I was born tiny, naked and sticky and shivering behind a girl’s watercolor lips somewhere inside another girl’s dream. The dream was of school, then of a pool of deep violet water, then of a girl’s translucent hands spiderwebbed with blue veins, and then the dream was a chrysalis and cracked into a Fear. A little one, a hungry one, a one more teeth and legs than eyes or hands. Me.
The girl woke up, bathed in sweat and convinced that someone’s mouth was pressed down on hers. That if she screamed, it would fill another girl’s lungs. In the darkness, she pressed a hand to her lips. I licked the edges of them as she imagined them: a sharper smile than existed made sharper still. She tasted like pool water, chlorinated and warm. She tasted like the bottom of a bathtub when all the violet soap had blackened rings around the side.
I sucked the echo of chemical agent into my mouth and learned, a bright rush. I became female. I began to love her.
As proof of my love, I ate the other Fears.
I could feel them, pulsing away in the back of her mind. Seething, ugly, waiting like the bitter wives of a lesser prophet for their names to be called in the night. Spiders, English Class, Arguing Mother; contemptible small things, thinner than shadows and convinced that they had grown fat. Things comfortable in their starvation, lurched over their needles, clicking out the pathetic sequels to familiar stories. Was it a stray current creeping over her thigh in the middle of the night or something black and many-legged?
In the night she twitched and brushed her leg and told herself not to turn on a light and turned on a light and saw nothing, and told herself not to search the covers and searched the covers and found nothing. Spiders fought off Arguing Mother and devoured that steaming half-second of terror; they all picked their teeth with the dull cold apprehension in her bones. Here was a memory of hers that would fit: a little boy on Halloween dressed in the plastic façade of a general. So sad and so proud.
But I loved her and had decided to be her only Fear, so I cracked their necks and sat down at their table, unraveling their tales like chewing a fingernail down to the quick, and then chewing it until the blood spurted out.
The girl woke up with her heart moving faster than it had ever moved before, and I was so proud. This was what love was.
Soon I was everywhere.
Here is how the day began: the girl woke up and repeated my name under her breath, a name she could never quite get a sound to out loud. This suited me; I didn’t want to be peeled away from her world in the way that naming things does. No taste in me for being razored from the world and shoved into the little plastic bag of vocabulary to be trotted out only when ‘appropriate’. Think of a lion. Now think of a monkey. Now douse yourself in cold water and see me moving through the night.
We walked through the day in the same body. When I felt her heart begin to slow I would remind her in the brightness of another girl’s smile that I was always there, in the back of her mind, waiting to hold her hand on the day she fell. She would see the sudden beauty in the gawkiness of thirteen-year-olds and think of me, think of me always. Even when the boys, coltish and jeering, ran in front of her in their packs, I found a way to whisper to her: to remind her that they would never be me.
Occasionally my actual face would roam the halls.
She had a name, of course, one that I hated for its ease in slipping off the tongue, one that I hated for my inability to exist except as its shadow. The girl would call it often, and they would walk together in the hallway. These were the moments I hated: when I both existed and didn’t. Here, on the way to chemistry I was suddenly outstripped by something more real than I ever had any fair chance of being. The girl smiled and it burned me. I knew what needed to die.
She can see the way you look at her, I whispered to the girl when my face turned away.
She knows what you are.
She knows what you are and she’s only pretending to like you because of kindness.
If she knew what you were, it would sicken her.
September bled into October. At night, the girl would lay in the cold aftershock of my arms and think about my face. She tried on her old cargo shorts and t-shirts and threw them away; suddenly church slogans and sports seemed too dangerous to translate. There we go, I whispered, now grow your hair long. I wanted this from her, this love, this obedience.
The girl watched her hair grow to her chin, then her shoulders, then curl beneath them, blond and ragged. Inside herself, with me, she knew that this was the only visible marking the change – that the only way to trace my arrival would be to whirl back in time till when the hair was short and close-cropped, almost invisible in its lightness. After death, the girl thought, the hair keeps growing as the skin pulls back around the flat truth of the skull. Somewhere the girl had read that love was death in reverse. I found that fitting.
Some nights the girl would lie still while I chewed through her dreams like a centipede through wet wood and came to her beautiful and flowing, a violet dress striking against my dark skin. There were rewards, too, for letting her love me as well as she did. A finger against her neck. A whisper too close. An orchestra with too much brass played and we danced, although only I knew the steps.
David’s been looking at you, I said, wearing my occasional face like a masquerade costume.
Let’s practice again. I’ll play the husband.
Who do you think would kill us if they saw?
The girl woke and snapped all the jelly bracelets off her wrists and learned how to bring the blood to her skin in ways that would disappear when it was convenient. Biting, mostly. Primal and necessary. The marks were a good, generous black that melted back into sore skin within the hour. I loved how they came and went so easily. They were just like me.
Occasionally she’d forget to make up an excuse not to stay after school, finding it difficult to cleanly tear off that old life. She’d come home just as the old man got off his shift, and settled down into the stained green couch smelling like sweat and beer, something ancient and tired sloughing itself back into the cocoon. On the TV, Fox News named me and she mouthed the word under her breath. The same silent horror the blond newscaster seemed transfixed by. At church, there was a poster asking if people like her could ever be loved.
She practiced hunching over as much as possible when she prayed to present the smallest target. She didn’t want God to see her.
And that suited me. I wanted her to myself, because this was what love was – possessive and vital. There was only one person I let see her in the dreams, David, and I wrote him so tall in the dreams, so tall and so much stronger than real life. He’d push me backwards into the table so hard. My head, well-imagined, cracked. The girl knelt in a pool of strawberry jelly like she was praying.
I didn’t want this, I said, and touched her face. I didn’t want this.
That was always when she saw David’s wedding ring, glittering on her right hand.
She woke up cold and convinced she was still sticky with my blood.
The next Friday he really did ask her out and she said yes. We shared her like a lion and a crow share a dead dinner; of all the blood and the meat, the greatest part mine.
Image: fear by Krista Grinberga