She lay on an unfamiliar bed. At least, the one in her cell.
My breath is right in front of me. That’s comforting…
Her back was to a body pillow, her face towards a wall.
It’s slowly coming back to me. I’m safe in my bed.
Wires of leaden tail wove between her covered legs. Circling the closest inch of wispy ends was the red band that put her in her cell.
Oh it’s so soft here, I’m safe…
A pair of ivory horns curls up from her forehead.
Then… Why am I awake?
Beyond the space of the bed, screens flicker on faces as they tab the days her body has yet to blossom into‒
“Who’s there?” she says with her eyes closed, her breath whistling through a swollen nose. The hairs off her slicked back stuck to a gray shirt, yet she’s wrapped the thick sheet about her body, a silky retreat.
“Something’s off, what happened to me…?” She lifts an arm against her blanket, her hand finding its way to her cheeks; she’s still behind her eyelids. Her fingers brush against a sticky, iron-scented substance she couldn’t ignore. The trail ran horizontally from the tip of her nose. Her right ear was damp, muffled. The pain pierces through her stupor.
Her eyes snap open.
“It’s… I thought I-”
The stained fingers inches from her face drew her panicked focus. Her stare slid along her crimson-crusted nails. Her eyes darted about her, lighting upon wooden bunk slats, stalling along a sheet choked with dust. Bolting up, she bangs her sensitive horns against the bunk above her, causing the river streaming from her nose to quicken its current.
“OW! What the-!” She struggles against the sheets, ripping it away from her. “Where am-!” Flailing, she falls out of her bed with a thump and groan, cursing her clumsiness and her racing pulse. Sitting on her legs, she tilts her face up, pinching the tip of her nose to stop the blood flow. She tugs heavy air between her heavy fangs, easing herself with deep breaths.
“Now, something happened while I was asleep, but what…?” Her teeth are clenched as she said this, her breath hissing between her cavities.
Her breathing slows as she retreats back behind her eyelids, splitting the ocean of her mind with thin angled hands, pushing away wave after wave. The water trickles to a ghostly green as her mind’s eye squints to see shapes floating in the water.
Trails of green fracture the water, crackling in complexities and intensities, as if they’re all strands snaking from salt crystals.
It’s all she could see.
There she is, she’s on her bed agai‒ no, it’s her Grandmother’s bed this time, with pasted, faded floral pattern sheets and wrinkled thin pillowcases. It’s lighter than her own bed, she observes, but that thought is loosened from her grasp.
Ivory is kneeling, her chin tilted up, without defiance, to a crowded shrine a foot above her aching head. She’s a kid once more; her horns haven’t even curved yet, let alone have the curves settle onto her chest and‒
“Ivory! Are you praying?!” rasps someone behind her. She doesn’t flinch, but instead gives a slow nod.
“Can’t you see me, Lola?” she responds an octave higher, her eyes now focusing on a curious statue, the size of her small hand, sitting at the lip of the decrepit shrine built into the wall.
“Hurry, Ivory, I don’t want to bring the bottle out again,” sighs the one slipping under the covers, the bed groaning under her weight.
The child presses her lips together, spiraling a small prayer from the top of her head, aiming it towards the ceiling, sending it into the sky. Make sure Lola doesn’t give me medicine, whoever is listening. There’s something trickling inside her nose, but she resists the urge to sniff, letting it settle back into the cauldron. Her eyes were closed as she concentrated. Now she opens them, drawn to the same round figure.
Of all the idols and figurines, this one was almost neon in the dark. The overhead light wasn’t working, she remembers, the switch shocks her when she flicks it, so she’s taken to sitting on the bed, a measured three feet away, in the dark, her back towards her guardian Lola.
Whisper something here and there, that’s what sleeps her. Ivory does as she thinks, clasping and unclasping her hands in feigned promise to the sandals she couldn’t look up and past, up those robes and to their faces snared by the haloes and suns and‒
She’s asleep! Her eyes are wide open, and the shadows of those saints quiver and swim at the rims of her vision as ghosts of the statue’s glow imprint her deafening wonder. Her legs start to unbend from her kneeling position, I’m really doing this as her fingers unbind themselves, outstretching to the statue just inches from her fingertips.
She has a hold of it. She brings it back to her chest, cradling what looks like part of a pair, a lonely lamb.
As she slips nimble fingers along the ridges of its wool, stout legs, the jagged half of the missing shepherd, the grass he stood on, she asks Where is your Lola?
The material was jade on the skin of her hand, the light paleing her flesh.
“Lola… I’m going to sleep,” Ivory sighs as she falls to her right, clutching the lamb with the slick pads of finger prints. Her Grandmother grunts in response, then punctuates it with a sharp snore. Giddy, the child brings the lamb to her face, her vision now misted, overcome by lamb, lamb, lamb. It’s so pretty, it’s just right for me, it should be mine, the shepherd was right in leaving them to me, thank you for being like‒
I’m being watched. She removes the statue from her vision, squinting in the darkness until she spots the tiger with an unmended gash in its throat, stuffing spilling out over the ragged edge. Oh Luxa… With the lamb in her left, she turns to her back, reaching for the white tiger just out of reach, brushing against the banded fur before tugging on the paw, her right arm cradling its lounging body.
She yelps as some warm candle wax settles on her forearm; it was printed onto the tiger’s side. Her Grandmother stirs from the mountainous position that intimidates Ivory to sleep, but she isn’t asleep, so her eyes focus on the corner of her eye. She’s choking the tiger’s abdomen, clutching the lamb to her chest in an effort to stifle its glow, she can’t see me with the both of them, I’ll get grounded or detention or the attention of her which is worse I‒
The wax has hardened now, partial evidence that she’s hugging another guardian that isn’t her Lola. Hugging, no‒ I’m choking, it’s hard to- What’s happening?! Why can’t-
She’s heaving now, the tiger’s stuffing oozing out of the opening, her breath washing out in waves as well. She has to let go of one, but not both. The guts of her stuffed animal stick to her arm, but Ivory’s grip won’t lighten. You’ll roar if I let you go, Luxa, so please don’t collapse, I’ll puncture your fur later and get Lola to fix you! On the other side, the lamb is slick in her hand. She’s choking it as well, but the wool wasn’t as strained as the stuffing. Her mouth is open, begging for air as groans escape her throat, like some grip she can’t ignore. I-I’ll let go of the lamb, okay? You’ll be safe with me, Luxa.
The outline to her left starts to rumble, but it isn’t with snores. She’s waking and she’ll be caught with a green hand, a burned one, that adds up to red, red, red.
Oh no, oh lamb, oh LUXA‒
Her eyelids snap shut.
She opens them again, on the same bed, but there’s daylight in a beam pointed at her, from curtained windows shuttering the darkness inside. The lamb was gone from her hand as she surveys her chest, the empty skin of the tiger now spread across her like a second blanket. To her left, her Grandmother isn’t there, but sitting in her place was‒
“In the flesh.”
Oh, her smile was nice, with the backdrop of even the muted curtains. Her hair was shorter than Ivory’s, almost, maybe two or three inches past her pierced ear? It doesn’t matter. She trimmed the feathers weeks ago, her mother took her and me, I was able to get a trim too, but it all grew back… But she’s HERE!
Ivory bolts up, creaking the bed as she makes a small hop on bruised knees, throwing her arms around her friend.
Kyo makes a small sound, tensing under Ivory, but still she embraces the hug with folded arms. They break from it, but Kyo only focused her ice eyes on what used to be the stuffed animal, the carcass in her “friend’s” arms.
“Oh no… What have you done to her?!” she gasps, her eyelids flaring open. “I gave her to you for you to fix, but you BROKE HER!” Tears well up in her crinkled eyes as her palms rush to suppress them.
Ivory is frozen by the stare boring through Kyo’s palms as she sobs for the tiger. Ivory lets the skin drop to her lap as she reaches out for Kyo. Ivory flinches away as Kyo slaps her hands away. She screams at her that Luxa was hers, her parents gifted it to her for being a good girl, but she wasn’t careful during one of her night terrors and ripped the fabric of her special pet, she was hers, she wasn’t yours, why do you sleep with her looking down on you like that, she’s mine‒
“Kyo, please, I didn’t mean to keep her!” She’s sniveling, her hands trembling in her lap as she strokes the skin with a softness she hasn’t practiced last night. Once more, “She just… She reminded me of me, and… It felt nice to at least have someone face me while I sleep, instead of telling me to face away because she hates my horns.” Her hand darts up to catch a tear on her fingernail.
Ivory stills, pinching one flattened paw, letting it rest on the leg of her friend, wincing at the pain in her gritted teeth. God, I shouldn’t talk at all. I’m so s‒ No, Lola is that word, I can’t say that to myself, or her. She’s clenching her nails to her palms, digging them into her flesh, in the flesh, to keep from breaking down, it’s painful but at least she’ll see the best me, not the second I’m weak.
They sat there, waiting for the other to say something. Kyo parts the curtain of her spindly fingers, the ones with thin bones, fingernails like pink crescents to the harsh ones on Ivory’s hands. They look at each other.
Kyo’s shoulders begin to shake as she removes her hands from her face, her eyes menacing like the rotting curtains behind her. Her hand slips to her pocket. She pulls out a bulbous statue, one with ridges slick with fingerprints. She’s slipping off the bed, planting her feet on the tiled floor and her arm blurs and the statue shatters with a big crash. There’s distant footsteps beyond the wallpaper enclosing the room.
“Your Lola needs to save you.”
“You’re gonna see me angry.”
At this, she lunges at her, her hands closing around her throat as she chokes her, teeth sharpening, her hair elongating, her eyes and their lids now ridged with rage. She’s so mature... thought Ivory before she blacks out for a second time.
The ocean she swam through is pulling her back, something painful hooked into her heel.
She’s behind her eyelids again. Her nose is bleeding again. It’s oh so red behind them again. She opens her eyes and the color drains from her eyes, but not her head.
As her temperature rises, so does the door to her room.
A figure steps out from the shadows beyond her bed, standing inches away from the patient on the floor. Ivory’s gaze looks past her pinched fingers, her narrowed eyes sliding along the figure’s stout outline. It was familiar, a limp in her left foot, an arch in her back… She gasps, then chokes, hacking up the blood pooling in her throat. She spat in the direction of‒
“Grandmother?! What are you doing here?” she asks, forgetting her nose to point a crooked finger at the shadow. “Were you watching me like always? Always spying on me?” At this, she gets up and towers over the woman, the river from her nose ceasing to flow. Beads of red slip off her lip, staining the plastic covering the woman’s head. The woman doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even look up, she stoops to close than half the patient’s size.
“What do you want from me this time?” Ivory huffs, a low growl bubbling from the back of her throat. Instead, the woman brandishes a nasal spray bottle, starched white against her black gloved hand. Ivory stills for a second, then stumbles backward as a stinging pain flares in her nostrils, snaking its way to the center of her forehead, settling like a hot stone. She shivers as she hesitantly, involuntarily, sits upon the bed, cupping her nose with tented tentative fingers.
“What is this?! You said I was cured!” Her voice echoed from her hands, a fearful look in her eye like that of a revealed child.
“You told me I was healed, that I could play outside again!” A breath floats past her lips, her eyes now to the floor. She was off to a distant place, the woman observes. The visor hiding the woman’s face crackles, replacing the vision of the wearer with that of another observer.
“I wanted to play… I wanted everyone to like me. I was so sure the kids I played with envied the tail dragging behind me, envied the horns crowning my head, so I tried humbling myself, acting like a dog to its master… Coming from the scum off the bottom of their shoes, the others didn’t take too kindly to a silent me. They assumed it was defiance to what they wanted to play… so they left me and-”
She covers her face, hunched over, her nose like the bloodied beak of a starved vulture. She sobs, oblivious to the woman approaching her with the bottle in her left gloved hand, offering the exposed palm of her right. She leans forward, her visor a hairbreadth away from the tremors wracking Ivory’s hands.
She rasps, “This will heal you. They told me I must dispense this to you.”
“You’re lying!” Ivory yells sharply, the red on her fingers staining her dark hair as they rake into her scalp. “You don’t understand, you never understood how I felt about that stupid medicine… I felt so sick, so sick, so slow and dumb that I cried the liquid out with my tears…” She breathes out. “I just wanted to play outside with the other kids… But you didn’t let me!” She continues to sob.
“You need to get out of your own head.” says a different voice from the same visor. “Take the medicine.” The woman hovers her right hand over Ivory’s shoulder, unable to touch someone like her.
Ivory’s senses prickle at the close contact. She could feel the tears silencing themselves as they slip through her fingers. She sniffs once, parting an eyelid to peer, reddened and all, at the woman. The woman retracts her hand an inch, cautious of her unblinking eye; the rest of her remains cemented to her stance.
In an instant, Ivory bolts from the bed, shoving the woman with a screech. Her fuming breath hisses past the gaps between her fangs as she howls, “Get AWAY from me!!” She’s on the woman in three seconds, thrice the time it took for the woman’s own scream to be cut off abruptly.
Ivory screams as she pommels the old woman, the visor shattering under bruised, now bleeding, knuckles. Her knees collapse the frail cavity of her chest and she doesn’t stop. The face was gone, and the breaks in her voice echo back at her from inside the depths of the helmet as she notices she broke the woman’s nose as well. She brushes her knuckles past her nose, sniffing as she gets up, stamping on the woman’s neck with a bare foot so she won’t recover. Let’s see how she breathes again.
She waits for the woman to heave.
Confident she’s alone, she paces about her room, kneading the fresh blood into her skin so it can harden her fist with an iron scent she hungers for. It seeps, she sees, into the vessels of her own as she misplaced a step, turning towards the open doorway. She stalls for a second, then looks behind her, surveying her wake.
It’s only a broken body, the brick walls laden with flecks of her nails as she flashes a memory of scratching the walls. That was the first night, but anything after that can only be marked by the gradual beam of sunlight that makes its way across the floor. There’s no sunlight pointing to her bed, a 90 degree angle to point fingers. She isn’t at fault, so now she can leave.
She lingers on the bed for another second, another, considering the blanket for the cold hallway ahead, but she goes without it. She turns about her face, disappearing into the darkness beyond her bed. She feels the rushing of air as she passes a doorway, the drop in temperature sliding along her skin.
She repeats I’m gone, I’m gone, I’m gone, I’m gone. Her tail untangles itself from behind her, the band snapping under the individual tails pulsing against it; she did that. Now, I’ll run until I can find someone who understands how criminal it is to keep me here… I’ll run until I find those kids again… I need them to see me. After that, I’ll go.
She runs for some time, only slowing when she spots the flickering of soft orange light coming from a door on her right. She tiptoes to the door frame, peeking around the corner, ignorant to her bated breath in the otherwise silent hallway. The room was small, some sort of shrine for‒
“Is that mine?!” she whispers, her harsh bare feet striking the tiles of the room. A narrow table overflowing with vines of plump red vida flowers houses an elevated platform. Partially melted candles surround a stuffed white tiger sitting upon the platform, an unmended opening catching Ivory’s eye as stuffing spills from the wound in its neck. It was just the right size for the arms of a failed child.
“Luxa!” she cries at full volume, her bloodied hand stretching to reach it, the other clutched to her chest. A bony hand shoots from behind the table and slaps Ivory’s away. She yelps, dropping to her knees before the tiger, her head inches above the edge of the table. She bears a glare at something gaunt peering above the tiger’s head.
“What is your deal? I wasn’t going to ta-”
“Do you realize you’ve failed once more?” interrupted a girl’s voice, lilting from behind the face. Ivory clenches her teeth.
“The medicine being offered was going to cure you, but you insisted on bleeding.” The figure, towering twice over the table, steps out. She was clad in a loose plastic suit, the dark material imitating the depth of a void. In stark contrast was the paleness of the girl’s face, her skin pulled over bleached bones. Her pupils had expanded to the edges of her eyelids in the faint light.
“Just look at yourself,” she whispers. The girl levels her gaze with Ivory’s eyes, forcing her chin up with a bony, childlike hand. Her other hand reaches behind her neck to replace the hooded mask she removed to entice trust. On the plastic of her mask was another visor, reflecting Ivory’s own hateful eyes. The demon blinks, startled by the bright red flaring like a pulse in her sclera. “You haven’t changed since you were admitted last year.”
Ivory just sits there, unmoving.
“The pattern you follow is unlike those of even our worst patients. You are an immeasurable wave of sensations, impulses.”
She follows the mirrored trail of blood from her nose, a thumb going up to rub the rust off her chin. She considers her reflection, then smacks a palm onto the visor, knocking the girl back a bit.
“This is… NOT ME!! I’d expect this trick from Grandma, but you? Aren’t you my age?” A hysterical laugh steals the rest of her sentence as she grabs the girls head. A crazed energy ensnares her arms as she shakes the girl, the victim clamping her own small hands on top of Ivory’s clawed ones. “You don’t see ME!!”
“W-wait! You must s-see what y-y-ou’ve d-uh-one!” With difficulty, the girl reaches behind her neck to press a button.
An audible click, then the visor’s screen crackles. Ivory freezes, tilting her head, her curiosity ruling over her anger, as her manner always predicted she would.
The static clears, revealing the grainy feed of a bunk bed in a dimly lit cell room. The walls were rusted and shadowed, a beam of light from the window fell like a beacon, angled directly at the sleeping figure at all the right angles. Through the muffled audio, a scream followed by a terrible cracking sound pierces the speakers along the bottom of the visor. The figure in the bed had shot straight up, her face banging against the bottom of the bunk before falling back down, groaning. She wore ivory horns.
Ivory watches with her mouth agape, her broken nose swelling below her vision. She watches as the self in the feed‒ as her hands‒ massage her nose, the glint of slanted eyes following the movements of her fingers as they’re coated in blood; her eyes shone like that of a bug’s hide, but she can’t hide from this. The sides of the stunted Ivory’s mouth twitch as she hears a faint pleasured moan from the video.
“Enough…” whispers the bruised, her fingers framing her face once again in shame.
“Well? You must speak up before the Ring commands you to crawl back into the drain we scooped you from.” The girl lets go of her chin, tapping it twice before turning away.
It was silent.
Ivory whirls about all the reasons in her head that could explain who was in that bed. Her mouth forms words but utters no sound as she follows the string of ropes holding her true nature hostage. She could only find the newer one tied to her wrist from last night. A thread, she follows‒
“The-The-Th nightmare I was having… There, there were, uh- kids, the kids were cutting my horns off! I tried to fight them, throw them, anything!! Nothing worked! So I headbutt the leader and screamed and screamed and screamed- They were nothing more than outlines by then, outlined in my own screams‒” She calms. “I… I don’t remember much else.”
“Then what of Grandma?” the girl inquires, soft and speaking from her visor.
“Grandma…” She looks down at her knuckles, spreading her fingers to see the stains stretch, retrace, but still she’s marked and there’s no going back. She dirtied my knuckles, my wrists, ankles… Following the deepening thought like the chains that weighed her to the bed, she starts to tremor, mixed with fear‒ no. It’s feigned spite.
“She just doesn’t shut up. She can’t read my heartbeat, my eyes, every flinch I send her. She never sees me right… I don’t even know why I respect her with that title-” mumbles Ivory, her figure sinking lower to the tiles.
“Then what of me?” says the girl.
Ivory doesn’t respond.
“...You don’t remember, do you?” says the girl.
“I don’t. Tell me.” She wraps her arms around her abdomen, her hands clawing at the shirt, the skin of her sides. She looks past the girl, staring at a loop, the pattern of the table leg.
“I was your friend. You don’t recognize me at all, with all the lenses you put on your reality,” she spat.
She takes the tiger off its platform and holds it out to Ivory. “This used to be yours, yes… but she was mine first.” Ivory just looks on, but still searching behind the girl’s eyes. The girl continues. She whips the tiger about once, a half-circle.
“I gave you money, food, the basement of my house whenever your Lola would chip your horns.” She’s harsh with her laugh as she paces in an arc behind the patient still facing herself behind open eyelids. “You didn’t know how to fight your own battles, let alone stand up to that frail old woman, so yes, I literally took you under my wing.” At this, Ivory raises her head, but lowers it all the same, her neck buried under her old “friend’s” name.
Kyo’s foot falls quicken as she continues.
“And all I ever asked of you was to trail me, like that bleeding tail of yours.” She then wraps a closed hand down the tiger’s own tail, shaking her head at the animal. She yanks at the tail, and off it goes, the ripping sound twisting Ivory’s back to look in horror.
They both gasp, but Kyo is the first to laugh. “HA! And to think I went to you to actually fix her?!” She waves the detached tail in front of Ivory’s face like a pendulum. There’s a distant thud as the tiger was tossed to the side, it’s glass eyes tinking along the ground before settling.
The patient’s own eyes settle back into her head, with difficulty because there’s tears now. They watch as the tail twitches and flicks about, listen as silent tears fall from Luxa’s eyes. Following the kink in the tail, her gaze lights upon the end soaked in rust. “Oh, so you see it now? The stain?” Kyo drops the tail, and Ivory’s hands snap forward to catch it. The smell‒
“It’s your blood, friend.” She lashes her tongue. “You kept getting into fights, so you used the tail to plug your nose up before you got home. I didn’t realize you kept her in your school bag, let alone get into ‘fights’ with boys.” At this, she leans over the patient, her hair falling behind her head as her ice blue eyes glow against her shadow. Ivory is looking at her now.
“Once my parents found out I was harboring a bug in the basement, they struck me and instructed me to kick you out. They cut my curfew, saying I shouldn’t dirty my feathers with lice like you, but you kept finding me everywhere I went.” Kyo whips back up, an arm binding itself to Ivory’s neck as she hauls the bug up, both snarling and kicking. They fall to the ground, arms only tightening in opposing directions as Kyo braces herself against a wall.
“You were spouting some bullshit about the Ring being after you after you broke up with your imaginary boyfriend” she scoffs at this, her breath hissing past Ivory’s ear, fingers still clawing. The dirty fingernails pick at her suit, producing holes.
“Stop.” Kyo says once.
Ivory lets out a cry, then buckles her arms, her throat closing but not yet closed.
“I brought you to them. It was difficult, with that thick skull of yours, but by the skin off your horns the Ring accepted you.” Another hissed laugh, then a knuckle clips Ivory’s ear, cracking her head sideways.
“I brought you here for causing me so much trouble, tainting my name, following me like a second bloodred shadow. It was frustrating to say the least!” The girl looks down at Ivory’s ragged hair, following her weak form with disgust.
She’s still quiet.
“Now you can’t speak? Are you too shocked to bat an antennae? You little roach, speak up.”
Ivory’s irises vibrate within her darkening sclera. Her breaths were even.
“Go pick up L-Luxa.” She strains, wheezing.
Kyo’ jaws clench once more, her right fist rising above the bug’s head, one final blow.
Ivory was faster with her fingers. They found their target as they bang Kyo’s head against the wall.
Kyo screams as thumbs plunge into her eye sockets, freeing the bug from the trap. Ivory is up now, a flash and her hands are around the traitor’s neck.
She’s alive, she’s alive, but don’t let it last!
Her vice grip can only tighten as the bug spots a slumbering tiger on it’s side, stuffing bleeding because of her once more.
There’s a snap.
Her blue eyes are gone, drowned.
Her smile was replaced with grit teeth, frozen now with ridges snaking across her skin.
The candles were still lit, and the flowers absorbed the scent of iron.
Stepping away from the draining carcass, she stoops down to the tiger, picking up the tail as well some feet away. In the small room, she stands over Kyo, dropping the crackled tail into her lap as a reminder.
She then examines the tiger at arm’s length, studying the same striking blue eyes, a little cracked from the fall, being careful not to touch, clutch the still open wound.
“Kyo would’ve wanted me to have you. She took something from me a long time ago, so it’s only fair.”
The tiger quivers.
“C’mon, my hands aren’t that cold.”
The tiger looks.
“She was never there for you, but I’m here.”
She forces the neck’s gaping maw to shut.
“I’ll be here.”
She walks out the door.