“Two minutes,” you told me the day that I arrived. “Maximum. Then hands off.”
The other girls didn’t look at me; they just stared blankly ahead, peering through the peels of purple cigarette smoke as they dragged nubs of peach lipstick across their chapped mouths. Their sallow skin glowed green in the sickly lights around the mirror; their faces blank as they wrenched combs through their dry hair and sprayed themselves with perfume that made them smell like rotting fruit.
“They’ll try, but pull away. Be polite, smile, swing your hips, shake your hair. Movement distracts them.”
I nodded, but maybe I didn’t look scared enough. You walked to where I sat and tilted my chin upwards, brushing your hair back from your face. Lana Lilac, you were known as, because your eyes were like amethysts; were like nothing I’d ever seen before. I felt myself flush, felt my heart kick; I hadn’t been touched in months.
You stared directly at me, and pulled out my arm, like a junkie looking for a vein. A loose tendril of black hair slid from behind your ear, skipped across my skin as you raked your lavender nails across my wrists.
“Imagine an itch, the worst one that you’ve ever had, one that’s always just out of reach. Now think of an electric shock, your skin tingling like termites are beneath it, devouring you from the inside. Hear the screech of metal and metal, imagine that sound, whirring around your head, all the time, like teeth on tinfoil. Think of all of that, all ofthe time. That’s how it’ll be, it never goes away.”
I covered your scratches with silver bracelets, and stepped into my shimmery, silver dress, the one adorned with sequins and crystals that caught and reflected the spinning lights of the club. I rubbed the welts, for comfort, as I took a deep breath, and made my way through the faded velvet drapes, to the stage.
They came in when night fell, after the burnt fingers of the black trees had clawed the dying sun from the jaundiced sky.
They brought the darkness in with them, the doors swinging open to the smell of petrol and melting plastic, to a fusillade of drills and the steady drone of the machines, shadows that drowned out the music from our stereo and made our lilies wilt in their vases.
In that breath, before the hinges mercifully swung the doors back together, in those moments when we could hear the screams of our hunted men in the mountains, somehow we learned to smile. We took their long, leather coats, and led them to the soft couches. We poured them sparkling mineral water, with fat lemon wedges, into tall, curved glasses, ice-cubes clinking as we carried them over on ornate silver trays, our teeth gritted and our jaws clenched.
He motioned with his head, and I stood beside him, as he pulled the black chiffon scarf over the lamp. They saw better in the dark. Their eyes were still adapting, they were acclimatising, these people from an unknown, crushed coast of the universe, one that was all sable shingle that would tear the soles apart; streak the pebbles with blood.
I could feel his eyes, appraising me. He nodded. My palms were dry, and I felt sick, but I began to move, smiling as I felt his tentacles run across my hips, like underwater weeds, wrapping around me, his suckers clutched onto my skin. He felt as cold and as fast as mercury, and he was just as poisonous. I loosened my top, and peered into the folds of his hood, saw his red eyes squinting through the shadows. I’d never been this close to them before. Was it him?
They’d taken my family, yours too, setting up these clubs on the outskirts of the decimated city, for their own amusement, their little experiment. The women here were all refugees, knowing that it was this or the gulags, where they’d be forced to forage through their damp warehouses full of bodies, harvesting the eyes from those who were once their neighbours, their lovers, their children and their friends.
I closed my eyes, and kept them shut, until I felt the hum, until I had to push away.
We’d sleep in the attic above the club, falling onto the springy mattress as their trucks rattled across the graffited arches in the distance and their sirens endlessly wailed.
Brandy breath and raspberry lip-gloss; silver speckles of glitter on the white sheets so that they looked like silken coral on some impossible tropical isle. Your hair meshed inside my fingers, our limbs twisted like runes, cast out into onto the black poker velvet of the galaxy.
We danced each night, in the furthest corners of the club, not wanting to see the other pawed, devoured, in such a way. We never spoke about our customers, the things that they muttered in their guttural, indecipherable way that was all breath and broken English. We washed them away in the bathtub, both squeezed in until the water went cold, with petals in the tub like shards of confetti.
We’d lie in each others arms as the sun peered through the slats of the blind, making xylophones across our ribs, our fingers light as we played each other, this melody seeing us through the nights of endless dark, making us think that one day we’d get away, that one day it would change.
Two of our soldiers came by, in the morning, when it was safe. The one had lost a leg, the other had bandages around his face; they’d taken his eyes while he was still alive. They’d found their camp, killed the others, and they’d fled, running here when they saw our red silk gowns and corsets drying on the line, knowing that there were humans inside.
They told us about them, their experiments, their inseminations, the women torn apart days after fertilisation. Touching us weakened them, left them vulnerable. It killed us. But still, they were looking for a way.
We sat with them all afternoon, and gave them bread made from cornmeal and rye and cigarettes and warm dregs of red wine. You gave them jumpers, and socks, leftovers from our old lives, and you looked at me when they asked if they could stay.
I wanted to shake my head, to say no, to keep what we had, to keep us safe. I saw the bloody bandages on the counter, the trembles of tobacco on the young boy’s stained shirt, thought of my father, somewhere beyond the city, pleading for quarter at a rusted stone door. I nodded.
You and I had each other. Some had none. Celeste wanted to go to her son, who was safe with her sister across the river. She’d made a bargain, made a proposal, and bartered with them for goods. You and I watched her as she worked in the yard, her red hair tied back and the slap of the sun on the back of her neck, beneath the rusty, corrugated iron canopy. We watched silently as drilled holes in the perspex and placed rubber bathmats, still scented with jasmine and lily and the valley, on the floor.
“It’ll kill you, they won’t be able to control themselves” you said, watching as she hinged the four sides together. Was she an inventor? A scientist? A mechanic? I wondered what life she’d had before this. She wouldn’t say. None of the girls did. She ignored us, carrying it inside herself, brushing aside our offer of help.
She led five of them in, and we watched as they pushed their tentacles through the holes of her cubicle. Celeste perched on the top, naked, and then let herself drop, like a beautiful acrobat spiralling from a tight-rope. I looked away as their tentacles wrapped around her, and towards the clock, thirty seconds, forty, fifty.
The floor was buzzing; I could feel the energy riding up, moving through my stilettos, making my stomach flip. They were pressed up against the perspex, desperate, like swatted moths, craving the light, dead but for their probing antennae. Bottles shook and the glasses rattled on the shelves. I could see the tension in her legs as she braced down, like somebody trying to find a grip in the sand in strong tide. Four minutes, five. Her eyes bulged as she tried to dispel their energy, her veins looked like they were about to pop, and then you were running over, breaking the spell, distracting them, leaving them to fall back onto the floor, gasping, like hooked fish left on the shore. You wrapped a towel around her and led her from the box, limp and pale, as she vowed never to do it again.
She did, the next night, and the next. Within a month her eyes liked like blown lightbulbs, and her hair fell out in clumps. Each time before they shut her in, she asked them about her son, and every time they nodded a lie.
The night they came was a sultry one, like the world was holding its breath. Footsteps beneath our open window, and then the crackle and hiss and the splintering of wood.
We ran, bare feet skidding along the floorboards, dreams flung over our shoulders as we plunged into nightmare. The soldiers had found a route, an underground passage that led to the old fire station, leading from the cellar.
We could hear their footsteps on the stairs as we grabbed the girls, trying to lead them out onto the roof, where we could drop to where the boys had hid the precious solar flares, the ones that would buy us precious seconds.
Celeste. Refusing to leave, screaming about her son, about how they’d make good on her bargain. My fingers in your elbow, pulling you away, Celeste clutching at your coat, pulling you down, slowing your down, the other girls pulling me away, out through the window into a black, starless night.
You were a lesson to us all. Dragged through the streets and tied to the disused train tracks, the magnificent Lana Lilac, with her amethyst eyes ringed in bruises, her head shaved and her fingers broken. Fingers that had sketched every inch of my skin. I didn’t believe them. You’d have gotten away, I know, and I waited in the woods for weeks, waiting for you to come. Then.
They spoke about a laird with violet eyes, the cruellest of them all. I heard him mentioned as I stood in line for bread, doubled over in the street with my coins falling from me and into the gutters, like tears.
A twilight procession, they said, that evening, to show his strength, his power; the way that they were becoming.
I tucked my hair into my coat, and stood at the back of the crowd, as his horse and his army slouched through the city. The women bowed their heads, the children stayed still, silent. I pushed through, my heart beginning to gallop. I needed to see if it was true. An old woman tried to pull me back as I stepped over the line, into the path of the procession.
He looked up as he neared, throwing back his hood to peer more closely. A flash of purple, eyes like amethysts; like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Somebody pushed me to my knees, and I could hear his horse snorting, his boots crunching on the gravel as he dismounted. I felt the whoosh of air as he raised his sword, heard somebody begin to weep. They wanted me to beg, to plead, to cry and ask them not to take my life. But they already had.
I closed my eyes. There was nothing left that I wanted to see.
Nicola Belte lives in Birmingham, U.K, and is a part-time MA student, part-time pint-puller, and an in-between time writer of increasingly weird fiction. Her work has been published by Spilling Ink Review, Paraxis Magazine and Flash Fiction Online, amongst others, all of which you can find at her blog, here: nicolabelte.blogspot.com
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Story illustration by Robert Elrod.