Shoshana woke up early the morning after the bath, and immediately looked down at her wrist, where a thin scar was crusting angry red over her pale cream-colored skin. Don’t you dare pick it off, dumbass, she ordered herself. That little scab is probably all that’s keeping you alive. Without it, the blood would just pour out, “The Shining”-style, all over the sheets and the bed and the carpet. And then Mom’ll bitch about the stains.
She sensed in her mind that Kirael was still asleep, or whatever demons did that was equivalent. She should go back to sleep too- it seemed to be just after dawn, maybe a half an hour before the alarm would go off.
She considered the shrill insistency of the alarm, the angry orange glare of her lamp in the still-dark bedroom, the chill outside the blanket, the attempt to find a high-school-appropriate outfit and the bitter pill that she was dressing to please people who she had grown to, if she was honest with herself, utterly despise. She considered the monotony of the day, broken only by a thousand little jibes at her personhood- God, that was melodramatic, but that was how it felt.
And she might have to face Collin. Fuck him. Still, after all these weeks, the feeling was virulent. Fuck Collin. God, how he must have laughed…what the hell would he want you for? No one ever does. Especially not him. He’s popular; he can have all the skinny blonde hipster chicks he wants. Why the hell would he ever pick you, the fat Jewish-looking one who used to argue with him in history class? God, I can’t believe I let Kirael see how I was starting to feel about him either, when I’d barely dealt with the Collin thing…fuck him for saving me, fuck him for that…kiss or whatever it was, what’s his game? Fuck him!
No way was school happening today. She couldn’t take it. It was just not happening. She turned the alarm off and rolled over, wanting nothing more than for all her thoughts to go away. “I feel sick to my stomach,” she told her parents forty-five minutes later, when they came in to wake her up. “Seriously, I’m not avoiding anything…I just can’t go today.” To her surprise, they left her alone.
“Good morning,” Kirael told her happily over their solitary breakfast (nonfat Greek yogurt, nullified, she told herself bitterly, by the large, sugar-crusted blueberry muffin). “You’re quiet today.”
Shoshana realized yet again how much she detested perkiness. She treated him to a blast of her signature melancholy/self-pity/shame. He seemed chastised.
At last, he said, “So…about last night.”
“I don’t want to fucking talk about that. Especially not with you.”
“That’s a lovely velvet skirt,” he said, possibly in desperation, she was too beat to figure it out. “Very…black. Your whole outfit is, actually. I like it though. It’s very…witchy.”
After breakfast, she didn’t bother brushing her teeth. She didn’t care how she smelled, she decided, no more than she did how she looked. Instead she put on her Docs and her black peacoat and walked out, to the end of the development and over the old railroad bridge, until she came to what was called, to the consternation of those who lived south of Maine, the beach.
The sand was rocky and white under her boots, and the wind whipped her hair. It made a faint hollow wailing sound as it passed between the two rock walls on either side of the brief strip of shore. She felt as though the wind was going to pass through her, too, as if she was nothing but a screen or some kind of hollow sculpture, like the Wicker Man from that ostensibly pagan horror movie. The air was wet and cold, but not cold enough that she cared. The sky was close and stormy overhead.
She knew why she liked coming here. She related to this place, especially the rocks. How often had she felt as if an ocean of people trying to change her, or else hating her without knowing her, or hating her and knowing her for that matter, was slowly wearing her down into gravel? She shook her head bitterly. She was always mocking teens who were into Twilight and all those dramas where everything was such a big goddamn deal; she prided herself, for all her mercurialness, on being essentially grounded and earthy (like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg; like Roseanne Barr; and in a weird way, like Annie Wilkes), but look at her now. Drama upon drama, and the biggest drama was that she just wasn’t strong enough to deal with the things everyone else seemed to handle just fine; she just couldn’t get her shit together.
She perched on the remnants of the bridge, under one of the elegantly crabbed trees that grew improbably at the start of the sand. Meanwhile Kirael, already far too cold for his comfort, was focused apprehensively on the icy gray-green waves and pungent foam. “You’re not going to try to…to drown yourself in the water, or anything…are you, Shoshana?”
“No.” She continued to watch the waves through her frizzing hair.
“I thought you’d be happy.” He shook his head helplessly in her mind. “About last night, I mean. I thought that was the kind of thing you wanted. I mean, I thought it would at least make you feel a little better.”
“What do you mean, the kind of thing I wanted?”
“For someone to…you know, save you.”
“I’ve got some kind of Cinderella complex, is that what you’re saying?”
“Well, maybe you do,” he retorted. “You and I watched that thing- the thing with the whore and that millionaire who we both thought was too old for her and a bit creepy-“
“Pretty Woman.” As a feminist, she hated how much she enjoyed that movie.
“Yes, and the one you said you used to watch when you were little. Beauty and the Beast. Actually, I didn’t mind that one. I never saw animation before, and some of the instrumental music was nice.” He looked down at her from where he stood- or appeared to her to be standing- against the trunk of one of the craggy trees, which was putting forth early blossoms that would soon, Shoshana knew, end up encased in frost. “Which one were you, in that movie? Her, or the Beast?”
“To be really honest, Kirael, I don’t know anymore.” She smiled bitterly. “Now you should be happy. You have what you wanted. I’m done. Really I am. I’m ready to let you drag me to Hell by my hair or whatever it is.”
“I was doing what you wanted!” She heard a few birds take off at the sudden roar. “And then you stopped me, and then you…you kissed me, and thanks to your mindfucking, I can’t do this anymore. Resist you. Resist the political fascists and the neurofascists and the body fascists. I’m too damn tired and nobody’s on my side. Nobody cares what I think or how I feel. Nobody likes me just the way I am. Nobody really wants me. Even you just want me for some kind of trophy or some such shit. And I’m sick of trying to convince myself that it’s them and not me, when everything makes me feel so damn worthless all the time. Including my own habits and my own head.” She shook her head. “Even as I’m saying this to you, part of me’s hoping that it’ll spark some kind of…moment of conscience in you. Pity, that’s all I look for anymore. Anything else…fuck that. It’s not happening. That’s what life has taught me: conform, or lower my expectations. Hell, who says it has to be one or the other? Just as often it’s both.”
He was quiet for a while. “I lied to you our first night together,” he said at last. “I said I’d done this loads of times. I hadn’t. You’re my first, Shoshana.”
“Listen to me. I didn’t know it would be this way. I didn’t know what it would be like to know someone the way I know you now. And I didn’t think there was anyone- especially not any human- who was like you.” She looked up at him guardedly, eyes squinting against the thin daylight.
“You’re sick,” she said finally.
“I mean this. This isn’t a trick. I swear on my mother’s grave, Shoshana. On all the names of all my gods and on the two names of yours.”
She was quiet, so he continued. “I was attracted to you before anything else. You don’t believe me, but it’s true. No, your size doesn’t bother me. I think you wear it well, and besides, our women tend to be heavier anyway.
“I thought you were attractive. I still do. And I liked listening to what you had to say, what you were thinking, when we weren’t arguing. But of course that just made me more eager to complete my mission, although I have been really enjoying my experience here on Earth. I wanted to take you back with me. Or so I thought.
“Last night, I saw the thing I thought I most wanted within my grasp. I saw you and me together in my parents’ house; I saw myself avenging my father in the eyes of my people and making a name for myself- all the things that I, too, have been ordered to do. And I realized that I didn’t want any of it, not anymore. Because the price of all those things was hurting you…more than I already had, of course. My life might get better, but at the cost of ruining yours. Besides, if I took you back and you had to stay with me…you might someday stop hating me, but we would never…it would be a relationship common with my people; I’m not the first person to want a human, but…I realized it wouldn’t be enough. And you wouldn’t be enough, either, if we ended up like that, because you’d be someone different. It would change you.
“I realized I didn’t want that, Shoshana.” He pulled her onto her feet. “Because I want you, Shoshana. I want you as you are, right now. I don’t want you if you would only lose ten pounds, I don’t want you if you would just stop ‘flapping’ in public, I don’t want you if only you believed in free trade or made your bat mitzvah or were ‘cheerful.’ I like you just the way you are, because you are different from anyone else I’ve ever met or am likely to meet. And I think the world is better off for you being in it. Just the way you are.”
She realized he was offering her one of the delicate, blush-white flowers from the tree. A part of her brain registered that she liked the tree. It was beautiful in spite of its gnarliness; actually, its gnarliness made it look like one of the trees from a Chinese ink painting. The gnarliness made it look better. She took the flower. Its silky, slightly waxy petals fluttered in her hand as the wind blew over them. For a while, the only sound was the crashing of the waves.
She said, “So…what does this mean? I mean…what happens now?”
“I don’t know,” he replied over the comforting, dull roar of the wind and the waves in her ears. He thought about it, and then added, “I know you like it here, but…I am a little cold. We could go home.”
Shoshana nodded, and tucked the flower behind one ear, into the nest of her hair. “That sounds fine.” Her voice was steady, but Kirael felt the anticipation- the fear- the joy that lived in her chest now, and, naturally, it mirrored his own.