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By KL Pereira
You can’t kill what’s already dead. It’s the only thing that’s kept me alive all these years.
I was tiny, pale, so small that my mother thought drowning me in the bath (my first memory) would be easy, the best way to rid herself of a child by a man she hated, a man who’d treated her like an open womb, her only job to carry out his freakish legacy. All her other children had died in infancy, experiments in life that failed. Imagine her surprise when, after I had seemed to sleep like seaweed beneath the tepid water, my eyes popped open like daisies and I burbled, “Mama?”
It’s still hard to breathe under all that water. Every time Bash pushes me under and locks the top of my tank, my mind forgets. I panic. And then my body remembers. Bash says the crowd likes to see me flail. They like to know that their heroine is struggling. They’ve paid for a show, after all.
When I was young, my mother tried other ways of getting rid of me. Driving a sewing needle into my neck, choking me with apples or poison wine. It was a sort of game.
When I was young, my mother tried other ways of getting rid of me. Driving a sewing needle into my neck, choking me with apples or poison wine. It was a sort of game. The stories you hear, rasps from the deformed throats of our neighbors in the sideshow, they always said she was my stepmother. Even they, who know little of normal families, don’t like the idea of a mother making her own child scream. People always got the story wrong.
“How much can she take, ladies and gentlemen? How much pressure can her lungs take?” Bash has always been a bit of a showman. Not flashy enough for the big ring but still, something to keep the rubes in our small tent occupied while they wait for my body to go limp.
The tank had been my father’s idea. In those days, his freak breeding act wasn’t bringing in the bucks like he’d hoped, especially since his wife kept killing the twisted refuse from her womb. The rumors of the murderous mother and the unkillable spawn had circulated so heavily around the boneyard that what my body could take was already an act. Father’d make a mint off rubes who’d want to see someone almost die over and over. Why spend your communion dollars hearing about the resurrection of an untouchable holy man through the garbled sing-song of drunken monks when you could actually watch a beautiful young thing drown and miraculously not die, hear the slap of her palms against the glass tank, for the price of popcorn?
“Her brain cells are beginning to expire. Soon, ladies and gentlemen, serious brain damage will begin to occur, transforming our lovely lady into a soggy bag of skin and bone.” Bash knows how long it takes for the brain to shut down without oxygen, how long it takes for the lungs to burst with need, for the heart to explode. Even if those rules don’t apply to me, he knows what it takes to damage the human body beyond repair.
By the time I was 13, Father was afraid Mama’d figure out a way to kill me for good, that she’d shut me in the tank overnight with a rock on the lid. My arms never were that strong, even if something else in me was. Mostly, though, I think he was afraid of losing his bleeder, and what Mama’d do to him if she wasn’t focused on draining the rest of my life away. Truthfully, I should have been more afraid of him; Mama’s womb had long since dried up and if anything happened to me, he’d be out a money-maker. But it was all I could do to survive her, and still dream of arms that wouldn’t strangle and teeth that wouldn’t bite. You’d think there’d only be so many times that someone who is supposed to love you can bleed you out before you cease believing that someday, they’ll decide to love you back, that the stabbing in your heart will end.
Later, when the water is drained from the tank and the rubes have gone home and the lights of the midway are the only whiteness haunting the boneyard, and Bash, sweet, cutting Bash, touches me, tries to sooth the hole in my chest, pluck the bones holding me together, I want to cry out, want to feel the release of myself, of what I was, and I want to give him more than even that, want to be more than that, for him. It was Bash that found me after they’d both finally had their way with me: He brought me back from that twilit place where the dead-brained live, that place between life and not really life. His touch made me live. Even so, it’s hard to give him any idea of what I feel when he touches me, no matter how much I want to give it. But I can’t be more than shuddering and silent.
After years of concentrating her rage on my neck, my wrists, my lungs and liver, Mama finally tried my heart, cutting it out with an old hunting knife. She wanted it done so bad, she didn’t even bother to shut me into the tank, throw an old horse blanket over my face. My eyes were still as I watched. I felt her shake my heart in a bag of salt, the granules prickling the torn flesh before she pierced it with a long tent stake, and held it over the cook pit before pressing it into the center of the flame. The tongue of heat burned me and the smoke filled my empty chest, but I couldn’t scream. I didn’t have anything left, couldn’t push my voice out of its damaged hole.
After eating what he thought was a charred swine, Father found me slumped against the tank, chest open, barely breathing but there. He panicked, I think. Wanting to save his act got caught up in saving his genetic line. He forgot to see that I wasn’t really dead, or forgot to care. Maybe he thought to reanimate me, like a corpse, dead-alive and crazy to do his bidding. Maybe he wanted to make me kill his wife, make me frighten the other freaks, the other carnies who started to look askance, get nervous when the act became too real, when his wife, my mother, started climbing into the tank with me, not just holding me down but strangling, cutting with her long, sharp nails until ribbons of blood snaked into the water, making it a sick pink. Whatever his reason, his fingers jolted me like iron and his mouth tasted of my heart.
Father hadn’t counted on Bash. Hadn’t counted on him fingering the blood roses of strangulation on my neck, kissing them numb. Tucking my head beneath his, his wiry arms tight around my bruised and bloated skin. Humming me to sleep and laying me on a bed of sparkle-feathers from the discarded costumes of the acrobats in the next trailer over. Holding chloroform, strong enough to take down wiry tigers and sad elephants, over my father and mother’s mouths, finding an old quarry so deep in the middle of woods haunted by thieves and madmen. He woke me with a grin that morning, with eyes burning with something I can only call love, the only love I’ve ever felt, and he held my hand as I pushed their weighted bodies down, down, down, where they’d wake up, where they’d scream, where they’d never come back.
KL Pereira likes to traipse around dark, woody crevices where most would rather not wander. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been published or is forthcoming in Mythic Delirium, Bitch Magazine, Clamor Magazine, Jabberwocky, The Medulla Review and other fine magazines, anthologies, chapbooks, and journals. Currently, she is completing a collection of paranormal erotica (published under her fabulous and cheeky pen name) and a series of flash fiction fairy tales. Her website is: darknesslovescompany.com and you can chat with her about monsters anytime on Twitter (@kl_pereira).