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Wrought Out From Within Upon the Flesh

Cassandra coils within the glass confines of the jar, pale eyes staring at those who roam beyond. They in their suits and day dresses; they who dare to stare at her. She is beautiful, beyond compare. She knows this in a way they do not, but in a way they will come to understand. She arches her neck and mouths part in wonder.

It is not her neck they linger on. Gazes slide down that column of flesh, over the curve of her shoulder and down the length of her arm. Her arm is a golden river, curving at the elbow with a kind of perfection they have never seen, have only imagined. Their eyes come to the narrowing of her wrist and here—here—they draw breath.

This breath is surprised, because they don’t expect what flows from her wrist. Where any lady should have hands, she does not. The curve that should melt into a thumb curves instead into a metal link. There is no seam where flesh becomes metal—these links are living things, but chains even so. They move as she moves, slow and sinuous for their weight bends her shoulders into a crescent; with a rasp rather than a clink.

Eyes widen in consideration. What has become of this woman, they wonder. She knows. She knows how Emery fashioned her. Every cruel word that spilled from his lips is contained within these chains that spill from her wrists. One length joins to the other, her arms a never-ending circle. She shifts only enough to allow the people to see it is the same for her legs, chains all the way down. He has made her this way—beautiful, untouching and untouchable—a thing that cannot move beyond the limits he has placed upon her.

When the crowds go, Emery comes to her jar. He stretches to reach its glass lip, to tip it and her on her side. His hands are warm when he reaches inside to claim her, to bundle her into his arms, and it is a cage she has craved all day. He shudders—she doesn’t know if it is with desire or revulsion or some part of each. You are beautiful, he says once he rests her upon his bed; you are lovely and you are wholly mine.

She wants nothing more but than to be what Emery has made her, this astonishing creature that people gaze upon for hour upon hour. They fingerprint her glass to get a closer look and she wants to mouth the jar in return. Wants to kiss them through the glass the way he kisses her now. Emery’s fingers thread into her hair as he cradles her head; he tongues her mouth open, wet and sweet, and open even more. He breathes into her and life unfurls through the chains of her.

Blood rises beneath the surface of Cassandra’s skin even as it is drained from Emery’s own. She flares with color when he sparks pale, but as his hands discover every warm hollow of her, he draws the heat out and away. This blood-warmed air whispers briefly between them then sinks wholly into him, diffusing. Lichtenberg fractals speed through his arms, across chest, and over belly, and she pushes closer, is pushed back and down. Emery drapes her chains around his shoulders, every link imprinting a crescent of warm color onto him. He bears the weight of these chains he has made even as he spreads her apart, open, thin.

Inside her, Emery is iron and sweat and pain.

šš• • •

Before he leaves, Emery adjusts the shutter so Cassandra can see outside the wagon. She curls deeper into the pillows and blankets, stretching even though stretching brings a silvered fire through thighs, down arms. This pain pools in her wrists. Without him, there is too much heat. Without him, there is nowhere to entrust the excess of that which simmers inside. She holds on to the warmth, trying to focus her attention elsewhere so it doesn’t consume her.

Beyond the unpainted wood shutter, the circus grounds are still. The sun is not yet up; long shadows from train cars and tents stretch across the night-dark grass, black holes in the light thrown from the moon. Emery passes through these holes and away and Cassandra wonders what the grass feels like underfoot. She knows the rasp of it in her ear, but not its touch; she pictures a bristle brush, scraping over every inch of her bare skin.

Her day passes without consideration of time. There is only the ebb and flow of the heat within her as it sluices from one limb into another, seeking the outlet it cannot find. She breathes and watches those who can come and go beyond the shuttered window. The immense fat lady, the joined twins, the nimble Flying Doshenkos who twirl everywhere they go. The large shadow of a slow-circling bird flickers over the tents for a long while; it is joined by another, these shadows making loops and whorls across the striped fabric. Cassandra wonders what it is to fly—thinks she used to do this very thing, but cannot be sure. She closes her eyes and waits for night. The pain will be secondary then, when all eyes are upon her.

šš• • •

Cassandra coils within the glass confines of the jar, pale eyes staring at those who roam beyond. This night is no different than any other, though there is briefly a profusion of young children who circle the base of her jar, who press their small hands and mouths upon the glass. One knocks as if the glass is a door. He hollers, “hello, mermaid, hello!” and the cry echoes, until Cassandra pictures those very underwater creatures hearing him, responding.

They would slither upon the black rock shore of this town. Dragging their sodden glitter-carcasses over stone and sand, over pavement and concrete, through the bristles of the field grass until they enter this tent and shriek with their clawed mouths, until they suck the little boy into their bellies—the boy will try to scratch his way out, but those teeth, like fishhooks they keep him right where they have swallowed him, barbed and bleeding—for how hungry they must be after their long crawl from the sea? Vastly hungry.

Cassandra understands hunger. A constant hollow ache in her belly. She pushes it away—it’s not supposed to come now, without Emery—and that’s when she sees it. She lifts her left arm and there, where the fleshy base of her thumb curves into the link, the gleam of a fingernail. This, she knows, is impossible.

She lifts her pale and watery gaze to those who stare at her, and there is a young woman nearby, a woman in a dark vest with dull buttons, watching her. Not watching her—it’s deeper than that. Wishing to consume her the way Emery consumes her. The way the mermaids would eat that child. This is how the woman watches her. Within the woman’s eyes, there is an unfathomed need that spears itself into what remains of Cassandra’s skin. This need twines with a fear so strong Cassandra can taste it on the back of her own useless tongue.

Cassandra cannot move from the gaze, barbed and bloody, so she stretches. She allows herself to lift the chains of her flesh that weigh less in this moment, and does not focus on the strange shadow which becomes a nail, which becomes a thumb. This is impossible.

šš• • •

Emery doesn’t ask who the woman was; Cassandra thinks entirely too much about her, because the woman is familiar, somehow known to her. Emery rarely asks Cassandra anything; this is not new, this silence which turns to breath and groans within his wagon. He spreads Cassandra wide and thin over the time-softened sheets, until she is lost under the flood of him into her, lost under the spill of her trapped heat upward into him.

Sometimes he gasps, unable to properly breathe, and the silence creeps back in while the long shudder of him runs into her. Her body gobbles his, greedy and needful by turns, sucking him up the way he does the heat of her. There is an exchange, of what she cannot say but revels in it nonetheless. Heat for heat, but something else. She feels herself becoming something more than she is, more than she knows how to be. When he breathes with ease again, she curls deep into his arms.

His hands fascinate her. They are worn, rough and callused against the softest parts of her. They splay loose as he sinks into sleep. She has studied every inch of him in his sleep—she studies his hands again now, comparing the curve of his thumb to that which emerges from her chain. Yes, just like that, she thinks. She does not know how it can be, but it is.

She does not sleep, focused on his hands. She cannot touch them with hands of her own, so takes each finger in her mouth, making a study of tastes, of textures. He is like sandpaper, flesh worked to hard knots over bones that do not yield to even her teeth. He does not stir in his sleep; he never does. If Emery feels her exploration, this experimental devouring, it is in a place that does not rouse him.

šš• • •

The thumb pops free of the chain the next night. Fully formed, near perfect as far as she can tell. Cassandra stares, but cannot let it be discovered. She curls the thumb under what remains of the chain but can already see that a palm is forming. A palm will be more difficult to hide away.

Fear froths inside her. She presses her forehead against the cool jar wall and finds herself face to face with the woman in the vest. This woman is the perfect reflection of a Cassandra from an earlier time, a woman unscarred, mortal and plain. This Cassandra has eyes like a photograph: still and colorless, as if what she truly is has been captured and bestowed upon the Cassandra in the jar . The woman does not blink, only stares, and she (in the jar) does not know if what she (beyond the jar) sees repulses or intrigues.

There is the distinct desire to show this Cassandra her newborn thumb, but the digit is smothered, concealed. Perhaps this woman is a mermaid, perhaps this woman will swallow the thumb into her awful hooked mouth, and— And.

Cassandra has no idea what happens next and this is more terrifying than knowing. She supposes with the eating there would be teeth, a tongue, a throat, but the unknowing yawns before her and then the woman is gone, hands stuffed into pockets, moving like she has somewhere to go, someone to welcome her.

šš• • •

Emery notices her emerging palm right away, the way the fleshy chain will soon fall free. Emery smooths his hand across what is becoming her own and Cassandra shudders. She imagines a cat stroked backwards, hair standing on end in ebony riot. This feeling is unlike anything she has known before—even if she used to fly, even if she used to . . .

She cannot remember the word for the motion of a body across the ground. She is afraid to look into Emery’s eyes, until he slides a hand beneath her chin, tips her gaze upward. His smile is a thing she doesn’t dare hope for, but it’s there and she exhales the breath she cannot remember holding. Emery nods, encouraging even if there is a distance in his eyes, and come morning, after bleeding heat into him the whole night through, her palm is whole. Chain still rounds outward from her palm’s edge, but she can see the shadows where fingers mean to separate themselves.

Emery says nothing. He scoops her from the bed and carries her toward the tent where her jar stands. The circle of his arms feel cool around her, thin and loose and not as strong as she remembers. When he settles her into her jar, the fingers that slide up her arms are as smooth as her own changing flesh. Her eyes linger on Emery; he presses one hand against the jar and she can see how smooth his fingers have become, so smooth the whorls and lines are nearly gone, the callouses consumed. She watches until she is bent double by a rush of heat through her belly.

She becomes more of a curiosity now. Over the course of the night, the transformation speeds through her, flesh like heated putty moving beneath unseen hands. She remains confined in her jar, writhing helpless as her body changes. The pain is like sunlight from a cloudless sky; it spills unrestrained over her, into her, heat flooding beneath her skin. She feels ignited. Glowing. She reaches for Emery, needing to pour her heat off the same way he needs to swallow it, but he is not there. She decides it is all a dream, she is feverish, but no—they can see. Of the figures beyond the jar’s wall, none can look away from her pain. They stare, rapt and wholly present.

The chains do not so much fall away as they are drawn inside; her flesh becomes a rageful sea, receding from the edges, rolling over her bones. Upside down, she stares through the bottom curve of the jar and again sees the woman in the vest.

This woman reeks of fear and does not come closer—she crouches across the dusty aisle, glimpsed through legs and torsos as countless others watch. Her arms wrap herself, as if making a shield, but her photograph eyes are not afraid. They drink in the transformation. She (in the jar) and she (crouched at the wall) watches the other.

Cassandra wishes to speak, but her tongue is yet in chain.

šš• • •

Sleep cannot come for the pain. Emery won’t allow Cassandra into the wagon, leaves her in the jar where she sits as night gathers around the carnival. She makes one long sound of protest and while it is echoed within Emery’s own expression, he does not stay. He goes and the tent is empty, the other curiosities taken in, away, and she is alone. She does not cry salt tears as anyone else might; this expression of emotion is as foreign to her as she is to everyone who looks upon her. The heat within her consumes tears before they can fall.

The whole night through she pulls herself apart. Hands newly made tear at the chains which cling to legs and emerging feet. She stretches against the confines of the jar while feet and toes burst from putty-flesh, as bones split and reknit into new forms. The jar walls stream with the evidence of her broken body, blood and water and viscera she cannot name. The chains still do not fall away; some part of her swallows them, draws them inside as a beast pulls an anchor from the depths of a black sea. She drips, she salts, she eyes the lip of the jar.

This jar has been prison and home both and before she could not, but now—

Cassandra stands on two new-formed feet. Her legs quiver as if made of jelly. She wonders how long it has been since she stood upon her own legs—and how long too since she has touched anything, and nothing has ever been or was ever like the lip of the jar beneath her newborn fingers. It is sharp even as it is smooth; it rolls like putty or maybe it is her fingers that roll as she pulls herself up and out. Her arms shake and bleed heat and she spills to the ground, a vulgar mass. She breathes in the dust of the ground. The grass here has been long trod away; it is only dirt, soft like powder, crushed beneath boot and shoe. Still, she digs her fingers into the silken mess, transfixed as the dirt slides over her fingers. Oh, her fingers, new and yet calloused.

Cassandra cannot pull herself out of the dirt. Emery finds her there as the tent walls begin to brighten with the coming of another day. He tries to pull her up, but she is stuck like gum to lamppost. He sees the way her limbs now curve, freed of their chains, sees too the calluses which mark her the way they once marked him. Has she taken too much of him? The cuff to the back of her head draws a grunt, but her tongue is yet weighted, waiting. She swallows the pain as he tries to pry her free again; hands and knees are stuck firm into the dirt. He cuts the slab of earth loose and with three others, hauls her to a new platform.

šš• • •

They come to see Cassandra reborn, to see this woman emerging from the dirt. In the first days, she is draped with finest linen to cover breast and bottom, but in later days, this linen vanishes, because to hide her away is to take shame in all that she is and all she is becoming.

She is tended like a garden. Emery waters her in the morning light that slices through the tent flap until the water beads on her body like pearls. She is fed twice daily, but not during viewings until the barker realizes what a lurid delight people will take in the way she sucks a wet berry into her mouth. Teeth and ever-changing tongue break the berries into the violet-black juice that trails down her chin, over her breasts before they too bleed away into the dirt.

Her tongue is no longer a chain, but not yet a muscle that will allow her to form words. What, in any case, would she say? Would she speak of the itch that pervades her flushed skin along the line of dirt in which she is buried? Would she ask the lingering woman to scratch her back open until the bare line of her spine is exposed to fresh air?

The heat does not leave her. Cassandra tries to offer it up to the ground the same way she does Emery, but the ground cannot respond as he does; the heat rills backwards toward her, into her. Beneath the soil she can feel the burning point of each finger as the heat rushes back in. She closes her eyes and tries to form Emery’s name; she needs him, needs to spill into him as much as he into her, but there is no sound, only the endless shaking that grabs hold of her until he’s there and shaking too—there with his hand in her hair.

His hand memorizes the curve of her skull, from nape to crown, rucking up the length of her ebon hair. Every soft finger presses a deep furrow into the strands, until they flow like silken water over the back of his broad hand. Slow and sure, he begins to braid. Every strand crackles with heat that seeps into his flesh; she can hear his exhalation, the same that flows from her. It is not perfect, this transfer, so much heat wasted in the space between, but she knows he has set a task before himself. He means to teach her something: that there is but a breath between memory and what will soon be memory.

The earliest days she can remember, he did this. He would spend an hour brushing her hair as their hammock rocked her into a place that was half sleep, half dream. The angry words of the night before would not matter in this place, only the stroke and pull of the brush through her hair, against her scalp. Now, Emery winds the thick braid across her eyes, taking her vision. She sinks into the black behind her eyes, knowing she does not need to see. All she requires is his hands upon her, since her own have blended without seam into the soil in which she rests. She can feel her legs going, sinking, buried, and wonders if she will be entirely lost.

The long coil of braid encircles her head. Emery makes loop after loop, across her nose and mouth, until he binds her firmly at the neck. She envisions a small bow tied at the point her collarbones meet, but there is none, only the point of the scissors he brought. He buries their handles in the dirt and leaves her thus, poised for a cutting.

šš• • •

Even the slightest move causes the scissors to unhinge. Cassandra’s body trembles under the strain of remembering how things were yet remaining still. Her hands are still lost somewhere under the dark soil which has consumed her. She breathes and can feel the tip of the scissors press as close and sharp as Emery often does. She sends heat through the blades, but it curls back into her taut throat, no reciprocal flesh to drink it down. Her head is already pulled back as far as it can go in this position; Emery made certain of this.

You may have these beautiful things, says a voice, but there will always be a price to them.

Cassandra’s head jerks toward the sound and the scissors taste a trickle blood. A cooling line of crimson traces down her neck. Her lips purse in the formation of a word, “who,” but the sound that comes from her is not this word. The sound is ragged, for her tongue remains useless.

It does not matter, this voice says, because you will never leave this place; you will never escape what he has done to you.

These words ring the way an empty metal bowl does when a stone is hurled into its gleaming maw; a vibration, an echo. Cassandra feels physically struck by the words, but also by their sound. It is a voice she remembers. It is her own voice, a voice that doesn’t know the place in which she currently finds herself, a voice from the past, one which told her to run.

Before her voice can speak again, Cassandra wrenches herself against the soil’s hold. If they have made a seed of her with their constant watering and feeding, she now sprouts. If a thing is to grow, that thing must break. Shells are discarded so leaves can unfurl. So it is as Cassandra comes out of the dirt, pulling her arms from that which would hold her down.

Her limbs emerge with the sound of flesh moving inside flesh. The dirt is not dry, but sodden from days of watering, pooling beneath her evolving form. Her right arm seems strongest, no longer chains but a beautiful straight bone that feels as firm as metal. Her left arm is reluctant and as she strains backward, her flesh tears from the soil. Now comes the sound of ripping skin—the destruction of that sweet white membrane she loved so well in pomegranates. She can remember the feel of it beneath her fingertips as she once peeled it away to uncover a cluster of wet seeds.

It is a laborious task, the unearthing of her body. Belly and hips have melded to the soil, thighs have nearly become one long trunk, and by the time she rolls from the dirt, onto the rough wood of the stand they have placed her upon, she is bloody, tattered, trembling. Cassandra’s fingers claw at the braid which blinds her yet, this curtain parting to reveal the woman who watches her. She does not know this face—cannot remember it as her own—but knows the voice as it spills in a terrified stream. I screamed like that, she thinks. The first time he touched me with violence.

On her knees, Cassandra watches. She listens. Each word the woman cries is perfectly formed even in her terror. Cassandra remembers the way that tongue pressed to the roof of a mouth, the way it moved against teeth. The way words were swallowed and spat, the way a throat worked around a shriek as Emery’s hands closed on her. Now, her own malformed tongue rests uselessly in her mouth.

She advances on the woman and there comes that familiar scream. She used to make this sound when Emery broke her open in an effort to unleash what she truly was. She sees it now so perfectly, reflected within the eyes of the woman before her.

Cassandra cuts the tongue from her own mouth, bearing the body that was once her own into the dusty ground. The blood that should well up and over her hands evaporates in the heat that streams loose around their grappling bodies. One hard cut causes blood to arc upward as if it means to splatter, but then is only gone. The woman she was bucks beneath the assault, unable to escape; Cassandra feels no pity, because losing her tongue brings her to this moment, where she is becoming what the world means her to be.

There is no taste, not until Cassandra sucks the fresh muscle into her mouth and it settles where it belongs. She presses the tongue against the roof of her mouth and tastes her own heat, her salt, her unleashed pulse.

šš• • •

A jar can no longer contain her.

Emery allows her to prowl the tent, never suspecting that which rests within her mouth: her tongue knitted back into place. Cassandra presses its muscular tip against her front teeth, bare feet moving silently through the soft dirt of the tent floor. She no longer sticks, cutting a way through as a boat through water.

Everywhere she goes, there are eyes upon her. She drinks in their stares that are more intent than ever. Those who have seen her before are dumbstruck by what she has become—they do not know she was the chained maiden in the jar until someone tells them. Then comes that beautiful halted breath of surprise, the one that catches in a throat. Cassandra smiles.

Her skin is in tatters, but slowly folds itself back together as she moves. Where once long glimpses of muscle were had, crimson stained glass in morning’s sun, there comes only ivory skin, flawless as if never torn, bruised, crumpled. She captivates them, but none more than Emery himself.

Emery stares without blinking at what she has become. Where before she could not have said if it was pleasure or revulsion, she sees it is the former that holds him. It is the pleasure of her having swallowed every awful thing he has gifted her with. It is the pleasure of her having sealed it away, until others see only her untroubled smile and they alone know the truth.

Cassandra strides all night, in slow circles that wear a groove into the tent ground. She walks until she can no longer, until Emery gathers her into his thinning arms and takes her there, there in the soft dirt that rises in clouds around them. For the first time in as long as either can remember, she touches him with fingers. With tongue. Heat explodes between them, rushing uncontrolled from her, into him. She burns the marrow from him and he revels in the way his own body breaks in response. He is changing as she changes, becoming a thing they cannot name. He is as thin as winter trees now, still impossibly strong.

The violence is worse when she can hold to him and prevent herself from crumpling in a heap; she withstands every blow, taking more of him at every turn. The violence is worse when Emery loses what little hold he still has over himself, as she welcomes the inundation of his rage into her.

šš• • •

For part of one evening, Cassandra is ordinary. Still silent among the circus performers, but ordinary. A woman in a dress, sitting beside her love, enjoying the conversations that run the length of the old wood table and back again. Emery’s fingers claw her thigh beneath the table, but she holds every bit of heat within her skin. Nothing is surrendered to the stroke of those fingers. She says nothing.

What would she say? It has been so long, words have become unnecessary. When she leans into Emery one way or another, he knows where she means to go. She never goes far—won’t leave the circus grounds, he knows—so she wanders alone after leaving the table, trailing fingers through the cool summer air. The grass— Oh the grass is like a slow kiss on the soles of her feet and not a brush at all. Heat sputters out of her and the tips of the grass curl up as she passes over. She tips her head back and walks with eyes closed until she reaches the circus entry. Beyond this arch of painted wood, there is a town, with a road, with a highway, with all the things that could carry her away.

She steps under the arch as if to leave and the first prick of pain comes.

It begins in her tongue and she thinks no, no, I have swallowed so much down. You will not come back up, you will n—

A thick, thorned vine splits her tongue in two. Cassandra falls to her knees and pitches forward as the vine erupts from her mouth. Barbed thorns rake her lips apart as the vine grows and grows. Its weight bears her to the ground against the cool side of the wooden arch. Her shriek is smothered by the vine’s constant swelling. Other thorned vines burst from her body, from palms and belly alike, and Cassandra can only writhe in fresh agony as her new flesh is turned inside out. Inside out to open every vein and spill her blood to the ground, the grass.

Beyond the canopy of gleaming black vines which surround her, Cassandra sees the stars. They are less bright than she remembers, but no less beautiful. She wills her hands to wrap around the vine which has burst from her mouth. Then, she bites down and though it is like biting through her own arm, awkward and sloppy, it is a thing that needs doing. When she at last she pulls the severed vine free, she takes a gulping breath. Fresh blood floods her ruined tongue and she swallows. Blackness washes across the sky and the pain evaporates.

šš• • •

She wakes to the calling of her name. It’s hard to open her eyes, the world a strange blue haze when she finally does. Dreaming, she thinks, but she listens to the call of her name and decides not.

Overnight the thorny vines erupting from her skin have blossomed with indigo flowers, their petals heavy with morning dew. She claws her way to sitting and tries to breathe and cannot for the thorns which prick her chest, her heart. She can feel them deep inside, filling every space that once held muscle or bone. Her skin feels impossibly thin, stretched from state line to state line. If she moves wrong, every ugly thing will spill onto the ground.

The wooden entry arch presses against her back, thorns scratching lines into the bright paint. Cassandra stares at the flowers and thorns which fill her hands in equal measure. Yes, she thinks. It is awful and beautiful both. She breathes and swallows, her split tongue like a viper in her mouth. She tries to call to those who seek her, but there is only a sibilant hiss.

Emery finds her as the sun creeps higher, as the blossoms begin to stretch under its warm light. He crouches before her, staring at what she has become. She stares in return, for he is ever-thinning, thorns having pricked through the paper of his skin. She wonders if this is the evidence of last night’s refusal, of her even thinking to leave, and she cannot say. His bones stand out in sharp relief under the pulled canvas skin; his eyes have gone very dark, yawning doorways to places she wants to disappear.

Emery bundles her into his arms, heedless of the way their thorns rake together, and carries her through the camp. Cassandra wants to flood him with heat here and now, but she waits, waits because this is a thing for them and them alone. She can feel the weighted, accusatory stares from other women as they pass through the tents. Many turn away sobbing at the sight of her and she understands their own scars now—these women have always known her pain because they too bear such marks.

Inside the wagon, she says nothing to Emery and he says nothing to her. As with her own self and the scissors, there is yet one more life to claim, and they each know this moment. They have pictured it a hundred times, each time misunderstood until this time, when it all spreads so clear. This is the way and the path. This is how one becomes.

Cassandra lifts a flower-laden hand and presses the cool petals against Emery’s cheek. Heat once denied gutters out of her when Emery gravitates into her touch. Beneath this inferno, he is consumed. Her fiery mouth swallows him, not minding the way he shudders or twists. He never twists away—not Emery, so well-acquainted with violence in all its forms, not Emery who creates the other half of what she is. Even this is second nature and he crawls into it, into every hollow she still possesses, so that he might transform her from the inside.

Come morning, fresh scars blotch her skin, flowers and thorns and Emery swallowed the long night through. Stuffed down into the dark where they each belong. Thorns have raked new paths into her throat, into soft trachea and strong rib. Every pain becomes a blossom that glows and presses just under her skin, lilies beneath a shivering lake. If these blossoms had hands of their own, Cassandra thinks they would pull her skin apart, but they wait—oh they wait.

Inside her, Emery is iron, sweat, and pain. His firm hands trace slow lines over her engorged belly, down the sharp angle of her pelvis, under buried blossom and thorn. Lichtenberg fractals skitter over her skin, the webs of a creature unseen, though not unfelt.

She leans her sweat-damp head against her shoulder where she imagines the curve of his own skull fitting. That deep inside her, does he still have bones? She can taste them on her tongue and if she goes still enough, she can feel him slide through her, his thorned violence coiling in her belly. She wonders when it will erupt again.

She is on display when the vines come, dismantling bone and tongue and skin. Cassandra knows she has never been so beautiful, exactly the way he has made her.

About the Author

E. Catherine Tobler has never frolicked with ghosts in strange orchards, but there’s probably still time. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Sturgeon Award ballot. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.