by Katherine L.P. King
The auditorium was full. The crowd jostled, murmured, squirmed. They were not individuals, but a mass of breathing, twitching limbs and eyes, heaving hot flesh with hundreds of gaping, hungry mouths. They settled in rows of blank faces, bumping elbows, tucked-in knees. The doors at the back of the room opened and closed, opened and closed again, as more and more joined the mass, fattening it little by little.
The students onstage were, by contrast, isolated, individual. They sat rigid in their chairs, enclosed in the bright lights, looking this way and that–for an exit, the staircase, a doorway. They sat blanketed in blue robes, which turned them to amorphous navy worms with their feet poking out.
The young woman looked at the feet to her left, encased in shining black shoes. She could see her own alien, pale face disfigured and stretched by the curve of them. Those shoes had only been worn a handful of times, she thought. Perhaps to a funeral or a wedding. The shoes on her right were blood-red stilettos wrapped around blue-veined ankles–shoes bought expressly for this day, she guessed.
Her own shoes were flat, unadventurous. She had bought them on a whim in Macy’s three years before, when she was alone, on a bright afternoon that ended with iced tea on the balcony of her apartment. She remembered the breathless sunshine of those days, the sense of not knowing where, exactly, she was headed, but knowing that she was finally moving, and all on her own. She had been alone for the first time, and consumed with the present, breathing it in and out as if there were nothing behind her.
The shoes were snug around her feet but not tight. Modest. Not something she might have chosen for baccalaureate graduation in those days. But now she was different.
The other students on the stage looked out into the mass and searched for familiar faces. The young woman’s family was not in attendance. Her father was twenty years buried in a cemetery back home and her mother was probably sleeping on the kitchen floor of the house she had grown up in, surrounded by trash and discarded bottles, acidic vomit matting her hair and shit staining the seat of her cotton white underwear, covered by a lavender cotton robe.
She had no brothers, no sisters, no cousins. Her father’s parents were also long dead and her mother’s parents lived halfway across the country. She had been alone for a very long time–yet that was the way she wanted it.
Did she have friends in the audience? She had not invited any, had not spoken to most of them in better than a year. Even their faces had begun to fade from her memory, along with their names.
A man approached the podium and tried to quiet the crowd. He looked like a small man using a small whip to tame dozens of jackals, their jaws dripping with foam and their eyes wild. The audience, like a tumultuous wave upon mossy rocks, broke and settled. Their faces turned toward her, toward the stage. So many eyes–blinking, rolling, narrowing, unfocused and far away.
The young woman looked down at her idle hands, the note cards she gripped and imprinted with her sweat, blurring the ink at the edges. Her eyes moved slowly to the swell of her right arm, where the maroon circle of a bruise stained her flesh.
Her pulse jumped when she saw it. She remembered earlier that morning, slithering out of bed to the bathroom and showering as quickly as she could, scarcely allowing her fingertips to brush her own skin. Then she stood wrapped in her towel before the mirror and dabbed creamy flesh-colored makeup onto a wedge of sponge, patting it gently onto her skin. It matched perfectly, as if the makeup was her, essentially, bottled so she could add more whenever she had lost a part.
She could remember the day she met him. She sat in the library cafe, reading a book she’d gotten from the sixth floor. It was nonfiction; probably something about drawing nude figures or homemade bread recipes. She was killing time until her two o’clock class: photographic design and concept. Her iced tea was watered down, but it was cheap, so she didn’t mind much.
She didn’t see him come into the cafe, but he must have come in after she did, and ordered a hot coffee. She saw him by the counter, adding sugar but no cream. He did not strike her at first–he was tall, and thin, with shaggy brown hair. But when he turned away from the counter, his face had a charming slant to it. He caught her staring, and she hastily returned to the book.
When she looked up, he stood over her table, smiling. She could see a spray of freckles over the bridge of his nose. He held the coffee nonchalantly, and asked her something about the book. Maybe if she liked to make her own bread, or if she was into nude people. She laughed. He sat. They spoke. She missed her two o’clock class.
The man at the podium talked. She did not listen, but she heard: he sounded like a wounded swan, perhaps one with a bloody wing, honking mournfully. The audience slowly quieted, reluctantly, as if unaware that they were being seduced into sleep. Soon the man was replaced with a squat gray-haired woman who made the audience laugh in great shrieks and cackles.
The young woman looked down at the bruise. It was perfectly round. She had never seen such a perfect circle–not even the sun when, as a girl, she’d stared up at it until her eyes burned, and when she looked away the black afterimage of it remained. The bruise looked like that now–a trace of some deep destruction. It was not a new bruise, did not have the fresh edge and deep purple of a new bruise. It was a few days old, she thought. It was almost beginning to yellow and lightened to a reddish violet, still stark against the off-white curve of her arm.
Could they see it offstage? When she approached the podium, took the whip and caught the wild eyes of the jackals, would they sense it?
She checked the audience, checked her shoes, checked her cards, checked her bruise. Impossible–it was bigger than it had been a moment ago. Its smooth edges stretched nearly a third of the width of her arm. She couldn’t help but remember the day, however long ago: a darkened room, filled with him and his hot breath. It surrounded her so that she was enveloped by him entirely. Her face pushed into the mattress, gasping for air through one nostril, her hair pressing hot and itchy against her cheeks.
Pain–but there was always pain. She had come to learn to love the pain, because it was predictable, and true. In one way, she felt lucky; their relationship wasn’t complicated by her fumbling attempts to make him happy, or please him, or to be good to him. Her singular purpose was to exist, to be present. His eyes–deep dark pools which had so enticed her at the start–stared at her, empty. She could not go away when he stared at her that way. Instead he pulled her further in, made her his in some irrevocable way that she could never wash off. More than once she had thought, looking into those eyes, I’m dead. He’s dead. We are dead.
She displeased him in some way, and he grunted a warning, that animal noise more jarring to her than a shout would have been. His hand slipped down her arm and squeezed. He left five little bruises on her skin–one for each digit. The four fingerprints on the top of her arm had since faded, but the thumb print on her fleshier inner arm had not disappeared yet. So, this morning she had dabbed on makeup to cover the mark.
Yet here it was, darker and bigger than it had been this morning. And here was something else–where the gown parted in front, and her dress had ridden up from her knees, she could see her inner thigh, and a large black bite mark there. She looked out at the crowd–the bored, drooling crowd, and felt her hands begin to shake. The lights were too bright, too hot; the woman at the podium was too loud and talked too long. She remembered, weeks ago, his head between her legs, his lips murmuring what had become a sort of prayer: mine, mine, mine. Then his teeth, straight and even and white, sunk into the soft flesh of her inner thigh and she had to clasp both of her hands over her mouth to keep from screaming. He didn’t like it when she screamed.
She came back to her present, and found she’d been holding her breath. Her stomach twisting in her, she turned over her arm and saw, on the top, four little circles in a row. Slowly she exhaled, then inhaled, trying to return to the rhythm that usually came so naturally. And now her bottom lip felt heavy and clumsy. She could taste blood.
Six weeks before, he woke her up: pulled her hair, grabbed her throat, breathed his last-night’s-whiskey scent into her face and said, “You can’t ever leave me. You won’t.”
She thought he was crying. She could hear the thickness in his voice, and his nose sounded stuffed. Had he been crying all night? She couldn’t see his eyes in the darkness. She felt nothing, and didn’t answer him.
His hand lashed out. It smashed into her bottom lip on the left side. She heard, rather than felt, a small popping sound and blood dribbled down her chin. She cried out–just a shriek, but that was enough to make him grunt and press his hands over her face, silencing her, smothering her. His hands wet themselves with her blood. She did not struggle. By then, she knew better than to fight him. She remembered, trying to breathe through the meat of his hands, a young girl who had taken photographs of flowers with disposable cameras while her mother stashed bottles of vodka in every corner of their house, and how she had smiled until her jaw hurt when she’d been able to buy her first real camera, on money she earned babysitting kids in the neighborhood. How she had spent every moment she wasn’t in school or at work taking pictures, and how nothing else had ever spoken to her the way those pictures did. Every blade of grass was an inspiration; every muddy puddle reflecting a cold gray sky a world to itself when she got behind the lens of that camera. How long had it been since she had taken a single picture? How long since she had felt the cool metal camera in her hands and the weight of everything around her disappearing, farther away than the moon, as she took her photos? How long since she had felt anything, anything at all?
But that had been nothing, truly, even though she’d had to skip class to avoid stares. Nothing, at least, when compared to one day the summer before, when he had, for no real reason at all and without any warning, tripped her in the hallway of their apartment and started kicking.
Now her torso twinged horribly and began to ache. Her nipples throbbed; her throat was dry.
A different man at the podium turned to look at her. When had he replaced the stout woman? He was beckoning, smiling at her. The audience clapped politely, their hands moving in perfect unison, as if they all belonged the same enormous, thousand-handed creature.
She stood up. Her back twitched in pain. She could remember their first night together, what felt like two lifetimes ago, when he had bit her just above her left hip, hard enough to draw blood. She reached behind her and felt that spot again, throbbing, hot and angry and slightly damp through the fabric of her dress and gown.
She looked out at the sea before her. He wasn’t one of the faces in that crowd. He knew where she was–oh yes, he always did, even when she hadn’t told him, and for that reason she knew she could never leave, because even if she was gone, even if she was six states away at a truck stop sleeping behind an all-night diner, he would know.
When she looked beyond the crowd, to the darkness in the back of the room, she felt bile rise in her throat. The only thing she could think about was getting off the stage, taking her diploma in hand, and–what? Going back to the apartment where he was waiting? Walk with him into the sunset, into a future filled with a sickly baby, working overtime, a sink full of smelly dishes? And what would be the thing, she wondered, that would finally break him? Would she get into a fender-bender, lose her job, shatter a plate on the kitchen tile? The woman at the podium had spoken about hopes for the future, and excitement, and making something in the world–and what did she know about that? What she did know about anything but black and white photographs of roses and how to keep her cries locked in her throat when he bit her?
She took a step forward under the bright lights and was blinded. It had been so long since she had dared to ask for anything that she no longer knew what wanting felt like. Everything before her was an empty expanse of dark clouds and hot, breathy cries smothered by a pillow.
Another step forward, and she tried to see herself without him. All she could see was the black. Her ankle twisted suddenly and she stumbled, and yet she was still moving, the weight of the crowd’s gaze bending her shoulders.
She did not make it to the podium before they saw. They saw not as individuals, but as the mass: one mind and one tough old heart continuing to beat only because it has done so for so long it cannot conceive of stopping. They gasped in unison as the salutatorian halted, feet away from the podium, her spine bent as though she expected the blows to fall at any moment.
Something warm dripped from her forehead, and she reached up to touch the gash he’d given her a few months back, on her birthday. Her fingers came away with blood on them–bright and shining from the stage lights. If she unzipped her gown, and then her dress, they would see her body mottled and discolored with his bruises, crisscrossed in deep red with his cuts, bent and in some places broken with his blows.
The flash of a camera dazzled her. Then it happened again, and again, until the creature before her was only a sea of clicking and flashing, an abyss of eyes capturing her forever in that moment, and she could only stare back.
She looked out into the crowd, and the crowd looked into her.
About the Author
Katherine L.P. King is a writer and Chapstick enthusiast from California. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, but please don’t hold that against her. She primarily writes short horror fiction and her work has been published or is forthcoming in Wild Violet Online Literary Magazine, HelloHorror, and Coffin Bell.