The Key

Celia: Time passes.

Her body weakens.

He doesn’t feed her. Never gives her water. The Hispanic maid ignores her, though the following morning there isn’t much to ignore. She has long since ceased pulling at the lead and gloves and collar.

She dies. Naked. Alone. Hungry.

With a cock in her mouth.

Paul does what he says he’s going to do: he penetrates her dead body while she stares unblinking at the ceiling. But she doesn’t bleed.

Even in death, she disappoints.

She starts to rot before he moves her. Her mother’s house, like he said, with a steel chain. He splays her open. Her mother screams when she finds her daughter dead on her floor. She rakes her nails down her face, tearing her skin apart.

The jagged wounds never heal.

But no one minds, not when they lock her in the ward. Diana never quite recovers.

Stephen moves on, of a sort. Celia was only supposed to be a one-night stand; he never expected to fall for the tongue-tied dance major at her first college party. Her death doesn’t break him the way her lies might have. He finds righteous anger instead. He is easy pickings for his sire. He can look into his girlfriend’s disappearance and death easier once he’s faced his own.

He ties it to the mob. Diana owed them money; they took her daughter when she couldn’t pay. The story makes the news. Maxen spins the tragedy into a victory during the next election.

No one ever looks twice at Paul.

Still, even when Stephen has taken them all out—bloody, gory, he could only go so long without killing—the ghost of the girl she was haunts what passes for the dreams of his kind.

It starts, like always, at the end of the road.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

The sound of giggling draws him forward. In this dream he’s human again, clumsy, tripping over his own two feet as he follows the little girl’s laugh. The soles of his shoes slap against the black pavement, the sound quickly swallowed by the fog that obscures either side of the path. Overgrown trees snatch at his hair and clothes as he runs, drawn forward by the giggling.

Slowly, lights appear in the distance. A giant rises up from the mists like some monstrous beast of myth, lighting his path to the iron-wrought gate that halts his movement.

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“Carnival of Dreams” reads the sign over the entrance, each letter formed by a multitude of colorful lights. A smaller, hand-painted sign below the D in dreams says, “No refunds.”

He starts forward.

“I wouldn’t,” says a voice, and he looks down to see the girl. White dress, poofy sleeves, pink Mary-Janes with white ankle socks. Her pigtails bob as she lifts her chin to look up at him. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“She brought me,” he says. “She wants me here.”

The little girl sighs, shaking her head.

“No. You missed your turn.”

He takes a step forward. The mists part for him. The girl’s smile turns sad.

“They never listen,” she says, but he’s already gone.

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The gate disappears once he steps past it. Everything that had been hidden from him comes into view: the noises, the smells, the people. Chattering. Laughing. Gossiping. Words of adoration, degradation, accusation.

You’re pretty. Really pretty.
Can I have a kiss?
He really likes you.
I really like him, too.
One bad judgement call.
Hit me. Hit me, please.
I deserve it.
What did you learn?
Pretty please?
It’s all in your head, sweetie.
Please.
You chose this.
Who else?
I chose this.
Truth comes out.
Anything else?

Fragments. Snippets. They join the gentle rain from above, the pitter-patter against his skin. Sanguine drops stain his skin red. His shirt sticks to his back. Red surrounds him: claret, crimson, scarlet, ruby. A rose by any other name is still the hue of blood.

Red is the foundation of their society.

Lights flash in the distance. Someone screams. A second voice joins the first. A third. A multitude. Horror? No, glee. The rides come into view, operating despite the storm gathering overhead: the Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, the carousel. Laughter from the fun house, echoes of it reverberating through the night. A pair of fools tumble into the open clown’s mouth that serves as entrance.

Gaping chasm:
swallow
me

whole

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They don’t come back out. Darkness swallows their screams. He moves on, past the mouth and the outstretched tongue that serves as carpet, eyes caught by the decor alive on the rides, the signs, the tents.

Red fleur-de-lis
etched in—
marked by—
skin
faces
twisting, metal, thrashing
lights.

Red fleur-de-lis etched in lights. Nothing but decoration.

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People everywhere. They surround him. They eat butter-coated popcorn and rub salt against their jeans so they can lob softballs at cans and toss rings onto bottles. They carry animals larger than they are with red ribbons ’round their necks tied in little bows. They ride rides, hands in the air. They file past with sno-cones and sodas and elephant ears, and in the distance an elephant trumpets its amusement at the thought of humans eating its ears.

A sign outside a tent proudly proclaims “Oddities Inside!” and yet more people filter through the opening. They watch the acts.

The sword swallower.
The snake charmer.
The Siamese twins.
The mermaid in her tank of water.
The lion tamer wears a suit.

A ballerina.
En pointe. Spin,
spin,
spinning,
spin.

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Cages. A tiger inside, a girl outside. The reverse: a girl inside, a tiger outside. The tamer cracks his whip.

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A girl with empty sockets for eyes, blood on her cheeks.

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A girl with her mouth sewn shut.

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A girl whose patchwork face is held together by thick, metal stitches.

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Twins suspended from the same hoop, one in black and one in white.

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Aerial acrobats fly from one trapeze to the next, their partners catching, catching—

falling

splat.

A girl on her own hoop, red smile on her lips, red smile on her throat.

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Another in yards of red silk, spinning, twisting, eyes upon her, higher and higher she goes, twirling, dancing, the silk cradles her, supports her, weaving, braiding, she dances in the air, selling her story to everyone with eyes, heart in their throats—

a flash of silver,
the knife
cuts
clean
quick
deep

falling—

flying?

falling

caught.

Him?

No. His knife is bloody. He tucks it away. He watches.

The other. Dark. Tall. Frigid. His kiss leaves ice across her brow. She shivers. He breathes air into her lungs. Once. Twice. Again. Her fingers curl in his shirt.

“I love you.”

Dark wings carry them away.

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When had the spotlight gotten so cold.
When had he taken his knees?
When had she landed beneath him,
skin torn,
eyes closed,
bleeding,
broken.
Doll in hand.
Her lashes flutter.

He whispers the staccato of her heartbeat against her skin.

patient
even if you mess up
you’ll learn
(will you teach me?)
teach you
i’ll be patient
hate the sin
you will be loved with me
love the sinner
i’ll be patient
even when you mess up
hate the sin
love the sinner
who else?
who else forever
love the sinner
love the sinner
even when you mess up
patient
love the sinner
hate the sin
hate the sin, love the sinner

She bleeds across his hands. Across the floor. Across his shoes, when he stands. The spotlight dims. Her lashes cease their fluttering. They clean up her remains, tuck them away.

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“I don’t understand,” he says.

“I didn’t mean to,” he says.

“Do you believe me?” he says.

“You must believe me,” he says.

“I don’t understand,” he says again, but…

no one is listening.

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“She’s waiting for you.” The little girl again, red splashed across her white dress. She lifts a hand to point outside and out he staggers, back into the rain. Back into the darkness. The carousel plays its siren song, gay and merry; it calls him forward. Creatures canter around in circles, spinning, ever spinning. Wooden, features splintered, faded. Broken.

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Bloody entrails collect flies beneath the pony where she perches, steel rod through its back. It wheezes a whinny when she kicks its side with her heels.

Teen. Pink dress. Curly hair.

Somebody he used to know. Her name lingers at the back of his throat, a name he once whispered so intimately in her ear.

“Your name means of the heavens, dear.”
“Hell swallowed me and spat me back out.”
“He?”
“Hell.”

She looks at him. Stars shine where her eyes should be. Smoke billows from her mouth.

“You’re the mad king,” she says. Her lips form a frown. “You put her in a cage. The chains…”

They clink. Steel around her wrist, around her thighs. She’s forced to kneel. She has to look up to see him.

“Do you know why I do this to you?”
“Say you’re stupid, Celia.”

“No, Daddy.”

“Liar.”

“Please—”

“I’m tired of the scared woman act.”

“Say you’re stupid, Celia.”
“No, please—”

“What did you learn? Specificity in language is important.”
“Is this going over your head?”
“Daddy?”
“So tell me: what did you learn?”
“I want to tell you.”
“I want to tell you to your face.”

“I enjoy your suffering.”

There’s nothing in his eyes. Nothing in her head. Nothing between them. It stretches on, infinite, plastic, unsmiling, cold—she wants to be warm again, she only wants to be warm again, she’s sorry, she’s so sorry, she didn’t mean to break him.

anyone else would have broken

But you did
No
No?
What do you call these cracks?

Gloved fingers pluck at the edges of her mask.

He pulls.

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There’s nothing inside.

“You will be safe with me.”
Safety is nothing but an illusion.
And, oh,
how he shatters
it
her.


Promises float away on the wind.


“Rise and shine, youngling.”

A familiar greeting. A familiar voice. A familiar couch. But the woman—no, Celia doesn’t know her. Not yet.

“You had quite a fall. Give yourself a little while before you move. How do you feel?”

Familiar words. Unfamiliar voice.

Where have all the butterflies gone?

Her skin stretches across her bones, purple veins clear beneath her blanched flesh. She tries to speak. The words catch in her throat, come out as a wheezing gasp instead of anything intelligible.

A blue-eyed lawyer smirks.

“Bro…ke,” she wheezes. “Broke. Broken.”

“You’re not broken, Celia.” The woman. “Death itself could not possess you.”

“No,” she rasps. “Him. Broke. Him. _Broke him.”_ She stares into this familiar stranger’s eyes. “He left me.”

“Time and honesty mend most things.”

SMACK!
“You’re such a… a liar!”
Silver tongue, red print.
The little bitch bleeds.

“Do you know why I do this to you?”

Empty. She’s empty. He’s empty. But she can fill him. She will fill him. He takes it all out of her. Everything. All of her warmth.

He truly is a monster.

“I am going to kill you, Celia.”

Red.

It all comes back to red.

“There is a reason.”

Someone screams. Ragged, throat-bleeding pitch. Darkness. A low thump.

“I hope you appreciate how little trust I have in you these evenings.”

She didn’t mean to. She thought she was doing the right thing.

“You may not have done the right thing, but you did the rightest thing you knew how to do.”

“Fix him,” she whispers from her knees. The carousel’s music mocks her.

Cool hands cup her chin, lift her gaze. Something lurks behind his eyes. Something no one ever wants to see. Something she should turn away from. They should all turn away from what lurks within.

She wades into the storm.

“You may show me that you are strong.”

A heart beats inside her chest. She yanks it out and throws it at his feet.

All she ever wanted was to love you.

One night, it’s enough.

She is enough.

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There’s a girl lying on the floor. Her mirror stands beside Death to watch the girl’s chest rise and fall. Shallow, so shallow. Each breath might be her last. Beneath her lids her eyes flicker. She sees things that aren’t there. She smells things that aren’t real. It covers the stench of her unwashed body.

It covers the stench of death.

“Decay.” The voice comes from beneath the black hood. Young, old, wise, naïve. It is all things at once.

“She’s dying,” the girl says.

“Yes.”

“You’re going to take her.”

“Yes.”

“No one came.”

Death’s rattle sounds from beneath the hood.

“Did you think that they would?”

“They don’t care,” she whispers. Death takes her chin in his hand, lifting her gaze to the darkness.

“They die for you. She takes her own life. He gives his to the hungry ones. To the liar, then the snake. Shall I show you?”

The girl doesn’t have time to answer before the room disintegrates around them.

“Left her! You just left her there! She was mine and you left her to die!”

Stephen faces off against a blonde woman in a turtleneck, fangs visible when he opens his mouth to roar his outrage at her. Celia recognizes the woman who woke her on the couch.

“Was that part of your plan? To make me lose her so I had no choice but to accept your offer?”

The woman opens her mouth, but Stephen cuts right across what she says.

YOU LEFT HER TO DIE, YOU LYING BITCH!”

The world goes red.

Butterflies flitter through the air to the beat of birdsong. A smiling rake sits beside a frigid bitch, toasting their guest with glasses of burgundy.

“You’ll bring her back. Once I do this, you’ll bring her back.”

“With my own blood.”

The world goes red.

“You said it would work.” Stephen again, squaring off against the rake and the bitch. A mambo steps away from his curled fist. Blood covers his hands, wet and viscous. It slides down his wrists to disappear beneath his suit jacket.

“Sometimes the souls do not come when called. There is nothing I can do.”

“Why?” he snarls at them. “Why won’t she come?”

“She lacks the power.”

“What does that even mean?”

“She gave up,” the mambo says. “She cannot come back from that.”

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“I didn’t,” the girl whispers to Death. “I didn’t give up. I tried to help them. I tried to help all of them—”

“You let him collar you. Chain you. Kill you.”

“No. You don’t understand. I had to—”

“You chose to.”

“I chose to,” she repeats quietly. “I gave him the tools. I laid down and let him chain me.”

Like an animal. Filthy. She lies on the floor.

“This isn’t how the story ends,” she says.

“No.”

“She can fix it.” But there’s question in her eyes, and she turns to look at Death. He does not smile. He is not prone to them. Gray stares back at her.

Death says nothing.

She takes his silence as assent and reaches for his blade.

The princess saves herself in this one.

Paul is sleeping in his bed. His room is as empty as the rest of him: just a bed, a wooden door, a table with a lamp. Gray sheets. Gray carpet. Gray drapes. She has the knife in her hand. She stole it from the kitchen.

From the kitchen?

From the thing.

From Death.

Cold fingers cup her chin.

The monster wears her lover’s face.

“I’m tired,” she whispers.

“I know,” he says. “Just a little longer.”

“Will it hurt?”

“For a little while.”

“I don’t want to be wrong anymore. I never meant—”

“Shh.” Fingers against her lips. She tastes blood. “It will be okay. Everything will be better in the morning.”

His lips brush her lids, closing them.

“I love you, baby girl.”

Darkness.

The Key

Blood and Bourbon False_Epiphany False_Epiphany