The thing about curses is that they are all about perception. After all, one person’s curse is another’s blessing, and it’s not a given that the cursed must suffer under their predicament. The dead girl surely isn’t, but someone must. It’s an even trade, keeps the universe in balance, yadda yadda and all that jazz.
“You’re doing your part in the cycle,” the dead girl tells the woman whose flesh she is stealing for her own.
The woman gurgles, a last ditch effort to scream for help that will not arrive in time to do any good. The dead girl strips the woman dry and sighs in relief as new skin replaces old- yes, God, yes, this woman actually moisturized- and enjoys the rebirth.
Perhaps she is not a cursed girl at all, but a phoenix. She toys with the idea. The imagery is awesome, but she has no powers of fire, only of the rending and pulling and restitching of skin and sinew.
The dead girl sweeps the bones into a bag of trash and tosses them into a dumpster. That’s the practical part of her curse, no part of anyone goes to waste. The skin will cover the dead girl, keep her upright, alive, and decent. The bones will end up somewhere moist and dark and full of parasites that will break them down to eat and shit out nutrients for the soil wherever the universe puts them.
Circle of life, just like Disney sang about once upon a time in Africa long ago.
Above her, a flock of crows line the rooftops. They caw at her. They flap their wings and click their beaks.
She whistles back at them, sharp and high and very, very much alive.
The crows scatter into the sky, rushing feathers and angry voices.
The dead girl walks on, a delighted skip in her step.
Two blocks behind her, someone picks up her trail.
“Another refill, sweetie?”
The old waitress is the matronly sort, flabby in the middle with frumpy hair and pinched expression of overall done-ness with the human race. Liver spots dot her papery skin. She smells like tobacco, grease, and stage one lymphoma. Her name tag reads Marlene. It suits her.
The dead girl scoots her chipped mug over.
The waitress refills and moves on. The dead girl dumps in sugar and cream until the coffee is a muddy river color and sweet enough to crack her teeth. She thinks about names as she finishes the pancakes and salty eggs on her plate. She has had many names over the years, mostly stolen along with the skin they were attached to, some from books or TV or magazines left in ditches. Names have power, in their own way. They direct fates as sure as mythical blind women sharing one eye and cutting the threads of mortal life.
Her new name needs to be something poignant, something old, but still beautiful. Like an icicle dragged along exposed skin. Something with a bite, she thinks.
The dead girl mops the last of the scrambled goodness through the ocean of syrup. Salt and maple flavored eggs. They should can this shit to sell.
The dead girl pulls a couple bills from her new wallet and tucks them under the plate. It’s a twenty dollar tip, that ought to make Marlene smile a bit, restore a little faith in humanity until she signs up for chemo. The dead girl laughs at the irony and waves at the waitress on her way out.
Two days later the dead girl is walking down a quiet side street. New day, new city, new breath of air. It’s bright out, the sun just warm enough to thaw the frost off the garbage cans as spring arrives. The air is a bite of cold and smells of cat shit and old fruit.
She is still thinking over names, because she’s not going to choose one lightly. She now has a purse. It hangs off her shoulder, stuffed with pages ripped from newspapers, magazines, and books she has come across on buses and in flea markets. She has highlighted potential names with a stolen marker.
Sophia, meaning wisdom. It sounds nice, but the dead girl does not consider herself wise. Smart and knowing, yes, but wisdom speaks to ancient knowledge and dusty bones holding court in a graveyard of elders.
Lily, a flower, both beautiful and pure, but the dead girl has a belly full of sharp edges and broken teeth lining her soul.
Tyler, both for male and female, she doesn’t know the meaning. The name leaves her mouth as a hardened shape, but it lacks certain…conviction. Purpose.
Khloe, weird letters mashed together, the name is a half cough, half wheeze, and too short for her taste.
She has not found what she is looking for yet. The dead girl is not worried, the right name will come.
A hand reaches out of an alley and grabs the dead girl on her way past. She goes with it and a large form – male, mid twenties, shaggy-headed, plaid-chested – slams her into a brick wall behind a stack of wooden pallets. The dead girl’s head bounces off the brick with a sick smack. Her brain rattles, shakes out stars and colored dots in her vision.
She grins up at the man.
“First comer, huh? You sure you want to do this?”
The man above stares her down, dark fire in his green eyes and a sneering upturn to his lips. Vengeful righteousness, his skin reeks of it and stains the air with its sour tang.
“I’m sure,” Shaggy says. “You killed a good friend of mine.”
The dead girl tilts her head to the side as much as she can. Shaggy has a grip on her throat with one of his massive paws.
“Which one? You’ll need to be specific, honey. I kill lots of people.”
He shakes her. Her head hits brick again.
“His name was Michael Lewis, you undead bitch.”
“Wow, harsh, and technically not true. I am very, very much alive. I don’t even eat brains, I just…take them.”
Shaggy tightens his grip, cuts off her air for a second. He leans down and pulls a big ass Bowie knife from under his jacket and replaces the pressure on her windpipe with the blade.
The dead girl rolls her eyes.
“First, my condolences for whatever you are compensating for, sweetie. Second, that name doesn’t ring bell. Rest assured, though, your friend did not die in vain. Every bit of him went to use and he has my thanks.”
The knife bites into her soft skin. Blood trickles down her neck. Shaggy leans in close, breathing out the scent of bitter coffee.
“Apologize for what you’ve done.”
Pressure increases. Cut deepens. The trickle becomes a small river. The dead girl hisses.
“For surviving? Fat chance, bucko. I kill to live, same as lions, same as jackals. Why don’t you take a look at yourself. You came here to kill me for retribution. I can think of nothing more selfish.”
Her words hit a nerve as if she’d stomped on it with combat boots. Shaggy draws the knife back just a fraction, face going purple with anger. The dead girl plunges her fingers into his gut, up to the second knuckle. Shaggy gasps. Black veins ripple across his skin and thread their way to her. He falls to his knees, knife slipping from his grasp. It hits the concrete. Dull clatter.
Shaggy looks up at the dead girl, his face thinning like a deflating balloon. A white streak threads through his dark hair.
The dead girl has to stop before his skin opens up to release his organs. Shaggy’s breath rattles in his chest, his heart stutters out a weird rhythm in the lingering shock. The plaid now hangs off a bony shoulder, his once fine frame reduced to one of lean and shriveled muscle.
“You caught me on a really good day. I’m already full and fit to burst, I don’t think I could take another ounce.”
The dead girl pushes his bangs out of his eyes. Tucks them behind his ear.
“A long time ago I used to read all sorts of vampire books. They always seemed to think that we monsters could pass on our gifts if we brought a chosen one to the bring of death and then fed them back of ourselves. I’ve always been curious as to whether any of that was true, or if it was just human fear feeding on itself to make sure the story lived on.”
Shaggy’s eyes go wide.
“No,” he begs. “Don’t.”
Shaggy’s real name is Ned Barnaby – the poor kid, what were his parents thinking? – and he drives a sweet red Chevy Malibu. It’s hers now, at least in part, since Ned is still breathing. The dead girl glances over to check on him. Ned is propped up in the passenger seat, his head lolling against the window. He has some weight back now. Not the amount he had before, but enough so he is not a walking skeleton.
He smells different. Before, the sweet ache of life and caffeine rolled off him in mouth watering waves. Now his essence smells of hot iron and the the sweet sourness of meat turning bad. He is alive, and yet different.
Time will tell if it really worked, or if she just spoiled a potential meal.
It was strange, she reflects, sharing her flesh with someone else. Her own canvas now has patchwork rough skin, scars, and faded outlines of the tattoos Ned carries under his shirt and jeans. They look like pencil lines on the dead girl. Pretty, but impermanent. The mind meld thing, that’s new, too. It’s not quite like opening a book and learning all his secrets, but she has new impressions in her brain. Half remembered places, shadows of people, vague senses of favorite foods and random song lyrics.
The dead girl kind of likes it. She wonders if Ned has bits of her floating around in his brain, too.
“What are you going to do to me?” he asks after a couple of miles. His eyelids flutter at half mast, breath fogging the window like the velociraptor in that one dinosaur movie.
“Nothing,” the dead girl says. “I don’t really have a grand plan or a nefarious scheme, no matter what you choose to think. I’m not human anymore. I’m just a predator.”
Ned grunts and tries to lift his head. He can’t even do that right now, so he watches her in the reflection of the window.
“Predators only have one true instinct, you know. We survive. For so long it’s only been me. Gets kind of lonely, but I do well enough, at least until someone smarter than you comes along. Normally I would have left your bones in that alley, but I’m already so full, so it got me to thinking about the vampires, only they aren’t like me at all. Then I got to thinking about wolves.”
Panic. Ned’s heart gives a weak stutter and he groans. There is a rotten little worm making its way through his head thanks to hers. She can smell it, like a rancid piece of bologna left forgotten in the backseat of a car in one-hundred degree weather. It’s doubt. Sick, rotting doubt, because he can feel her conviction, he can probably recall her own memories.
“Wolves need packs to survive, otherwise they starve in the cold. I’ve died often enough to see that’s true, so it makes me wonder how long I can survive if I have another predator by my side.”
The dead girl grins and reaches out across the console. She pats his bony hand. Ned flinches, a feeble jerk to get out of her grasp. She doesn’t hold it against him.
“We’ll see how it works out.”
“I won’t be like you.” The words come out heavy, a struggle of weighted, desperate breath. “Just kill me. Kill me and get it over with. I don’t want to be like you.”
“Mm. A little too late. You’ll learn to deal if you survive this,” the dead girl waves at him, indicating the change. “I did. It’s all in the letting go. Being one with the universe. I’m excited about it. I think it’d be fun, learning to hunt as a pair, tag teaming dinner.”
The dead girl relaxes into the seat – a heated seat, thank you very much – and signals into the turning lane, pointing the car south, chasing the tantalizing tendrils of spring in the air.
“Please,” he begs again, but his eyes close and he falls unconscious. Then it’s just the dead girl and the road.
She pushes on the gas and roars down the highway.