Sharon’s bloodshot eyes sprang open at the sound of a snapping window shade.
She jerked upright out of her tomb of blankets, her heart slamming. The scent of camphor dirtied her nasal passages as she swung her legs over the mattress’s edge. I have you now, you old reptile, she thought desperately, as she stumbled naked from the bed. Her ankle bashed against the metal frame so hard that bolts of iron-hot pain shot all the way up to her knee, but she paid it no mind. She lurched in the direction of the doorway even as she realized, once again, that she was too late. He had been here-the air stank of him… but now, he was gone.
She wouldn’t catch him.
She never could.
“Fuck you, sugar,” she muttered. Mites of dust floated lazily in the predawn stormlight. Her voice fell flat in the empty room.
A pack of Marlboros rested on the nightstand next to the bed. She extracted a cigarette, and torched it with the white bad-luck Bic that had been stuffed in next to them.
A vanity table against the far wall sported an oversized mirror. Sharon regarded the glass surface clinically as she smoked.
Taller, this time. Thinner, too. Much thinner. She could see the delicate, shadowed curve of each rib. Her hips jutted like the edges of knives, and the skin that shrouded the bones was sallow and sickly. Dark, oily patches augmented the hollows of her eyes, which were smeared with the mess of cosmetics that she had slept in, apparently. The metal hoops that had been driven through her nipples glinted with a dull, whorish shine. Sharon wondered what the point of them was, as she dragged a spade-shaped, magenta fingernail along the extremely modest, freckled swell of her new breasts. These suckers would barely fill an A cup. Why bother with the piercings at all?
Her lips twisted downward into a frown as she continued to take in the details. Waist-length, pin-straight hair, dyed a garish, artificial cherry-red. Two mini metal barbells driven through each side of her navel.
And finally-her frown contorted into a scowl of utmost loathing once she saw it-the butterfly-shaped scar. Right on the front of her belly, this time.
She’d yet to inhabit a body where it was not present.
Sharon expelled the last drag of her cigarette from her nostrils and stabbed it out.
The clothes she had died in a thousand times were laid out neatly on the back of the vanity’s chair. Denim miniskirt. Fringed, beaded halter top. Black suede, knee-high, heeled boots, with embroidered roses climbing up the sides. Oversized, white faux-fur coat. Beautiful, expensive clothes. Looking at them made her want to shriek with revulsion, but she put them on, anyways, and stuffed the cigarettes and lighter into her coat pocket.
A folded note was taped to the mirror.
Come down when you’re ready.
Her eyes scanned over the penmanship. After the third time reading the words, she huffed noisily, crumpled the paper, and tossed it on the floor.
“When you’re ready,” she mimicked, in a savage, mocking falsetto. “As if I have a motherfucking choice.”
She lit another cigarette as she tugged the boots on. Forty years ago or so, she had dutifully saved her tips until she had enough money to buy those boots. There had been a time when she’d coveted them from a shop window, but now, all she could think of was the way they had looked twisted under her body, the first time they took her life. All she could see and smell was the blood and piss running down her thighs to stain that expensive suede.
Sharon closed her eyes. The memories, as always, came unbidden, unwanted.
A dizzy whirl of headlights, spinning through mid-May rainfall. The lilting, pretty sound of her own voice, singing out Fleetwood Mac in cadence with muttering of the frogs in the tall grass. Her umbrella handle swinging jovially from hand to hand. The chirruping of the creek down below the overpass.
A limousine, prowling out of the storm. The scent of camphor and cloves drifting out from a cracked window.
Well, hi, Mister Snade!
Need a lift, gorgeous?
Her own pleas for mercy echoed in the chambers of her mind as she stared unfocused into the mirror, rubbing her throat.
There was no sense in prolonging it any longer. She dropped the cigarette and stormed out of the bedroom.
Immediately to the left of the threshold she had just exited was a dangerous-looking, narrow wooden staircase. A single, dusty bulb on the ceiling above dimly illuminated the passageway before her. Gripping the splintery railing, she began her descent, her boot heels clacking hollowly as she went. The last four or five steps were shrouded in near-complete darkness. She proceeded slowly and carefully, with one hand stretched out before her. Eventually her nails scraped against a surface, and when she had ascertained that she was on ground level, she felt around until she found a knob. The door squeaked open, and the sudden brightness beyond it made her flinch. The camphor-and-cloves stink was overpowering.
He was sitting with his back to her on a barstool.
Sharon stepped across the room to take a seat next to him. She didn’t bother greeting him. She simply took another cigarette out of the pack and brought it to her lips. Pulling the lighter out, she realized that it had been lit for her. She hadn’t seen a flame, or seen it happen… but then again, she never did.
She shivered as she beheld two reptilian yellow eyes through the smoke hovering in the air, but the impression vanished almost immediately. A regular, unlined man’s face stared back at her-chiseled chin, angular nose, ashy hair slicked back from a shapely forehead. His eyes were not yellow, but a brown so dark they were almost black.
“Good morning, Sharon,” he said. “Would you like a drink?”
He gestured beyond to the shelf of glinting bottles before them. Sharon dragged on her cigarette and blew it out noisily.
“Yeah, I guess,” she agreed.
He slid off of his stool and sauntered behind the bar.
“The usual?” he inquired.
She watched listlessly as he set a martini glass before her. He scooped ice into a cocktail mixer, and poured in vodka, lime juice, and simple syrup. Black gems on his cufflinks glinted under the ceiling lamps as he deftly shook the beverage. Sharon had to click her tongue. Forty years, and he still felt the need to show off his drink crafting skills.
The first few buttons at his collar were undone. It was rather warm in the room. Shrugging off her coat, she hung it on the hook under the bar as he strained the pale green liquid into the glass. He added a twist of a lime garnish along the glass’s edge and smiled hopefully at her. She didn’t smile back.
She stubbed her cigarette out in the glass ashtray on the bar, wrapped her fingers around the glass stem, and gulped. When she set it back down, she saw that he was staring at her quite intently.
“You were truly created in Her image, Sharon,” he told her, softly. “No matter which form you are reborn into, I never fail to behold Her grace.”
She snorted as loudly as she could.
“Francis,” she said, “we both know why that isn’t true. When will you come to terms with that?”
His brow furrowed in annoyance, but he made no other response. She didn’t say anything either, simply knocked back the rest of her drink. He produced another glass and started to fill the cocktail shaker again.
“Are you at least going to tell me what Her will is, this time?”
She framed the words ‘Her will’ with two exaggerated air quotes. At this, he scowled, but only strained a second gimlet into the glass for her. No cute lime garnish this time, she did not fail to notice.
“Her will is your very being, dearest Sharon,” he reminded her. “but if you have a look in there-” he gestured to a red door behind the bar that she had not noticed- “you’ll find something of interest.”
“Oh come the fuck on,” she snapped. She gulped the second glass and let it smash to the floor. He didn’t so much as blink. “Snade, I am tired of this shit. I didn’t fucking sign up for any of this, if you recall. You hired me to fucking pour drinks for your pervert fucking customers, not die and die and die and die for some based-ass idiot fucking deity you don’t even know-”
A sickeningly wet, metallic aroma overwhelmed her.
“No, please-” she managed, but before she could finish her sentence, the chains clanked.
She blinked rainwater out of her swollen, beaten eyes. Her long blonde hair was so saturated with her own blood that it looked red. It hung heavy, wet, and shroudlike over her face and neck. She stood naked except for her high-heeled boots, and balanced uncomfortably on a wooden beer crate that was too narrow for her to stand. Her shoulders ached from the restraints pulling her arms to either side. She could smell camphor and blood and her own terrified piss. The noose bit into the flesh of her throat, and Snade stood before her, glowering, his face a rictus of rage.
“What was that, Sharon?” he hissed. His boot pressed threateningly against the edge of the crate.
“Nothing,” she babbled. “nothing, please-”
The pressure of the noose receded along with the rest of the ugly sensations, and at once she was back in the empty barroom. Chastised, she rose from her seat and stepped around the counter, her head lowered. Before she reached the door, Francis seized her by the shoulders.
“Look at me,” he whispered.
She turned her eyes upwards obediently.
“Please, Frank,” she pleaded. “Not again.”
His fingers were cool and dry against her cheeks as he tucked her hair behind her ears.
“Go on back there,” he told her gently.
She stepped past him and did.
The room was little more than a closet. There was a mirror and a sink against the far wall, and a hairbrush balanced on the sink. Shelves lined the walls on either side of her, and the shelves were packed with boxes of dry bar supplies. A dark puddle of some foul, tarry substance marred the concrete floor. Disgusted, Sharon noticed that red-streaked tendrils of the stuff spread out, up the wall, around the edges of the sink, and along the edges of the mirror. When she had a good look at it, she realized that it wasn’t her own reflection she was looking at.
A girl who couldn’t be older than eighteen stared back at her with wide, frightened brown eyes. She was wearing a convenience store uniform polo, and she was splattered with the same thick, sticky substance that was on the floor. She seemed to notice Sharon looking at her, and outstretched her arms imploringly in her direction. They extended beyond the surface of the glass. The substance dripped off of her onto the floor, hissing and smoking and splattering.
“Please help me,” the girl said.
“What the fuck,” said Sharon.
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