A young man at loose ends finds he cannot look away from his new lover’s alien gaze. A young woman out of time seeks her old lover in the cold spaces between the stars. The fleeing worshippers of an ancient and jealous deity seek solace in an unsuspecting New World congregation. In a suburban nursery, a demon with a grudge and a lonely exorcist face off for what could be the last time. And when a big city mayor who delineates his mandate by the slash of a blade faces an unexpected challenger, it turns into a struggle that threatens to consume everything.
In Knife Fight and Other Struggles, available now as a ebook and on November 4th in print from ChiZine, David Nickle follows his award-winning debut collection with a new set of dark tales that span space, time, and genre. Read an excerpt from “Looker” below!
I met her on the beach.
It was one of Len’s parties—one of the last he threw, before he had to stop. You were there too. But we didn’t speak. I remember watching you talking with Jonathan on the deck, an absurdly large tumbler for such a small splash of Merlot wedged at your elbow as you nodded, eyes fixed on his so as not to meet mine. If you noticed me, I hope you also noticed I didn’t linger.
Instead, I took my own wine glass, filled it up properly, climbed down that treacherous wooden staircase, and kicked off my shoes. It was early enough that the sand was still warm from the sun—late enough that the sun was just dabs of pink on the dark ocean and I could imagine I had the beach to myself.
She was, I’m sure, telling herself the same thing. She had brought a pipe and a lighter with her in her jeans, and was perched on a picnic table, surreptitiously puffing away. The pipe disappeared as I neared her. It came back soon enough, when she saw my wineglass, maybe recognized me from the party.
I didn’t recognize her. She was a small woman, but wide across the shoulders and the tiniest bit chubby. Hair was dark, pulled back into a ponytail. Pretty, but not pretty enough; she would fade at a party like Len’s.
“Yeah, I agree,” she said to me and I paused on my slow gambol to the surf.
“It’s too bright,” she said, and as I took a long pull from my wine, watching her curiously, she added, “Look at him.”
“Look at me,” I said, and she laughed.
“You on the phone?” I asked, and she dropped her head in extravagant mea culpa.
“No,” she said. “Just . . .”
“Don’t fret. What’s the point of insanity if you can’t enjoy a little conversation?”
Oh, I am smooth. She laughed again, and motioned me over, and waved the pipe and asked if I’d like to share.
“Sure,” I said, and she scooted aside to make room on the table. Her name was Lucy. Lucille, actually, was how she introduced herself but she said Lucy was fine.
I introduced myself. “Tom’s a nice name,” she said.
The night grew. Lungs filled with smoke and mouths with wine; questions asked, questions answered. How do you know Len? What do you do? What brings you to the beach when so much is going on inside? It went both ways.
Lucy knew Len scarcely at all. They’d met through a friend who worked at Len’s firm. Through the usual convolutions of dinners and pubs and excursions, she’d insinuated herself onto the cc list of the ur-mailby which Len advertised his parties. She worked cash at a bookstore chain in town and didn’t really have a lot of ambition past that right now. Which tended to make her feel seriously out of her weight class at Len’s parties, or so she said; the beach, therefore, was an attractive option.
She finished my wine for me, and we walked. I’d been on my way to the water’s edge and Lucy thought that was a fine idea. The sun was all gone by now and stars were peeking out. One of the things I liked about Len’s place—it was just far enough away from town you could make out stars at night. Not like the deep woods, or the mountains. But constellations weren’t just theoretical there.
“Hey, Tom,” she said as the surf touched our toes, “want to go for a swim? I know we don’t have suits, but . . .”
Why not? As you might remember, I’ve a weakness for the midnight dunk. We both did, as I recall.
I stepped back a few yards to where the sand was dry, set down my glass and stripped off my shirt, my trousers. Lucy unbuttoned her blouse, the top button of her jeans. I cast off my briefs. “Well?” I said, standing in flagrante delicto in front of her.
“Get in,” she said, “I’ll be right behind you.”
It didn’t occur to me that this might be a trick until I was well out at sea. Wouldn’t it be the simplest thing, I thought, as I dove under a breaking wave, to wait until I was out far enough, gather my trousers, find the wallet and the mobile phone, toss the clothes into the surf and run to a waiting car? I’m developing my suspicious mind, really, my dearest—but it still hasa time delay on it, even after everything. . . .
I came up, broke my stroke, and turned to look back at the beach.
She waved at me. I was pleased—and relieved—to see that she was naked too. My valuables were safe as they could be. And Lucy had quite a nice figure, as it turned out: fine full breasts—wide, muscular hips—a small bulge at the tummy, true . . . but taken with the whole, far from offensive.
I waved back, took a deep breath and dove again, this time deep enough to touch bottom. My fingers brushed sea-rounded rock and stirred up sand, and I turned and kicked and broke out to the moonless night, and only then it occurred to me—how clearly I’d seen her on the beach, two dozen yards off, maybe farther.
There lay the problem. There wasn’t enough light. I shouldn’t have seen anything.
I treaded water, thinking back at how I’d seen her . . . glistening, flickering, with tiny points of red, of green . . . winking in and out . . . like stars themselves? Spread across not sky, but flesh?
I began to wonder: Had I seen her at all?
There was no sign of her now. The beach was a line of black, crowned with the lights from Len’s place, and above that . . . the stars.
How much had I smoked? I wondered. What had I smoked, for that matter? I hadn’t had a lot of wine—I’d quaffed a glass at Len’s before venturing outside, and I’d shared the second glass with Lucy. Not even two glasses. . . .
But it was Len’s wine.
I’d made up my mind to start back in when she emerged from the waves—literally in front of my face.
“You look lost,” Lucy said, and splashed me, and dove again. Two feet came up, and scissored, and vanished. Some part of her brushed against my hip.
I took it as my cue and ducked.
The ocean was nearly a perfect black. I dove and turned and dove again, reaching wide in my strokes, fingers spreading in a curious, and yes, hungry grasp. I turned, and came near enough the surface that I felt my foot break it, splashing down again, and spun—
—and I saw her.
Or better, I saw the constellation of Lucy—a dusting of brilliant red points of light, defining her thighs—and then turning, and more along her midriff; a burst of blue stipple, shaping her breasts, the backs of her arms. I kicked toward her as she turned in the water, my own arms held straight ahead, to lay hold of that fine, if I may say, celestial body.
But she anticipated me, and kicked deeper, and I’d reached my lungs’ limits so I broke surface, gasping at the night air. She was beside me an instant later, spitting and laughing. No funny lights this time; just Lucy, soaking wet and treading water beside me.
“We don’t have towels,” she said. “I just thought of that. We’re going to freeze.”
“We won’t freeze,” I said.
“It’s colder than you think.”
“Oh, I know it’s cold. We just won’t freeze.”
She splashed me and laughed again and wondered what I meant by that, but we both knew what I meant by that, and after we’d not-quite tired ourselves out in the surf, we made back for the shore.
I wonder how things went for you, right then? I know that you always fancied Jonathan; I know what happened later. I hope you don’t think I’m being bitter or ironic when I say I hope you had a good time with him. If he misbehaved—well, I trust you did too.
Shall I tell you how we misbehaved?
In some ways, it was as you might expect; nothing you haven’t seen, nothing you haven’t felt, my dear.
In others . . .
Through the whole of it, Lucy muttered.
“He is,” she would say as I pressed against her breasts and nibbled on her earlobe; and “Quiet!” as I ran my tongue along the rim of her aureole . . . “I said no,” as I thrust into her, and I paused, and then she continued: “Why are you stopping, Tommy?”
This went on through the whole of it. As I buried my face between her legs, and she commented, “Isn’t he, though?” I thought again of Lucy on the shore, under the water. “Too bright,” she moaned, and I remembered my visions of the sky, on her skin.
And as I thought of these things, my hands went exploring: along her thighs, across her breasts—along her belly. . . .
She gasped and giggled as I ran my thumb across her navel . . . and she said, “Tommy?” as my forefinger touched her navel again . . . and “What are you doing?” as the palm of my hand, making its way along the ridge of her hip-bone . . . found her navel once more.
I lifted my head and moved my hand slowly aside. For an instant, there was a flash of dim red light—reflecting off my palm like a candle-flame. But only an instant. I moved my hand aside and ran the edge of my thumb over the flesh there. It was smooth.
“Tom?” she said sharply, and started on about unfinished business.
“Shh,” I said, and lowered my face—to the ridge of her hip-bone, or rather the smooth flesh inward of it. And slowly, paying minute attention, I licked her salted skin.
I would not have found it with my crude, calloused fingertips; my tongue was better attunedto the task. I came upon it first as a small bump in the smooth flesh: like a pimple, a cyst. As I circled it, I sensed movement, as though a hard thing were rolling inside. Running across the tiny peak of it, I sensed a line—like a slit in the flesh, pushed tightly closed. Encouraged, I surrounded it with my lips and began to suck, as I kept probing it with my tongue.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and then, “Oh!” as my tongue pushed through. It touched a cool, wet thing—rolling on my tongue like an unripened berry.
And then . . . I was airborne . . . it was as though I were flying up, and falling deep. And I landed hard on my side and it all resolved, the world once more. Icy water lapped against me. And Lucy was swearing at me.
I looked at her, unbelieving. She looked back.
She, and a multitude.
For now I could see that what I’d first thought were star-points, were nothing of the sort. Her flesh was pocked with eyes. They were small, and reflective, like a cat’s.
In her shoulders—the swell of her breasts—along the line of her throat . . . They blinked—some individually, some in pairs, and on her belly, six points of cobalt blue, formed into a nearly perfect hexagon. Tiny slits of pupils widened to take in the sight of me. The whole of her flesh seemed to writhe with their squinting.
It didn’t seem to cause her discomfort. Far from it; Lucy’s own eyes—the ones in her head—narrowed to slits, and her mouth perked in a little smile. “He is that,” she said, “yes, you’re right.” And it struck me then: those strange things she was saying weren’t intended for me or anyone else.
She was talking to the eyes.
“He can’t have known,” she continued, her hand creeping down to her groin, “and if he did, well now he knows better.”
I drew my legs to my chest and my own hands moved instinctively to my privates, as the implications of all those eyes, of her words, came together.
These weren’t her eyes; they were from another creature, or many creatures. And they were all looking upon me: naked, sea-shrivelled, crouching in the dirt.
Turning away from her, I got to my feet, ran up the beach and gathered my shirt and trousers, and clutching them to my chest, fairly bolted for the stairs. I pulled on my clothes, hunted around for my shoes, and made my way up the stairs. At the top, I looked back for the glow of Lucy. But the beach was dark.
The eyes were shut.
“Looker” excerpted from Knife Fight and Other Struggles © David Nickle
Originally published in Chilling Tales, 2011