The rule is simple: don’t bleed.
For as long as Molly Southbourne can remember, she’s been watching herself die. Whenever she bleeds, another molly is born, identical to her in every way—and intent on her destruction.
Molly knows every way to kill herself, but she also knows that as long as she survives she’ll be hunted. No matter how well she follows the rules, eventually the mollys will find her. Can Molly find a way to stop the tide of blood, or will she meet her end at the hand of a girl who looks just like her?
Tade Thompson’s chilling new novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne is available October 3rd from Tor.com Publishing.
I wake into a universe defined by pain.
I can only open my eyes to slits, and the lids are so swollen, it feels like staring out of a hamburger. Warm fluid trickles out of my nose, but that doesn’t worry me as much as the warm pool I appear to be lying and sliding around in. Every part of my body hurts. It hurts to breathe, it hurts to hold my breath, it hurts to think. The fabric I’m wearing hurts against my skin. I close my eyes to rest the lids, then I open them again because I have no idea where I am.
I am in shackles. There are cuts on my ankles and my wrists. I’m in a room somewhere, dim, cold air, wet with my own warm piss. I do not think any of my bones are broken, but I don’t want to take a chance. I stay as still as possible, breathing shallow, careful. Careful. My chains link up to rings embedded in the wall, a foot off the ground, forcing me into an awkward position with most of my lower torso flat, but my shoulders and head off the ground. The cement work is shoddy, as if someone did the job without the necessary expertise. It is an old chain with rust in the shape of spilled liquid, like blood. Mine? Other prisoners’? I don’t know which is worse.
I know things, but I can’t remember them. I feel teased by them. Have I had a head injury? It’s odd remembering that a head injury can cause memory loss but not remembering my phone number or my mother’s name or if I like coffee black. It’s like knowing someone is beside you, but not being able to turn your head.
The walls are plastered, but painted on only three sides. I am facing a door, which is unvarnished wood. There is a second door on the other side of the room, same wall. The whole room seems to have been abandoned midway through decoration. The ceiling is concrete, which suggests there are floors above me. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m in a bunker.
I lose time, or time passes. There is no clock, and the sameness makes time seem static, but my nose stops bleeding and the pulse I hear in my ears slows. My eyelids are less swollen. I hear a key in the lock, and the door opens. A woman comes in, maybe in her twenties or early thirties, long dark hair, athletic, casually dressed, face bruised. She has a carrier bag in her left hand. For the brief period that the door is open, I hear knocking, as if some insistent person is at another door.
“Are you calm?” she asks. “Have you calmed down?”
I try to talk. My throat is too dry, and the sound that comes out is close to a death rattle. I wonder if I have ever seen anyone die, in this life that I can’t remember. I close my mouth again, no point.
“If you attack me I will drive my elbow into your voice box. I know how to do this, and you will most likely die. Are you calm?”
I nod, discovering a pain in my neck. I stop moving.
She leaves the bag near the door and approaches, manhandling me into a sitting position. Up close, I see that her eyes are blue-grey, and that she must be very strong considering the ease with which she shifts me. She smells of peppermint, and there is dirt under her fingernails, blood on her knuckles. I wonder if her injuries match the ones on me. She returns to the door, retrieves the bag, and kneels in front of me. Water from a plastic bottle. I drink and it feels like a balm down my throat. She feeds me small strips of chicken and clumps of bread. I swallow with difficulty, but eagerly.
“Thank you,” I say.
She stops, sucks her teeth, packs up the food, and leaves.
* * *
She returns after a few hours, or some days. It is hard to tell. She has a needle and a bottle of black ink. She comes to me, rolls up my sleeve, and, using a lighter, heats the end of the needle. She applies the heated point and the ink to my skin. I break out in a sweat, but am determined not to cry out. She is very meticulous in writing the tattoo. It is a series of numbers, and it appears she is more concerned with legibility than aesthetics. This takes a long time, and I do not think she is experienced. Given the number of times she swears, I think this may be her first time.
When she finishes, she says, “Keep it clean and dry.”
“I am lying in my own urine and feces. How am I meant to keep it clean? Why am I here?”
The woman does not respond, but she seems to slow in her stride before slamming the door shut.
* * *
Sometime later, at night maybe, the woman bursts into the room, snapping me out of a doze. She is completely naked and unshod. I worry that this is a strange sex ritual, or kidnapping for profit by gangsters, but she seems surprised to see me and there are no cameras. Her face betrays bemusement.
“Oh,” she says, then she walks out again, leaving the door ajar. She peeps back, eyes more focused, checking on me, after which she does not return. I hear noises, then the door shuts and the lock turns.
What the hell is going on?
* * *
The woman comes in again, fully clothed in short sleeves, jeans, tennis shoes. This time she has a chair in tow, wooden, functional, no finish. She locks the door behind her. She also has a pile of rags, a glass of water, a first aid box, a can of lighter fluid, and a gleaming kitchen knife. She lays these items out in a curve in front of her, again making me imagine cultish rituals. She makes eye contact, then picks up the knife. She draws the knife along her forearm. It bleeds brisk red drops, which she aims into the rags. When the flow falters she dresses the wound. She pours the lighter fluid on the floor, creating a wick that flows outside the room. She packs the rags up and takes them out of the room, then comes back in, sits in the chair, and looks at me again.
“My name is Molly Southbourne.”
She says this like it should mean something.
“I don’t know you,” I say, but it rings false, even to me. “Please let me go.”
“It’s all right. You will know me. You will.” She nods to herself. “I’m going to tell you a story. It’s long, but you must try to remember it. Your life depends on how well you remember. Will you promise to remember?”
“Just promise.” No mercy in those eyes. No evil either, just finality, which is scarier.
“Good. Afterwards, I will release you.”
Death can be a release, I think, but I don’t push the matter. I think she is mad. I feel I should be more afraid, but I am not. I don’t know why.
She sighs. “I don’t even know where to start. What should I…” She seems to be pleading with me.
I hold her gaze the way I would a rabid dog’s. When I don’t look away, she says, “My earliest memory was a dream.…”
Excerpted from The Murders of Molly Southbourne, copyright © 2017 by Tade Thompson.