The Finite Canvas

The Finite Canvas

illustration by rick berry

We are marked by what we have been. And erasing either of those can have unpredictable consequences...

This novelette was acquired for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

 

Molly tapped the screen of her finicky tablet with one sweat-damp fingertip, leaving a shimmering smudge. The next page loaded with a slight delay. Rainwater pattered through the one-room clinic’s open windows onto the tile floor, but the baking summer heat remained untouched. Even with all the windows thrown open it was still at least forty-two degrees C inside, though once the temperature climbed above forty it was hard to judge.

The slatted wood door swung wide and clattered in its frame. Startled, she slapped the tablet down on her desk harder than she would have liked and reflexively chided herself: you can't afford another one, be careful. As she stood, the gauzy skirt she’d rolled up to her waist unfurled around her knees. The visitor closed the door with a more gentle hand. Molly noticed first the newcomer’s sheer size, and second the temperature-regulating clothing covering them head to toe. Her stomach clenched. She hadn’t, in all her years downside, ever seen someone who could afford that. The shirt alone would cost more than six years of her clinic’s “humanitarian aid” stipend, and that was if she bought no supplies.

There was no such thing as a tourist from the stations. A fresh sweat prickled along Molly’s back. The military police wore uniforms. This person didn’t.

“Did you need help?” she asked after the quiet dragged on a moment too long. “Directions?”

The stranger pushed back the tan hood of the shirt, revealing a white-skinned face with a square jaw, thin lips, and brown eyes, set off by a frizzed halo of bleached hair with dark roots. The clothes had done their job—without them, that pale skin would have been blistered and raw from exposure.

“You’re the doctor?”

The newcomer’s voice was a melodious, rough-edged alto, like the women who smoked tobacco in old movies. It took Molly a moment to reconcile that voice with the thick, broad body. She saw the faintest hint of breasts under the tan shirt where she hadn’t noticed them before.

“Yes,” she said, stepping around her desk. She passed the examining table and storage shelves in three strides. Her tank top slid wetly against her skin as she stuck her hand out in offering. “You are?”

The woman paused, then took Molly’s hand. Her fingers were hot to the touch, red with sunburn. She must not have worn gloves. “Jada.”

Molly frowned. “What do you need?”

“Right to the point,” she said. She tugged her hand away and in one smooth yank pulled her shirt over her head. Then she stood straight, shoulders back. Molly flinched but forced herself to look. Jada was heavily muscled, dense as a tree trunk and probably just as hard, but that wasn’t what was breathtaking. It was the scars.

“You recognize these?” the woman asked.

Designs snaked over her torso, down into the temp-reg pants, up to her neck. The left side of her rib cage was a silvery mass of letters and symbols, all jumbled; there was a stylized sun around her navel with waving lines of light. A crane, its legs hidden by the waistband of her pants, spread its wings over her right side and torso. There were smaller signs hidden around the larger; three simple slashes crossed the space between her collarbones. Her skin was as readable as a novel, her flesh a malleable masterpiece made with knives. Some of the scars were still pink, and a spiral design on her left breast was an angry, fresh red.

Murder scars, Molly thought. Syndicate badge. The sheer number of them made her throat constrict. She took a step backward, as if one step would make any difference to a skilled killer.

“I need a new set,” the woman said, sticking out her bare, untouched arm. “Here.”

“You must have an artist—” Molly began.

“Not down here,” the syndicate woman said. She turned her head, looking out the open window at the road. Her mouth formed a thin line as she paused. Molly saw that her ears were pierced with a multitude of silver hoops that hugged the curve of the cartilage. “I need the new marks done now. I can pay you more than enough to make it worth your time.”

New marks for a new murder, and Molly immediately wondered where this woman had earned the right: on the stations, or locally? She unclenched her jaw. “Why?”

There was no reason for any syndicate to set foot on old Earth, or what little of it was still habitable, beyond trading for young, desperate, attractive flesh to bring to the stations—unless they were running from the mil-police. Molly suspected that the only reason the station governments bothered to dispatch the police downside at all was to apprehend the occasional syndicate member; they certainly didn’t do much else.

After a strained silence, Jada replied, “Does it matter?”

“Money’s not enough,” she said. “Not for one of you.”

Jada smiled with a cool edge. She wound her shirt around her fist and lifted her chin. Molly kept her eyes on the woman’s face instead of her bare torso, though the scars drew her gaze like the sucking gravity of a black hole. “I’ll bargain you the story. Or any story. I’ve got plenty.”

“Who did you kill?” Molly ground out.

“Oh, that,” Jada said. A look passed over her face like a flickering shadow, there and gone before Molly could grasp it. Her heart was suddenly pounding, her mouth dry as she waited for the answer. “No one you know.” She paused, then spoke again, bleak hurt punching through her prior composure. “My partner.”

Molly hated that it melted her for a moment, and worse, that it pricked her curiosity.

She was used to hurting. Downside, people lived their lives hurting, starving, scraping by. They wilted, underfed and wounded; tender, fleshy flowers exposed to the scouring radiation of the sun barely filtered through the damaged atmosphere. What she’d had in her pockets upon her deportation had made her the richest woman in the town—a tablet, a few hundred in station currency in her bank, and a medical degree. The money had run out fast on things like setting up a house, before she realized that she would never have it again, and the tablet was bound to die soon, and her degree had only gotten her clinic the monetary sympathy of one of the vast corporate aid–machines stationside, the kind that made people feel good about donating their pocket change to help the needy. The stipend went to the clinic, in any case, to her monthly restock orders brought by courier from the port-city thirty kilometers away and the occasional extra tool. That enviable wealth she’d brought with her could not put food on the table every night or clothes on her back. She hadn’t once in her life gone hungry until the first week on Earth.

There was no such thing as a tourist, planetside.

“Why here?” she finally asked.

Jada cut her a sharp glance. “Because this is where I've washed up.”

Molly smothered her questions—did you abandon your syndicate, are they hunting you, who are you, how did you end up here, are you stuck downside—and crossed the room again. She sat behind her desk, the wood chair digging into the backs of her thighs. Jada shook out her shirt and slipped it over her head again. The tan fabric hid the scars and the flush that had begun to redden her pale skin.

“How much?” Molly asked.

“I’ve got a few thousand in station currency stowed away,” she said as she walked up and planted her hands on the desk. “I want the whole arm. He deserves that much of me. Will you or won’t you?”

Molly closed her eyes to avoid looking at the woman leaning on her desk, her curious desperation a palpable pressure. Still, she was aware of the shadow cast over her, the undeniable presence.

She thought of the fibrous lump she’d felt with fear-stiffened fingers in her right breast almost a year ago, the phenomenal cost of importing a gene-therapy. She ground her teeth against the knowing, and the acceptance, wishing she didn’t need the money like she needed air.

It hadn’t been anyone she knew. That was enough.

“It will take a few days,” she said.

Jada nodded, a short jerk of her chin. “When can you start?”

“What’s your hurry?”

“I’ll start the story when you start cutting,” Jada said.

“All right, fine,” Molly replied, equally short with her.

Another moment of silence stretched between the two women as Molly pushed her chair back and strode to the examining table. Another person might have spoken to fill it, but Jada wasn’t that person. She let it hang. Molly snagged a box of sanitation-wipes from the wire shelf in the corner and used two to wipe down the thinly padded table.

“Let that dry while you tell me what you want done,” she said.

“Start with flowers,” Jada said, still leaning against the desk behind her. “Then do whatever seems right, once you hear the story. That’s the point, memorializing it.”

Molly nodded. Her pulse pounded out of control, adrenaline washing in a stinging-hot rush through her veins. She was glad to have her back to the room while she inspected her supplies. This was outside her realm of experience. When she cut someone, it was quick and for a reason, and they didn’t feel it. She didn’t peel their skin off while they watched. It was almost embarrassing that the thought of doing the scars made her more nauseated than working for a syndicate killer.

“Do you have a preference in utensils?” she asked.

Jada answered from right behind her, “Scalpel, if you have a small, sharp one.”

Molly narrowly managed not to flinch at the touch of breath on the nape of her neck, cooling the dampness of sweat. Thousands, she reminded herself, but out loud she said, “One other thing,” as she found the right size of blade in her case. They weren’t intended for reuse, but there was no way to justify throwing away a perfectly good instrument. Instead, she kept everything well sanitized. “If the police show up at my door, what happens?”

Jada pressed fingertips to the edge of her shoulder blade from behind, at the soft spot where muscle joined muscle. She stiffened. Jada pressed so gently that it didn’t hurt, but it was a hint.

“I forced you,” she said quietly. “Just like this. No marks. But you were afraid. So you helped me, because you had to, right?”

“Right,” Molly said, half-strangled.

Jada’s touch slipped away and she moved to sit on the edge of the table. Molly glanced at her from the corner of her eye.

“I've had—run-ins with them before,” Molly admitted.

Jada shook her head. “You think I didn’t guess you were from stationside the minute I stepped through the door? Your accent isn’t native. You shake hands.”

“I see,” Molly said. Her face heated with a blush that would be nearly invisible beneath her brown skin, darkened further from years in the heavy-UV sunlight.

That was one of the first things the locals had joked about when she’d come to start the clinic nearly a decade ago, having just received a license to do aid-work after her deportation—Westerner, even though there hadn’t been such a thing as a “west” for some time, just the stations far above. It stuck in the language all the same. She looked right, but spoke wrong.

“No one comes here for pleasure, so I know you got sent.” Jada shrugged those wide shoulders, not smiling. “Syndicate pull some strings?”

“You could say that,” Molly answered, not smiling either.

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” she said. “You’re doing humanitarian work, being a good girl, and you’ve got an even bigger reason to be afraid of a syndicate worker. They’ll believe the story if you believe it.”

Their eyes met. Molly nodded.

“Off with the shirt,” she said. “You don’t want it getting bloodied.”

“I don’t think it’ll matter,” Jada said.

“Why not?” she asked.

The other woman stared at her, eyes narrowed, and pulled the shirt over her head once more. The scarring was no less shocking the second time around but Molly made herself look. With ungloved hands she touched a few of them, palpating. The wounds were mostly surface damage but done wide enough that the skin wouldn’t knit quite right. The smaller patterns, like the spiral at the top of Jada’s left breast, were harder ridges. The scars went deeper.

“Do you treat the wounds with anything to keep them open?” she asked.

“There’s a sealant,” she answered. “Keeps out infections and doesn’t let the edges knit. I’ve got some in my pack.”

“All right,” Molly said as she rolled on a pair of thin gloves.

She ran a disinfectant wipe over the scalpel though it shone clean already. It was best to be sure. Her hands didn’t shake. The adrenaline had disappeared under the prepared calm she’d mastered years ago and far away, learning how to help people. This was the opposite of that, or maybe it wasn’t.

“Flowers?” she checked.

“Flowers,” Jada said. “I’ll talk, you cut.”

Molly wiped down Jada’s arm as well, the sharp smell of antiseptic wafting in the hot air. She traced her fingers carefully over the area, feeling the joins of muscles and the intricacies of Jada’s flesh.

“No anesthetic?” she checked.

“No,” Jada said.

Molly shook her head.

“Your decision,” she said.

There was no delaying any longer. She braced the skin at the top of Jada’s upper arm with one hand and laid the edge of the scalpel to it. Blood beaded under the blade as she traced the first narrow line.

Jada’s breath shuddered out, but her arm stayed still. Molly reminded herself how much practice the woman had had at this, reminded herself not to be impressed.

“So—”

 

“Here's your story,” Jada said.

The Dawnslight syndicate were big into flesh-trade, pharmaceuticals, weapons—if the police didn’t like it, we did it. By “we” I mean my boss, the head of the organization. Trade was not my job. As you probably figured from the badge scars, my job is to be a weapon. Point me in the right direction and say go; I will do what needs doing. There’s no other way to make it to the top of a syndicate. You have to be the best.

I was the best. Or probably one of the best, because Eten—my partner, yeah—was also very, very good at what we did. We met when we were scrub assassins way down-rank. We clicked. Eten was this pretty thing, he was so thin, like you could break him with your hands. But you couldn’t. I couldn’t. He would slip right out of your grip and leave you holding air while he kicked your teeth in. I liked Eten, a lot.

Those years were tough. The work was messy and it didn’t pay half as good as you think it would.—Here she paused while Molly tugged on a slippery bit of skin, and said, “You need tweezers for that.”—We were good, though, so good we moved up, but we always moved up together. I was maybe seventeen, maybe nineteen when we got drunk and realized we might want to fuck. It was weird, I don’t know if that’s ever happened to you, you’re looking at this friend you’ve had for years who’s always got your back and you think, well, shit. He’s gorgeous. I want him.

That turned out better than it does for most people, I think. It made us a real pair. We knew each other’s movements, we knew each other’s thoughts. There was no getting between us for a job, but outside of that, we had some edges that didn’t mesh. Eten was different about killing, for one thing. I don’t feel anything when I finish a job, I never did. I don’t mean I like it, I really mean I don’t feel much. It doesn’t make me happy, or sad, and I don’t get a thrill out of it. It’s work. Like taking out the trash or scrubbing floors. It’s mechanical.

Eten wasn’t mechanical. He was fucking talented, but it upset him.

Maybe ten years later, we caught the eye of the big boss in Dawnslight. He needed his personal guard-head replaced. Nothing nasty, the last guy was just getting too old. I told him we came as a pair, because he only asked for me, and he said fine. He took us both, gave us a big house, all the things we needed.

The problem was that we’d never been privy to much business before. Sure, you know you’re killing this guy because he stole a shipment of this or that, but you don’t see the numbers. You don’t grasp it.

—The blood was starting to make a slick mess in and around the petals of the third flower. Molly sat back and snagged a clean towel. “You bleed too much.”—

We both saw the ledgers: the number of kids from downside shipped to the stations and where they got stuck, the weapons we sent in trade, the sheer goddamn scale of the pharm business and who we denied drugs to and who we sold them to and for how much.

It’s one thing to execute somebody for betraying your boss. It’s another to see how many people your boss is killing with swipes of his pen on his tablet. It bothered me, yeah, but I felt like a jackass, because like I didn’t know. If I hadn’t known, it was because I was being blind on purpose. So I kept going. But Eten had problems with it. I saw them. I started doing the jobs for both of us; he started staying on at the boss’s place to do security.

It wasn’t like he was bored, he had incursions and assassins and rivals to deal with while I went off snipping the buds of people who were making trouble. It worked, for a little while. He started kissing all the new scars I’d got and I thought he maybe had decided to love me again, no matter what else we were doing.

I was wrong. I was big, bad wrong. Because love isn’t enough when something in you is just broken and nobody cares. He wasn’t saying “I love you.” He was saying sorry.

I found that out when the mole came to me, her face all white, and said she’d gotten wind of a tip-line flowing to the police. A tip-line with some very important and very impossible information about Dawnslight. There wasn’t a name, but there weren’t many options for who it could be, and I knew. I knew as soon as she walked in the door, before she even said it. I knew, I knew.

I still wonder if they promised him some kind of immunity, or if he even fucking cared anymore.

 

“All right, enough,” Jada said through her teeth, breathless.

Molly stopped. She looked up from her work, four raw-wound flowers with wide petals dripping red pollen. It wasn’t as hard as she’d imagined it would be, once she got the trick of the scalpel and tweezers. The thin metal pan she was using for—scraps, she supposed she should say, though that did disgust her—would need to be emptied, the flesh incinerated.

“What happened?” she asked.

Jada barked a laugh. “That’s not how storytelling works. I’ll come back tomorrow, I’ll tell you some more. You said it would take a few days.”

Molly laid down the utensils in the pan and stripped her bloody gloves off. Her hands had begun to tremble, much delayed. She had a feeling she knew exactly where Jada’s story was going. Of course she’d killed him, they’d already covered that. But—if it had been simple, if it had gone well, there would be no reason for Jada to be planetside, getting a scarification from a small-town clinic in what used to be India from a woman whose name was not actually Molly and who did not belong.

“The sealant?” she asked, wrenching herself away from that line of thought.

Jada slid off of the table, cupping the towel to her arm to catch the dripping blood flow, and made her way to the door where she’d dropped her bag when she came in. Her feet slid with her weight instead of stepping; clearly she was feeling the pain. She squatted and dug through her pack for a moment. Molly looked down at herself and found a splotch of blood on the hem of her tank top, a dull maroon color.

Jada returned with the sealant and pressed it into her outstretched hand. The bottle had a squirt top, which struck Molly as silly for no reason she could pinpoint. She squeezed some of the bitter-smelling liquid onto a small wad of bandages and dabbed it over the wounds. It took her several minutes to cover them sufficiently, spent in a quiet that was strange after an hour or two of listening. Jada seemed to be made of silences and stories with no room for any chatter.

“Let me bandage them,” she said when Jada shifted to reach for her shirt. She threw the used bandage into the trash can and grabbed a fresh roll. Jada tapped her foot as if impatient now that the sun was setting. “There,” Molly said after winding the last bit of cloth over the wounds. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” Jada said, gruff, and held her expression empty even as she fought to shimmy into her shirt without jostling her arm.

She didn’t say good-bye when she banged out the wood-slatted door, her pack over her good shoulder, the cut arm hanging at her side. Molly glanced at the mess on her table and bit her tongue. She wasn’t done, not yet. There was cleaning to finish first.

 

“Mom will settle up with you later, okay?” said the young man perched on the edge of Molly’s examining table. He twisted his tank top between his fingers, glancing at her from under the fringe of his hair.

“That’s fine,” she replied. She stripped her gloves off and disposed of them. “Try to stay out of the sun and don’t pick at the blisters.”

He nodded and slid off the table. She took a last glance at the patchy, blistered skin over his shoulders and down his back—minor chemical burns. She hadn’t even had to ask if he’d been playing in the rain the day before. It was obvious. That rinsing, tepid downpour was too tempting for the average kid, but what it brought down out of the atmosphere could be nasty, remnants of decades of warfare that had spread poison across the globe. He slipped out the door. She wasn’t sure if he was embarrassed that he’d done something stupid, or if the Goenka family was running low on tradable goods and he was worried about paying for the treatment. Possibly both.

Molly took one step toward her desk before the door rattled open again. Jada dropped her pack in the entryway, the midday sun casting a stark halo around her dyed hair, and let the door close behind her. They stood at opposite angles in the room, watching each other. Molly wiped her hands on her shirt and returned to her desk.

“I would have expected you to yell at him,” Jada said.

“You were listening?”

She shrugged.

Molly pressed her hands flat to the pitted surface of the old desk. “He’s a child. He deserves to try and eke out a little enjoyment in his life.”

“That’s fair,” Jada said.

The tension passed as quickly as it had crackled to life. Jada stripped out of the tan temp-reg shirt. The tank top underneath clung to her like a second skin, accentuating more than it hid. Molly was suddenly, inappropriately aware of the bumps Jada’s nipples made under the fabric in a way that she hadn’t been when Jada was bare chested. She fiddled with her water canister in a half-hearted attempt to distract herself. Jada sat on the table and began unwinding her bandage on her own, wrapping the bloody cloth around her fingers.

“Ready, I take it?” Molly asked.

“When you are,” Jada said.

It was easier, the second time. Molly prepared her tools, put on her gloves, and inspected the work from the day before. The wounds were raw but they weren’t swollen. That was good. The sealant must have done its job.

“So, you found out your partner of years had betrayed you,” Molly said, wiping down the unmarred skin with an antiseptic cloth. “How didn’t you see that coming, if you knew each other so well?”

Jada smiled, but it was empty. “Being lovers doesn’t mean you know each other. Nobody ever really knows anybody; you just think you do.”

Molly paused, thinking, and tried again. “Fine, but why would someone who spent their whole life—since he was a teenager, right?—doing the same job have an attack of conscience?”

“Interesting question,” Jada said. She paused, as well. “I don’t know. I never figured out if it was one job in particular, or something I did, or something he saw. It wasn’t an attack of conscience, not like you’re thinking; I don’t think he had one. You don’t murder people if you have a conscience. But I think . . .”

Molly put the scalpel to bare skin again, and this time she was freehanding it. The first cut froze Jada’s breath. The second let it out in a rush. She looked down at her arm and saw the waving line Molly was slicing under the flower petals.

 

“I think,” she began again.

He was tired.

People like us aren’t supposed to have long lives. You can’t be put together right if you look at a list of your possibilities and you think that murder for hire is the best and easiest option. Adrenaline junkies, or people with lots of hate, or people like me who don’t feel much most of the time—and do you really think that’s the kind of personality that lends itself to doddering old age?

No. No, we all expect to die before we’re thirty, but we die with honor and usually in a blaze of glory. Eten was thirty-five, and he was tired, and he wanted out, but you can’t ever get out, not once you’re as high up as he was. As we were. They’ll kill you for running. So, he can kill himself with all his guilt. Or he can take out a boss and probably the whole Dawnslight crew in one fell swoop, because he could, because he would die with some kind of meaning.

He chose honor. He chose revenge. I get that. Or, it’s what I would do if I got so sick of it I couldn't do the job anymore, so maybe I’m projecting. I think he was just tired, and too much of a badass to die alone. He had to take the syndicate out with him. Had to.

I didn’t act on the information at first. No, I had to make sure. I told the mole to shut her fucking mouth and tell no one until I did some digging. Word was not making it to the boss, not if I had a say—he liked to make examples of traitors, and I would kill him with my bare hands before I let him do that to Eten. If it had to be done, I would do it myself, and it would be quick and clean. I decided that pretty fast, and I did feel something then. It was ugly and it hurt, so I stopped feeling it, and started hunting.

—“That easy?” Molly asked. “Was it really that easy to put aside, thinking about killing your partner, the man you’d loved your whole life?”

“I thought it was,” she said. “I thought it was. Now shut up and let me tell the story.”—

Actually, I’ll answer that, because I guess it makes the story make sense.

I had my life. I was comfortable with my life, and the boss had given me all of that. I mean, yes, I had earned it, but it wasn’t mine. Not really. My whole life was the syndicate. It’s like asking me to choose between my entire extended family, if I’d had one, and my lover. So, no, it wasn’t easy. It helped that I knew if we decided to run away, Eten would still be tired and old and finished. He’d kill himself and I’d be alone anyway, a traitor to boot.

So, I weighed it. Life without Eten but with my whole family, an honored position in the syndicate, and respect for taking care of a betrayal so colossal as Eten’s. It was one of those impossible decisions you just have to make, because not making it is the same as making it. Once I decided to kill him I felt lighter. I think maybe I was in shock, looking back on it, because you should never feel light as a feather while you’re hunting evidence for somebody’s death.

You don’t think you could make that decision, but you could. You’re a mercenary bitch; I saw you weighing what it was worth for you to help me. There’s no shame in that. You would have chosen the same thing. Your loyalty is to you. Mine was to me and my family, my syndicate.

But it gets worse. Of course it gets worse, or I wouldn’t be here; I’d be sitting on a bed of money with ten naked boys massaging my sore old body, my boss singing my praises. Making the decision isn’t always enough.

I looked, though. I made certain. I found his bank accounts, I dug up his secrets, I traced all the names I knew he’d ever used and some I guessed about. There was no money trail. Like I said, they hadn’t bought his betrayal. He was making his own decisions, and I got mad, because fuck it—he wasn’t just betraying the syndicate, he was betraying me. I would be executed if they arrested us, and he goddamn knew it, so if he was going to kill me, well. Fair’s fair.

I shouldn’t have gotten angry. Anger is a luxury when you're hunting.

I did find the evidence I needed. It was a comm account registered under one of those names I’d guessed, and it was his. I knew his writing well enough to recognize it in the messages stored there. He’d been sending reports to the police, every day, a damning amount of information, but they would need him to verify it in court. That was how the system worked. Anonymous tips, no matter how juicy, eventually have to be backed up before legal action can be taken. The syndicates pushed that law through, obviously. Makes our lives easier; harder to rat one another out when tempted.

I printed a physical copy of the comm records I’d hacked and put the papers on the kitchen table in a big stack. I straightened it probably fifty times, waiting for him to come home, before I realized that if I made it a fair fight, let him explain first, he might win. We were evenly matched.

And he knew what he was doing. He knew he was signing my death warrant along with the boss’s. So I put the papers in a cabinet. I would need to show them to the boss later. I was crying. I remember that. Just couldn’t stop. That should have been a hint. I waited at the door. I had a good thick piece of wire in my hands, cushioned well. It wouldn’t hurt him too much. It would be quick. I waited, and I waited, and I was shaking and crying the whole fucking time like a child.

But it was him or me. He’d made the first choice, and I was making the last.

 

A silence fell, almost reverent, as Molly looked at her handiwork—a whirlwind design of lines curling and waving down to Jada’s elbow. The other woman had gone white in the face, as if all the bleeding had leeched her color out, or possibly the story. Her eyes were damp at the edges. Molly glanced away.

“I need to stop for now,” she said.

Jada gave a jerky nod. “I know, I know, danger of shock. Can’t do too much at once.”

“You need a break,” she said, standing to find the sealant and bandages again. “And I need a break. It’s a hard story to hear.”

“Harder to have done,” Jada said, nearly a snarl. Molly flinched.

The cleanup was quiet. Jada bit into her bottom lip as the wounds were treated and bandaged, a thin sheen of red welling up against the whiteness of her teeth. Molly resisted the urge to tell her to stop—it was her pain, she had the right to deal with it how she liked. The room had grown stifling without either of the women noticing as morning lengthened into afternoon. The bands of the tale stretched between them, and the bands of the art, the blood and cutting.

“You don’t have to finish the story if you don’t want to,” Molly whispered. Her heart was one hard aching lump in her chest, and she felt cold inside where the summer heat couldn’t reach. “I can guess what comes next.”

Jada shook her head as she dressed, muscles quivering and fingers outright shaking. “It’s the ritual. It’s his honor. I have to tell you. You’re the artist, I’m the murderer.”

That was that—she picked up her pack and staggered out of the clinic. The door shut hard behind her and Molly stared at it, wondering where in the hell she went after their appointments. She stood out too much for a bar or an inn. She must have been roughing it outside the town. Head full of strangeness, Molly sat behind her desk again, her stomach aching with hunger. She needed a late lunch, or an early dinner, but couldn’t make herself want to eat.

There was something about pain that leveled people out. She wished she hadn’t asked for the story, though she knew now she would have gotten it anyway, if it was how these things were done. Jada was easier to deal with as a big brute of an enforcer—if she was a woman, a woman with her heart half carved out of her chest and the wound open there for the world to see, that was too difficult. That was too personal.

The money, though. Molly pressed her fingers to the death-sentence lump, and imagined it was larger as she palpated it, pressing the sore flesh of her breast through the shirt. Thousands was enough for a treatment, barely, if she saved a little extra and called due all the tiny debts so many people owed her. Her life was worth that. She could hear the rest of the story.

The hours passed slowly. There were no more visitors. At dusk, she closed the clinic door behind her and walked down the dusty street, burning hot through her shoes, to her home. It was down a side street in the town, a small bungalow with netting in the windows and a working fridge. She had paid extra to have that kind of a power hookup, but cold food and water were worth it.

She kicked her front door closed behind her and went straight to the fridge. Inside, there was a bottle with her name on it, a bottle that would help to ease the throbbing in her head. Molly took the cold liquor with her to her bed, which also served as her couch, and turned on her tablet to check for the news. The condensation beading on the bottle felt exquisite when she pressed it to her forehead.

The first thing she saw was an article about spreading fires in the north and glassed deserts farther south. She flipped to the next article, and the next, until a wanted “poster” stopped her cold. The face was unmistakable. Jada, haughty, her chin lifted, staring down the person taking her photo.

The reward for information leading to her arrest was fifteen thousand in station currency. A chill ran up Molly’s spine, nerves tingling. Condensation dripped from her bottle onto the screen. The water blurred Jada’s picture through a hundred broken crystal fragments. She turned the tablet off.

Thousands, she thought, and tipped the bottle up, welcoming the cold burn in her mouth. She still felt blood and peeling flesh under her fingertips; behind her eyelids she saw Jada standing in the shadow of her own door, sobbing, garrote in hand.

It was not a night for cups.

 

“I don’t want to chat,” Jada said as she burst inside the clinic, the door rattling hard on its hinges. It slapped shut behind her with a crack like thunder. “Let’s just start, so I can get this part out of the way.”

Molly caught the breath that had been startled out of her at the loud entrance and nodded. She’d barely been able to gather a stray thought all day, never sure when Jada would come or if the police had already caught her, if someone else had gotten that fifteen thousand. The Goenka boy had returned for more burn spray, but that had been a bare distraction from the waiting, the endless waiting.

They moved in perfect concert, Jada undressing and unwinding her bandages while Molly prepped the tools and put the scrap pan within easy reach. She’d been burning the bits of flesh every night in the incinerator, and the bandages, too. There was some puffiness around Jada’s elbow, she noted, but not enough to be a major concern. She laid the woman’s forearm across her knees, paused, and frowned.

“I need to brace this somehow. Could you lie down?”

“All right,” Jada said and shifted to lie on her back. Her forearm rested flat on the table. Molly put a towel under it and wiped the area down as per usual. For good measure, she swabbed off the scalpel twice. “I'm ready.”

“Okay,” Molly said.

The small, so-sharp blade traced a long, thin line, then another, and another. Jada squeezed her eyes shut and her jaw flexed, tendons standing out for a brief second, the most visible expression of pain she’d given. Molly wondered if it was the cuts, or the story forcing itself from between her teeth.

 

“I was standing at the door. It had gotten late,” Jada said while Molly worked, carving delicate spirals like teardrops. It surprised her how easy this had become, how natural.

The lights went down outside, and he still hadn’t come. He was never so late. I’d been standing in the same spot for probably four hours. I couldn’t budge, though. I had to piss, I was thirsty, and I was stiff from crying, but I couldn’t move, because I couldn’t lose the moment. If I moved, Eten would come in, and I’d lose my surprise.

I’d lose my nerve.

It had finally occurred to me, in that fucking awful wait, that I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. I had to, but I wasn’t sure I could. There was no way out; Eten was a traitor. It had to be done. “He was going to kill me,” I remember saying to the empty house. I told myself all sorts of shit, in the dark, alone. That Eten had never loved me, that I was convenient and he was convenient and that was the only reason we’d stuck together, that it would be easy once I started, that I was a failure if I couldn't do this.

Then the door opened and he stepped into the dark. He reached out for the lights. The wire cut through the air without a sound as I moved, but I let out a noise I didn't mean to, something like his name. He turned toward me, and his hand brushed my chest, but I had the wire up under his chin and I kicked his bad knee. His legs went out from under him.

I pulled. I pulled hard. I shut my eyes against the shadows and his jerking like a fish on a hook. I felt a pain in my leg, and I braced myself against the wall because he’d stabbed me, the bastard, but he was going limp and he couldn’t pull the knife out again. It stuck there in my thigh like a piece of ice. His hands scrabbled at my ankles, those familiar long skinny fingers, and his body twitched. I heard my breath in my ears, wheezing. His hands went still, but I’m not an idiot, and I held on. I held on when his weight finally gave out and yanked him against the wire. I held on, and I took us both to the floor; there was blood everywhere, which was fitting. It was mine. I put my face in his hair and wondered if it was worth pulling the knife out. He hadn’t gotten the artery. I would have taken a long time to bleed to death, if it was even possible. His hair was like silk, and I know people say that all the time, but it was. It was silky and long enough to touch his shoulders. When we went out, people thought he was the woman, next to me. I ran my hands down his arms, and I lay with him, and I felt the cool set into that thin, handsome, empty body.

It killed me. The cold seeped in. I was wrong—I couldn’t trade him for my family. At least in the end, I proved to myself that I had really, really loved him, because otherwise it wouldn’t have ruined me. It’s over. I know that. It’s all done, now, but this, and that’s why I can tell a stranger like you the truth. You’re finishing my business, his business with me. You’re just the executor, and I’m already dead.

 

“Come home with me,” Molly said.

Jada breathed slowly, her eyes shut.

“You don’t have to go stay outside of town, or whatever you’re doing. My house is safe enough,” she said. “You’re covered in open wounds. You need a shower.”

“That’s not all to the story,” Jada said. She sounded like heartbreak and tears choked back for too long. “There’s more.”

“Not right now,” Molly said. “Not right now there’s not. Just come with me.”

The cleanup was fast and involved no eye contact. Molly reapplied the sealant to all the wounds, from shoulder down, a red mass of cuts and opened flesh. There were only a few inches left, near Jada’s wrist, but that last patch of unmarred skin could wait. Molly worked wordlessly to bandage the scarification, wrapping the white linen around the glistening wounds, wet with antiseptic sealant and blood. She wiped down the utensils perfunctorily and rinsed them in the small corner sink. She would disinfect them before using them again, but she needed to leave the sweltering and impossibly tiny space of the clinic, filled as it was with ugly words and pain like ghosts.

Jada’s arms trembled, weak, as she pushed herself off the table. Molly bundled the temp-reg shirt up and stuffed it in the woman’s pack—better not to be seen with it on the street. The pants might blend in if no one looked too closely, and the dark would obscure her scars. Jada followed like a shadow. Her story had drained vitality from her, so that her imposing strength seemed wooden and inflexible. Molly bit her tongue until the sharp taste of her own blood bloomed in her mouth. It was the only way to hold inside what she needed to say, to ask.

Jada’s steps traced hers down the main street, past houses lit dimly from the inside, onto the side avenue, and into her small home. She imagined how it must look to someone from stationside, used to living in luxury: a one-room shack with a bed against the far wall, a kitchen against the other, and a rough-hewn door to the miniscule bathroom. Molly left the light off and grabbed the half-full bottle of liquor from the fridge, inspecting her own smudged fingerprints on the glass neck as if they held a dire secret. Jada closed the door behind them with an air of finality.

“The shower’s through there,” Molly said.

Jada nodded, dropping her pack next to the metal-framed bed. “You’ll have to rebandage the arm when I’m done.”

“That’s fine,” Molly said. “I keep supplies on hand, here, too.”

Jada went through the door to the bathroom. Molly let out a breath as the thin wood partition shut between them. She collapsed onto her bed. Her tablet bumped her hip. She picked it up and turned it on. The screen was still filled by Jada’s “Wanted” ad. She flicked the page away, wincing. She wasn’t likely to forget what it had said whether she was looking at it or not.

What was she doing, dragging a fugitive syndicate assassin to her home? They’d have to share the bed; there was no way to sleep comfortably on the floor. In another context, having such a broad, strong, handsome woman between the sheets with her would have thrilled Molly, but not like this. Instead, it was simply alarming.

The words had just come out of her. It had seemed like the right thing to do, offering a little measure of comfort—a shower, a bed—in the face of that horrible story. The realization that it had only been a few days since Jada had came into the clinic was enough to throw Molly off balance. At the time, she’d been afraid of her, she’d been angry, she hadn’t wanted a thing to do with the whole business—and now, the same woman was in her house. She heard the water to the shower kick on, a dull hum.

It was difficult not to feel like she’d lost her mind.

She sipped from the cold bottle, the icy burn of liquor down her throat a comfort of its own. The story, though. How had she not seen through Jada’s brittle sharpness during that first conversation, when she’d confessed to killing Eten? It shamed her to think that she had so easily mistaken agony for arrogance. Another sip, and she shimmied off of the bed. Sleeping in her work clothes was out of the question. She stripped naked in the middle of the room, listening for the shower to cut off and glad when it didn’t. She had her scars, too, and they were private. The ragged, raised brand of white flesh on her flank, that was her own and no one else’s. Exile, it said in the always intelligible language of symbols.

Molly pulled on a pair of thin shorts and an equally airy tank top. Alone, she slept nude, but she wasn’t alone tonight. The shower cut off. She kicked her dirty laundry into the corner. She would take it all to the washing-shop later in the week.

Jada stepped out into the main room, toweling her frizzed hair dry. She’d put her same tank top and pants on, but her skin was scrubbed free of road dust and she looked healthier all together. Molly offered her the bottle. She took it, casting her a narrow-eyed look.

“I’m not trying to get you into bed,” Molly said.

“All right,” she replied, as if it didn’t bother her either way.

The dim light from the moon had been enough to wander the house, but Molly clicked on the bedside lamp to re-treat and rebandage the wounds on Jada’s arm. With that done, she turned it off again. They sat side by side on the mattress, passing the bottle back and forth. Molly took one last gulp and passed the final mouthful to Jada, who finished it off with a dramatic tilt of her head. Her throat worked as she swallowed.

Molly was glad not to have to speak. It was easier to tug on the covers as a hint and crawl underneath them. At first she lay facing the wall, but a warm hand pushed at her shoulder.

“Can’t lay on my other arm,” Jada murmured.

“Oh,” Molly whispered, rolling over to face the room.

The other woman settled behind her, a length of heat against her back. After an awkward, shuffling moment, that thick, bandaged arm came around her waist and tugged her closer. Her breath came out in a huff. Jada’s body fit hers almost too perfectly, cupping her tinier frame with plenty of room to spare. The press of fingertips on her ribs was like a brand in its own right. She shifted and closed her eyes. It was dark, warm, and too close. An unwelcome thrill skated down her spine as Jada moved again, hand sliding on her side. Finally, they settled, and her nerves did also. It had been a long time since anyone had shared her bed.

In the space of a breath, she forgot to hold in her words.

“I’ve never loved a single person that much,” she whispered.

Jada stiffened against her for only a moment and relaxed again. Her palm cupped the curve of Molly’s hip and stroked up, under her shirt, the simple caress of skin on skin knocking the breath out of her in a gasp. She pressed her face into the pillow to muffle it, too late. Jada’s blunt fingernails scratched across the plane of her stomach.

“Be thankful,” Jada murmured, each syllable a burst of warm breath teasing the hairs on the back of Molly’s neck. “All your decisions are probably much easier.”

Hours later, Molly lay awake in the loose grip of the sleeping syndicate woman, staring across the room at shadows on the far wall. All your decisions are probably much easier. She must have known—she must have.

 

Molly woke first and pried herself out of the cocoon of blankets to shower. The cool water sluicing over her skin was like heaven, washing away the previous day’s sweat and dust. By the time she emerged, wrapped in a towel, Jada was up and drinking a cup of water at her sink. The morning sun illuminated her white skin, contrasting it sharply with the pink scars and red-dotted linen bandages.

“Do you want to finish today?” Molly asked.

“Borrow your bathroom, first,” she said.

Molly dropped the towel as soon as the door closed and threw on a shirt and skirt. She was so unused to sharing her space it hadn’t occurred to her to bring a change of clothes into the bathroom. She ran a brush through her slick, damp hair, cool water dripping down the collar of her shirt. A moment later, Jada emerged and crossed the room to shoulder her pack.

“Ready?” she asked.

Molly nodded while Jada walked outside. With a sharp pulse of adrenaline stabbing through her guts, she picked up her tablet and slipped it into the front pocket of her skirt before she followed the other woman out. They stood in the sun for a moment while Molly blinked hard, adjusting her eyes. Sleep and a shower had rejuvenated Jada, but now that she knew to look for it Molly saw the hard angles at which she held herself, the pinched line of her mouth. Her lips were actually rather plump in her sleep, when she was relaxed.

They made the walk to the clinic nearly in private; the only other people out were children running errands for their parents—fetching water, going to the market for the day’s milk if there was any to be had, picking up laundry. Molly passed through the clinic door into her domain and sighed.

This was the last day. The cutting would be finished, and the story, too. The last day, she thought hard, repetitively. All my decisions should be easier, easier than hers.

Molly rinsed the tools at the sink, patted them dry, and treated them with antiseptic wipes. The stainless steel gleamed, wickedly sharp. Jada had arranged herself lying on the table, her heels hanging off the edge. She’d even put the towel down already.

Molly pressed one hand over Jada’s to keep her from moving and traced the first beading red line. It curved up to meet the older wounds in an arc, tying it all together, making it one. Jada flexed her hand under Molly’s. Molly squeezed it in return.

 

“I was still lying there with him, sure that I was never going to move again,” Jada said.

I couldn’t survive it, I wasn’t that tough. No one is that tough. I’d carved out a piece of myself and left it cold and crumpled in the fucking foyer. But at least, I thought, my boss and my family, my syndicate, they would be fine. I was old, anyway, as old as he was. It was time. I was okay with that. We’d go out in our private glory—it wasn’t like I would die alone, not really. So I grabbed the knife in my leg and pulled it out. That hurt, but not enough to wake me up. There’s a reason you see so many murder-suicides with couples. They always say it’s possessive, on the newsfeeds, but that’s not right—it’s that you realize a minute too late what you’ve done, and there’s no going back.

A call came through right then, while I was weighing his knife in my hand and considering how to finish myself off. I had no way to block calls from my boss. The holo popped up from my wristband and he was staring, his mouth open, because there I was in the dark covered in blood and crying.

“There are police here,” he said to me. “They’ve got recorded video testimony.”

Suddenly I knew why Eten was late getting home. I laughed, because what else was I going to do? He’d gotten us. He well and truly had. Killing him hadn’t done a damn thing. I’d choked his life out of him for no reason.

Maybe he’d bargained for immunity for us both, but I hadn’t asked.

I hadn’t asked. I just acted, because I’m stupid that way.

I ripped that wristband off and threw it. The syndicate was dead. Eten was dead. I was dead, but I owed him something.

—“This,” Molly said.

“Yeah,” she answered.—

We had spent fifteen years together. Almost every day, I saw his face when I woke up and when I went to sleep. We ate from the same table. We shared the same bed. We did each other’s most important scars. I knew every inch of him, and he of me. Fifteen years is a long time when it’s half your whole life. I used my own hands to end that.

Maybe he’d arranged immunity. Maybe that was his deal, and he was afraid to tell me. Maybe I killed our future, or maybe he was planning on taking us both out, together. You understand, I’m fair game—not just to the police, but to any syndicate with a grudge against good old dead Dawnslight. There’s no running away. They catch you when you run, they do. There’s only running as far as you need to, and finishing your business. I’m old enough. I did enough. I made the choice, and rolled those dice, and there’s nothing else.

That’s just how stories like mine end.

 

Molly finished a last swirl and peeled it up, away.

“Are you sure?” she asked as she set aside the tools.

“Positive,” Jada murmured.

Molly picked up the steel tray and put it on the edge of the sink. She ran the taps cool, rinsing the scalpel of its gory coating and the tweezers as well. The water ran pink down the drain. She’d forgotten her gloves; her fingernails were caked with blood. She frowned, scrubbing at them. The weight of her tablet dragged at her skirt like a stone.

“I need to take this out to the incinerator,” she said, gesturing to the tray. “Do you mind?”

“No,” Jada said. She lifted her arm above her head, turning it to and fro.

Molly pushed the door open with her elbow, holding the tray away from her body. She walked under the minimal shadow of the side of the building, through dry and cakey dirt that came up in clouds under her shoes. Half-dead scrub bushes were barely managing to grow at the back of the building by the incinerator, more branch than leaf, brown and crisped. Molly dumped the contents of the tray into the mouth of the machine—the whole town used it, but it was located behind the clinic for medical convenience—and closed its lid. She punched the button with a quivering finger and closed her eyes, listening to the whoosh of the core heating.

Her red-crusted fingernails drew her accusatory gaze when she slipped her tablet into her hand. She pulled up the wanted ad. It was one of those impossible decisions you just have to make, because not making it is the same as making it, Jada had said. There was a link at the bottom to the police hotline. She tapped it and put the tablet in whisper-mode, lifting it to her ear.

“May I help you?” a cool voice on the other end asked.

“I have this woman in my clinic,” she murmured. “The one from the ad.”

“Excellent,” he said, no warmer. “Our patrol is nearby. Stall her for twenty minutes, ma’am, if you can safely do so.”

“The money,” she hissed. “I’ll tell her to run for the hills if you don’t promise me they’ll give me the money the moment—”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “They will be authorized to transfer funds upon their successful operation. If you do your part.”

“Thank you,” Molly gasped and shut the link.

Her breath stuck in her throat. She put a hand to her mouth, pressing hard enough to cut her lips on her teeth in a burst of pain, as if she could physically hold in a scream. Fifteen thousand, instead of three; fifteen thousand could buy so much more than the gene therapy. Fifteen thousand could buy air conditioning, could buy clothes, could buy food. Fifteen thousand was a life.

She wanted to laugh at herself—of course it was a life. Jada’s, specifically.

Molly’s heart hammered against her ribs as she walked around the side of the building. What if Jada had heard her somehow, had picked up her bag and left already? The door would have made a sound, she was sure, but—it hadn’t been so long ago that Jada had pressed fingers to her vulnerable spine in threat, real or fake. There were uglier possibilities than her leaving without a good-bye, if she had heard.

Twenty minutes, Molly thought wildly as she came inside with the empty tray. Jada was sitting on the table, dabbing sealant on her wounds with a wad of gauze. She flicked her eyes up, cataloguing Molly in a way that made her cold to her toes—a sharp focus, predatory—then looked back down at her arm.

“You did a good job,” she said.

“For a doctor,” Molly replied.

Her voice was steady. She had assumed it would come out as tight as her throat felt, or raw like it was full of barbs. Jada was right, though; the lines made a macabre but beautiful painting on her skin, red and white, a canvas of flesh. She briefly regretted not fitting Eten’s name in somewhere, but perhaps that would have been too obvious.

“My name isn’t Molly,” she said into the budding silence, refusing to let it settle.

Jada put aside the gauze pad. “I assumed.”

“You gave me a story,” she said.

“You want to give me one, too?” Jada asked.

Molly pulled the chair out from her desk and yanked it across the floor with a screech of wood on tile. She thumped it in front of the examination table and sat, hands in her lap.

“You don’t have to listen,” she said, looking at the dried blood again. “You could leave. You’ve finished your—business, your responsibility.”

I’m giving you a chance, she thought desperately.

“Tell me,” Jada said, her posture sagging into a slump. She cradled the wounded arm over her lap, and neither woman moved to bandage it. The cuts told a tale, of and between them.

Molly reached up, tentative, and put her hand on Jada’s. Her fingers were still red with her sunburn, peeling finally. She didn’t pull away. Molly tilted her head back and their eyes met, locking, as their hands did also. She wet her dry lips with the tip of her tongue, tasting the sharp tang of the wounds she’d made with her teeth.

“Molly isn’t short for anything,” she said. “I picked it out of a book.”

 

“I was from the E-6 station,” she said.

My name was Sharad Rathore, and I was a doctor. I had money but not enough money to pay for the school I’d been through, and my father had lost his job.

I was a good daughter. Doctors have access to all kinds of things—especially in a big hospital where it’s always busy, where people fail to fill out necessary paperwork all the time, and where the security checks are very lax. So, I thought I would sell. Just a little. Enough to make ends meet.

—“Oh, that was—” Jada began.

“Stupid, I know,” Molly said.—

I didn’t know that the syndicates did not appreciate freelancing. It messed with their business, threw off their sales. I was too cheap and too accessible. I realize they could have just killed me, but instead, they set me up. That last meeting I had wasn’t with a buyer. It was a police officer, and the judge they sent me to was syndicate-owned. I went to the court and watched them decide what was going to happen to me without saying a word, shaking in my shoes. The courtroom turned me into a little girl again. But they said they were being very lenient, and it was to be exile instead of prison.

Lenient, to give the worst possible punishment. Lenient. That was when I knew that I’d been set up—

 

The door burst inward, wood slats shattered and skittering across the floor with the force of the kick. Jada wrenched her hand free and dove for her bag, spilling the contents on the floor; Molly kicked her chair backward and lifted her hands in the air. As the police poured inside—four of them, menacing in identical black body armor and faceplates, shouting over one another—Jada pressed her back to the exam table and lifted a compact pistol from the clothes and tech scattered across the tile. She bared her teeth and stood, the gun sweeping toward Molly. Blood spattered from her wounded arm where it hung useless at her side.

Molly’s heart stopped at the sight of the gun, her gaze meeting Jada’s through a hot blur of tears. She opened her mouth to say anything—I’m sorry, I love you, you told me to do this—but the barrel moved past her completely and the roar of shots filled the tiny space. Molly screamed, hands flying to her ears. Her defensive curl obscured her vision for a span of seconds and so she missed Jada’s fall until she hit the floor at her feet.

Blood poured out of her like a river of red ore, viscous and hot. It spread in runnels between Molly’s feet. She pressed her hands to her mouth again, helpless, a high sound escaping between her fingers.

I’m old, Jada had said. That’s just how stories like mine end, Jada had said.

Molly took a shaking step back, and another, until she hit the wall. The blood followed her, grasping, and she rose up on her toes to get away.

“Ma’am,” one of the officers said. She half heard him through the ringing in her ears. “Are you all right?”

She tore her eyes from the blood only to see the terrible stillness of Jada’s flower-carved arm with its pale white fingers unfurled like petals. Old-fashioned bullets had torn into her torso, shredding cloth and flesh alike, a ruin of meat. Her face was strangely untouched, eyes open, lips parted as if to take breath.

“We apologize for firing in the closed space,” he said. “We have authorization to confirm your payment. Do you have your account information?”

Molly fumbled her tablet from her skirt and handed it to him. He tapped the screen several times, held his wristband to it for a flash of infrared, and handed it back.

“Thank you for your services,” he said. “We’ll handle the cleanup free of charge.”

“Yes,” she said numbly. “Yes, of course. Fifteen thousand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

The other officers were gathering Jada’s body between them onto a foldable stretcher. Molly’s knees knocked together and she nearly fell, a wave of vertigo smashing through her. Jada, vital and truthful and so fucking beautiful, was now a cold and crumpled thing, carved out of her and left on the floor. The officers hefted the stretcher between them. The same hand that had palmed burning-hot trails over Molly’s hip, her ribs, her stomach, lolled boneless in the air. The officers left as if assuming she would follow. Instead she collapsed into her chair and put her hands on the examination table, still warm. So was the sticky pool of rapidly darkening, drying blood under her feet.

“Fifteen thousand,” Molly said aloud.

It had happened faster than she’d anticipated. Her balance hadn’t returned; there was shock in its place, where the memory of Jada’s lips twisted in a final snarl had burned into her. She stood, jerky as if she were a puppet on strings, and went to the sink. She rinsed the scalpel again, and the tweezers, and the pan. She plucked a disinfectant wipe from the box and ran it over the utensils, then dropped them onto the exam table with a rattle. Making the decision—rolling the dice—hadn’t broken her. What that said about her, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

Molly who was not named Molly ran the wipe over her own forearm, cleaning the prickles of sweat from her skin. She took the scalpel in her free hand and traced a line that felt at first like nothing more than cold before it blossomed into a sharp hurt. There was a tale to tell, and a badge she had earned with murder.

“Her name was Jada,” she whispered to the empty room as she began her own work with her own canvas. “I don’t know if this is the proper way to do it, but this was her story. I think she wanted me to kill her.”

 

“The Finite Canvas” copyright © 2012 Brit Mandelo

Art copyright © 2012 Rick Berry

17 comments
Fade Manley
1. fadeaccompli
Brilliant and beautiful. I am so glad I read this.
kmorgen75
4. kmorgen75
FYI for other non-metric users 42 degrees Celsius is roughly 107 degrees fahrenheit.
Jack Flynn
5. JackofMidworld
A beautiful story. Loved the way the world details just seeped in naturally.
kmorgen75
6. moonsofmercy
The voice of both of the characters really shines through in this piece. The tension between the two kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire read. Well done!
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
Very very good, nice world detail and the characters seem really authentic.
kmorgen75
8. bcarman
Great story. And great pic. Once in awhile Berry gets it right.
kmorgen75
14. Reverend Zim_ulator
Gripping. Disturbing. Brilliant.
kmorgen75
17. michisle
Fresh, bleak, sad, and sexy. Yum.
kmorgen75
18. edt
so sad, but so well done...
kmorgen75
19. A Tillett
That was just beautiful.
kmorgen75
20. akuzenski
Oh WOW. And that cover image is a heart-stopper.
LaShawn Wanak
24. LMWanak
[color=rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: arial, sans-serif; font-size: 13px; line-height: 18px">Oh. THIS STORY. Loved it loved it loved it. I liked how it uses the nature of story to provide confession, catharsis, and closure. And I love how the present and past stories me.[/color]

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