that if I wasn’t careful, I would end up like my mother.
Far away from my mother, from my father and the tight, sharp words between them, away in the world that Katrina and I created, there were no mothers, no fathers, no careful eyes watching every bite of food that went scraping past my lips, no clipped phrases measuring out the weight of me, no mirror image of my mother’s shame, her own body reflected in mine.
Before me, Katrina stopped short, and I slammed into her, my belly curving into the hollow of her back, and I did not move away but leaned into her hair. I never wanted to move again, wanted our skins fused together, a single beating heart that moved through the world like a wondrous thing. A thing that had no beginning and no end, our bodies indistinguishable from the other, and no one would look at the thin casing of skin that covered my hulking form and then look away. Because we—because I—would be more beautiful and strange than anything they had ever seen.
She brought a finger to her lips and then extended her arm, pointed down the hallway to a thin strip of light that spilled from beneath a closed door.
It was not a bedroom I remembered seeing before. In my memory, the kitchen jutted like a broken tooth off of a small living room stuffed with uncomfortable furniture and a television too large for the space; at the opposite end of the kitchen, a cased opening led to a narrow hallway, Katrina’s bedroom on the left, her father’s and a single bathroom on the right. The door I saw now was at the end of the hallway in a place where there had never been a door.
A shadow passed into the space between the wood and the floor, and Katrina held her breath, her back still against my chest, and I did the same. Together, we waited for the door to open, but the shadow moved on. There are times that I think we never breathed again.
“He’s working,” Katrina said.
“I hear him talking to it. Late at night. He says that it’s so beautiful. That it saved him. Then there are noises, like an animal. I cover my ears then. This way,” Katrina said, and I followed her into her bedroom, the door opening and closing quietly. She did not turn on the light and walked to the center of the room where a patch of silver moonlight streamed in from the window behind her. Her fingers caught on the bottom of her shirt and tugged upwards, the skin on her back pale and smooth. On her right shoulder, a large patch of gauze marred the smooth flesh, and she stood perfectly still.
I went to her, and she bowed her head when I peeled away the cloth, her voice low. “He whispers when he opens me up.”
Katrina shifted, and I watched raw skin ripple, held my hand over the spot as if I could contain her, as if I could keep all of her inside, but she was pouring out, bright blood against that pale skin, and I thought again of how it would feel to be sliced apart and stitched back together as something better.
“You’re so lucky,” I said, and Katrina turned to face me.
“I didn’t like it when he would come in to tell me goodnight. He would wait until he thought that I was asleep and then sit next to me for the longest time. Sometimes, he laid down next to me and asked if he could kiss me, and it was always too long, but he would get up and go away and the next morning he wouldn’t look at me.” Her breath came hard and fast, and I wound my hand through hers. “The first time he cut me, I fought him. Screamed until my throat went bloody, but he didn’t stop, and he cried and cried and cried. Said that it was better this way. After, he didn’t come to kiss me goodnight. He was right. It was better this way. Each time he took more and more, but I locked everything inside. Learned how not to scream.”
From the hallway came the sound of something moving and then the sound of a door creaking shut.
“Hide,” Katrina said, but I shook my head, and she grasped my arms and pushed me toward her closet.
She shut the door on me but not all the way, so I could see a corner of the window, the edge of her dresser, a wooden music box open and a tulle-skirted ballerina gone still. Her clothes smelled like lavender.
I couldn’t see Katrina’s father, but I could hear him: could hear his breathing gone jagged as he shuffled into the room; could hear him whispering, his voice sliding over me like oil, and I hated Katrina. Hated her for her smooth, flat stomach and her beautiful mouth. Hated her for having a father who loved her. Hated her for being so lovely that her father wanted to take her apart, to carry those small pieces of her with him like a treasure.
The hard, sharp sound of scissors echoed through the room, and I opened the door a bit more and listened for Katrina’s silence.
I could see her now, and her father knelt before her, a pair of heavy handled scissors clutched in his right hand, his left wrapped in her hair. She looked back at me, across all of that empty space, and opened her mouth. “Please.” Her lips formed around the words, but there was no sound.
Rising, Katrina’s father stumbled backward, his hands thick with his daughter’s hair. “Thank you. Thank you,” he said, and he closed the door quietly behind him.
Katrina turned from me when I left the darkness of her closet, and I went to her, touched her on the thigh, and she tucked herself tight, tight, tight against the wall.
I went out the window as I had so many other times, letting my weight fall against the ground and then rolling with the momentum. Katrina did not shut the window behind me, and I ran all the way back to my house, my lungs and muscles burning.
In the morning, my mother sliced half a grapefruit and placed it before me with a pink packet of sweetener. She watched as I took my spoon and mashed the fruit until the juice threatened to overflow and brought the rind to my lips. She smiled and patted my hair. “Good girl,” she said and didn’t eat any breakfast of her own. The blouse she’d put on that morning, a deep blue the color of ocean water, was too big, and she plucked at it as she watched me, uncomfortable in this new, thinner body that she inhabited. It hadn’t been enough for my father to stay. We hadn’t been enough for him to stay.
When the bus came, I didn’t get on. My head hurt and there were small pinpricks of light when I moved too quickly. Instead, I waited at the tree—our tree—and when my mother’s car glided past, all I could see of her face was a smear of frosted pink lipstick.
I plucked a leaf from the branches and folded it until it was nothing more than a bite and then placed it between my teeth. Chewed and swallowed. I wondered if it would take root there, unfurl delicate little tendrils into soft dirt and fix me in this spot forever. It was nice to think of things like that, but my legs moved, and I carried that green inside of me as I ran to Katrina’s house.
At some point in the night Katrina must have closed the window because the curtains covered the glass, but I didn’t want her to see me there. She would tell me to leave, would rob me of the only thing that I wanted, and so I crept low to the ground, my chin scraping against grass, and I opened my mouth to it and took another bite.
Katrina didn’t understand what it was like to empty herself, to waste and waste away until everything inside was hollow. A vast thing covered in dull skin that needed cutting away.
The back door was still open, and I slipped inside. Once, when my father still came home every night, still told my mother and me that he loved us, I would not have been able to fit through a space so small, but I was so much thinner, my bones and skin withered to almost nothing, and I moved through the kitchen like water.
The doors to the bedrooms stood open. At the end of the hallway, the extra door, the door that shouldn’t be there, stood closed, and I pushed myself toward it. Katrina did not rise when I went past her door but watched me from underneath her blanket, a jagged line of dark hair falling across her cheeks, and turned away from me. It didn’t matter what Katrina thought. Not anymore.
The handle was hot against my palm as if someone had touched it only moments before, and I leaned into it, the door swinging open without a sound.
The room was empty except for a large table. Katrina’s father had draped a white sheet over the exposed wood and here and there were dark red stains that twisted outward like bulbous eyes and elongated necks, and I thought I could see myself trapped inside those stains. Beneath the sheet, a small form lay still, and I could make out a nose, the slight concave curve where eyes should be.
The floor creaked beneath my feet, but I didn’t care who heard me. Katrina was still in her bed. I would have heard her if she rose, felt her moving through the empty space I’d left behind, but there was only the cold whisper of air moving against my legs as the door closed.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Katrina’s father said. He sat in the far corner of the room, and his body bent and stooped toward something on the floor, his hands rising and falling, something metallic glinting from between his fingers. Sewing. He was sewing.
“No,” I said, and he looked up at me, his hands pausing in their work, and my skin sang for him, sang for those hands to slip beneath my own flesh and strip it away. Make it beautiful. Make it whole.
He pointed to the table, to that still form, and he looked at me, eyes like an animal, glittering and bright. “I had to. My own daughter, and all I could think of was the way she would feel beneath me, the taste of her breath in my mouth. It made me sick to think,” he said, and there were tears on his cheeks and blood on his hands.
“I had to,” he said, and his hands pulled back, and I saw the crooked stitches, the skin pieced and pulled together like a quilt.
“A doll,” I said and placed a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t shrug it away, didn’t grimace the same way my father had in those last months when my mother touched him or when I came into the room.
My stomach curved inward, my hip bones protruded like the way they do in magazines when I lifted my shirt, and he watched me pull it over my head, his breath hitching as I did.
“I’m enough. Please. I’m enough.”
When he lifted his knife, I leaned into him, and my body was all air, all lightness, and there was only the movement of his hands against my skin and my blood like lace against the floor. “Father,” I said, and he lifted the pieces of me and placed them on the table. Beneath the white sheet, the form moved, the chest rising with breath, and I reached for it, reached for the beautiful thing I would become.
When he was finished, he draped the white gauze against my skin like a bridal veil, and he kissed my forehead, his lips feather light and dry like a moth’s wing.
I closed the door behind me, left him to his work, placed one foot in front of the other until I stood in Katrina’s bedroom. She did not speak but pulled the covers back, and I climbed in next to her.
She curled into me, her arms tight around my abdomen, the raw, exposed meat burning and raw, and brought her lips to my ear. “Sister,” she said.
Together, we slept.
In the next room, something new, something beautiful, woke and gasped into the gathering dark.
Originally published in Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart.