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by Anne Smith

Ellie Flynn sat in the bath, razorblade poised over her forearm. “I know you’re there.” Candlelight gleamed on scars no amount of spray tan could hide. “I know I’m not supposed to remember, so why do I?”

The candles on the toilet seat dipped, glinting on the empty bottle of Smirnoff on the bathmat. Ellie saw other things.

A boy pinned to the ground by a spear. A woman bound to a chair, chest a bloody grin of ribs. An infant shrieking.

Ellie shrieked too and sliced, aiming for artery, bone, soul.

Her hand froze. The razorblade trembled.

IT’S NOT YOUR TIME.

The room shone with an overpowering scent. Jungle, earth, flowers. White silence. Ellie floated in terror, elation, eyes watering, heart slamming, skin stinging with invisible impact. Blood swelled from her pores, pattered from her nose onto her knees, trickled down her goosefleshed thighs and turned the bathwater pink. The blade fell from her fingers and harmlessly sliced the water.

Ellie grabbed her head. “There you are. You monster. You bitch. Please don’t make me do this. Please leave me alone.”

I CAN’T DO THAT, ELLIE.

“Then show me something beautiful. Show me something true.”

Something moved through the bathroom, between the atoms separating Ellie from everything else in the universe. The illusion of alone shattered, laid bare.

Ellie’s eyes widened. She slid all the way under the water, hair a bloody halo.

* * *

Laya only noticed how blue Todd Harper’s eyes were after he’d strangled her host. Color, texture, scent: everything brightened in the nanosecond it took Laya to slide into Ellie. Ellie’s heartbeat returned with the transition, and some song from before Ellie’s birth, all steel guitars and twangy harmonies.

Laya lay across the bed and watched herself upside down in some dim mirror across an unfamiliar room. Waterhouse colors, a Goya composition. Her hair brushed the carpet’s turquoise and green swirls. Breath condensed on her skin; transition always lowered the host’s body temperature. Blunt teeth replaced the hands at her throat.

Great. A gnawer.

Targets could be hard to spot. Not so Todd Harper. Yes, the world had said when she’d seen him at Neon. And yes when he’d spiked Ellie’s drink. And yes, oh yes as his big hands closed off her windpipe on his dead mother’s bed.

Laya stared up at him. His breath smelled of super-strength mints, his skin of some celebrity-endorsed fragrance. She brushed his hands off, flipped him onto his back and sat on his neck. When he protested, she backhanded him. A tooth flew out of his mouth and lodged in the headboard.

Laya sighed. “Todd Harper, you are sentenced to whatever hell Design has chosen for your crime. Standard ten-week reparation period applies, during which you’re encouraged to seek forgiveness from the Design you have so defiled.”

Todd Harper gawped and bled and tried to breathe.

Laya took a deep breath and started to access the gateway.

“What? What the fuck? Help me! Help!”

Laya smacked him again. No teeth flew this time, just consciousness. She got up, tied Todd’s wrists together with his belt and looped it around the bedpost. He blew bubbles of blood through his nose while she got a glass of water from the bathroom and moistened her mouth and throat, grimacing. The rest she tossed in Todd’s face. He came around spluttering.

“You have to stay awake.” She spoke as if to a very slow child as she positioned him on the bed and straddled his neck. A deep breath, awaken the gateway, concentrate, concentrate...

She’d never seen it herself, of course. Some younger agents theorized in metaphysics but Laya was too old for curiosity or cynicism. There was neither poetry nor philosophy in what she did, only justice. It emanated like gravity from her gateway, sucked meat and soul from bones, whirled it to atomic puree, inhaled it into a new matrix to await its fate.

Todd shrieked, kicked and bounced about until Laya put her fist in his mouth. He flexed like a suffocating fish. Atoms danced, unmade. Laya straddled a flesh cyclone--back arched, mouth gaping and silent with effort--and crashed onto the floor, where she lay twitching and gasping until she could stand.

The empty bed steamed like swamp.

Laya put her hand on her abdomen. Life flickered there, a match struck in the abyss. “Sentence has been passed according to Design decree. Don’t get comfortable.”

* * *

“Why do you think you have these nightmares, Ellie?” asked Dr. Stark.

The window was reflected in the black gleam of Ellie’s lighter. Ellie clicked it against the arm of the chair and shrugged, not looking at the man sitting opposite her. She did glance at his notebook, thinking of the one in her handbag, the proof she’d amassed. Newspaper clippings. Missing persons. Unsolved murders. Her accounts of events which she couldn’t possibly have witnessed. Things from which she woke screaming. Things people like Stark called night terrors because they possessed no other terminology.

“Ellie?”

“I don’t know why I dream what I do, but it makes me miss the blackouts.”

“You’re making progress.” The pen moved. Stark scratched his nose with his thumb and looked up from his notebook. “Don’t you think it’s significant that the people you dream about are all missing?”

Ellie frowned, dropped her lighter back into her handbag and tried to close it. The zip stuck on the spine of her notebook. She felt Stark watching her as she yanked it shut. Her throat felt numb, as if she’d swallowed a dental anesthetic. “I just want to sleep. Please. It’s been three days. I can’t... The tablets helped so much last time.”

“Ellie, we agreed that medication isn’t a long-term solution to your insomnia.”

Anger and impotence took her voice. She shook her head, swallowed.

“How long has it been since you cut?”

Stark’s pen waited to stain the paper with her truth. The room wavered and her eyes burned. A tear splashed onto the back of her hand. She bit her lip and tasted lipstick. “A month.”

“And you did that without medication.”

“Give me a fucking break; I’ve been wasted for a week.”

“And you don’t think that that and the insomnia are connected?”

Silence grew. The truth became thorns in her throat. She wanted to scream it at the world:

I dream I send people to hell.

Instead, she folded her arms and realized she was gripping the cuffs of her top like a kid, pink nails embedded in the fabric. She finally looked up at Stark, and caught him looking at her breasts, proving at least one of them was alive.

She smiled, reapplying her armor. “Can’t say I blame you. Kind of screwed up last time, didn’t I?” She pushed up her sleeves and revealed the scars crosshatched on her arms. “If I really wanted to kill myself, we both know I could do it without your help.”

It was the first time she’d shown anyone her arms, apart from a junior doctor in A&E who’d called her an attention-seeking waste of space. The floor dropped a couple of inches under her. She gripped the chair.

Stark reached for his prescription pad and wrote in the script common to all doctors: a pissed spider dipped in ink and left to wander across the paper.

Relief like the best drug in the world flooded Ellie as she took the script. Then she read it. “Three? But--”

“Monday at nine. We’ll discuss your next move.”

* * *

Sometimes Laya used a clinic, if the tablets she purchased over the internet didn’t work. Not this time. Humans were so inventive. Nausea, cramping, inconvenience. Bleeding that lasted a few weeks, tops.

In the park, Laya bought an ice cream and watched a crow goosestep across the grass in pursuit of a crisp packet. She wasn’t surprised when it hopped up onto the bench beside her and stabbed at her uneaten cone with a shiny black beak.

You broke the rules, Laya. Ten weeks, not seven.

“I know,” she said, and made a passing jogger trip. The park was full of sunbathers, students, mothers with children, pedophiles grooming their prey, soon-to-be victims and their attackers.

Laya closed her eyes.

We understand. You’ve been doing this a long time. But the rules exist for a reason. Targets must have their chance to repent. This takes time.

“Ten weeks. I know. But you have no idea how it feels.”

Corporeity comes with its own rules. You’re female. Females feel things when they’re gestating.

“Try it.”

The crow cocked its head, blinked its jet eyes. You’re one of our best agents. Why, when you’ve been doing this so long, are you suddenly allowing yourself to be affected like this?

“Not so suddenly. But that’s my punishment, isn’t it? I mean, it wouldn’t do for me to enjoy hurting people. Even if they are incredible shits.”

Quite.

“Birdie!”

A child in a pram held out its lollipop to Laya. The mother looked through Laya in self-defense and wheeled her offspring away. No, best not to acknowledge the girl on the bench talking metaphysics with the big black bird.

“It gets harder to keep up. So many new targets, so few like me.”

We understand. The world’s capacity for cruelty and crime has increased while your numbers have remained static for millennia. That’s why we have Designed a new policy. One to help.

Laya glanced at the crow. Any more attention than this and the pinch between dimensions might make itself noticeable. Cue people clutching their leaking brains, insanity, death. “Tell me.”

The crow hopped closer.

* * *

Inside the motel room, the heat sweated. Laya waited beside the bed. As soon as the man on the bed groaned, she threw a second glass of water in his face.

“Wake up.”

The man began to buck and yell. Laya had accounted for this and taped one of his socks into his mouth.

His clothes were folded on the chair. On the TV, a news bulletin showed blackened cars, children cowering beneath tables in a school in the middle of a war zone. People with sincere faces dissected the tragedy from the safety of studios. Then, job done, they went home to their spouses and offspring and put it from their minds.

“You have to, or you’d go mad,” said Laya, articulating her thoughts mid-flow. “But lucky them for having the chance. Some people don’t get the chance to walk away. Some people live their job until they die. Some people, for that matter, aren’t even people at all.”

Laya reached into her bag and brought out a packet of tobacco, some papers and something else from a small plastic bag. “I want you to listen to me, Aaron McPherson,” she said as she rolled. “What I have to say is important.”

Aaron McPherson’s blue-gray eyes threatened to exit their sockets. Laya sighed and lit the joint, exhaled into his face. His flared nostrils sucked it up. Laya didn’t inhale, but soon the stuffy room swirled with smoke.

“Better?”

In silence, Laya sat and blew second-hand smoke into her target’s face until he was high enough to accept what she said as truth. And maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much.

Outside traffic buzzed past, angry insects disturbed from hibernation. Laya had turned the heating up to full to compensate for the frosted afternoon air.

Someone pounded past the window.

“Frodo, get your butt back here! God dammit, dog!”

Something yipped in the distance.

Laya picked a piece of tobacco from her lip. She stubbed out the joint and watched the smoke die.

“I know what you’re thinking. For a guy who loves his wife, you sure were easy to pick up. I spiked your drink, so don’t be hard on yourself.”

Aaron strained against the bindings on his wrists and legs. Then he thrashed about on the bed. The headboard banged off the wall, which was papered a morose red. Laya had left the bathroom door open and the light on. A slice of yellow caught Aaron’s desperation as nothing happened; no one came to investigate the noise.

Laya nudged the door with her toe. “We were getting pretty friendly by the time we picked up the key. They’ll just think we’re enjoying ourselves.”

When she touched his bare foot, he whined. She withdrew her hand.

“Sorry. I know you’re frightened, and you’re right to be. There is going to be pain. A lot of it. But we’ll both walk out of here alive, I promise. Just not the way we came in.”

Aaron’s pupils were so dilated they’d devoured most of the iris. Saffron McPherson loved her husband’s eyes. She would go to her grave loving them, if Laya did this right.

Laya crossed her legs. She wore pink underwear. Soon she would unwrap herself, but for the first time she felt the need to explain why.

Are you listening, Ellie? If this is going to work, I’ll need your help.

“When I first came here, I didn’t question. I was Designed to fulfill a function, and I performed it like a newborn, learning as I went. Humanity was easier to control then. We just had to reveal ourselves at work, my fellow agents, and for a time the hate would subside, the killing and hurting decrease. For a time. But humans forget. And is terror any better than hate? Some of my agents were loved and worshipped through misunderstanding. Some reviled through the same incomprehension. But we didn’t change.”

Laya got up and took an apple from a bowl beside the TV. Aaron’s gaze followed her as if he could convince himself that she wasn’t there.

“We didn’t change, but more of us were Designed to compensate for the new crimes that you humans devised. I deal strictly with crimes against the person, of rape and murder and mutilation. The things I’ve seen,” she polished the apple on her knickers, stared into its ruby mirror, “would make you gouge your eyes out.”

She walked over to the bed and put the apple on the pillow next to Aaron’s head, leaned over him. His nostrils began to flare again. Hard to tell his precise color in the gloom, but it didn’t look good.

“I’m old, Aaron. I know I don’t look it, and I know I shouldn’t feel it. But I’m beginning to think I’m experiencing some kind of Design flaw. You’re an engineer – what do you think?” She traced one of his blond eyebrows with a pink nail. “Ellie thinks I’m an angel. Do angels die? Can they get used up? Do they lose their potency, like perfume left in sunlight? I’m sorry if I’m frightening you. But you don’t know how long I’ve wanted to talk about this.”

She inhaled the scent of his skin, pushed her tongue against the pulse in his throat, tasting salt and aftershave.

Aaron sobbed and sweated and sucked on sock.

Laya backed off. She sat on the bed and touched her temple. “The things I’ve seen. The targets I’ve converted. Hundreds of thousands have passed through my loins, and they wonder when I began to be affected by it? It was never easy. But I did it. And I’ll do it again.”

The enormity of past and future merged, nailed her to the present. She remembered the first Ellies, Designed to be unable to sustain a pregnancy; their mates had tried to beat fertility into them, then driven them into the wilderness to starve or be taken by wild creatures. She remembered arguing with messengers for Design to intervene. So Design provided plants and the women to administer them; many Ellies had perished until, at Laya’s insistence, safer methods had been invented. But the time, and the waste. How many innocents had Design exploited before getting it right?

Design was growing, too. So why shouldn’t Laya? Why shouldn’t Ellie?

“This must all seem very strange to you. I apologize for that. But there’s a point to it. I used to be activated once the crime had been committed. Then Design decided this wasn’t efficient, so I became the first victim, able to administer immediate justice. But lately Design has been inspired. Why wait for someone to do something wrong? Why give them the benefit of the doubt, when we know that the future is immutable? So don’t think you’re a bad person, Aaron. You’re not. Yet. That’s the point.”

Laya undid her bra and slipped it off; sometimes her chakras lit up so brightly they tattooed her flesh for days. The hipster knickers with embroidered rosebuds were next, kicked off a slim, fake-tanned ankle.

“Design’s getting tired of waiting for the first strike. It’s decided to pre-empt so there are no more victims. Proleptic justice, Aaron.”

She picked up her underwear, put it on top of her coat, skirt and blouse. Oatmeal colors. Ellie was malnourished from choice, not circumstance. This age demanded a new way of looking at the female form; the media was an unforgiving mirror. In the room’s mirror, dim light shone in Ellie’s auburn hair and made slats of her ribs. Doll’s eyes stared back at Laya, blue and wide. Someone else was in there, and apparently even angels could get high.

Laya dug her hands into her hair, pushed it behind her ears. Aaron stared at her.

“Today you’re going to do something terrible. Today you’re going to kill your wife. I know, if you weren’t gagged, you’d deny it. But you will, when you find out what she’s done. And then it’ll be too late. I’m telling you so you know you’re saving her. You love your wife very much, don’t you? Yes. I’ve watched you. You’re thinking I’m a crazy bitch. But if I’m not what I say I am, how else would I know about Drew? And the fact he’s been trying to get your wife pregnant for you on Wednesday afternoons for the past three months.”

Aaron held his breath.

“They think you’re at the conference. But you go home early--wasn’t that what you’d decided to do before I started chatting to you at the bar?--and catch them. And once your best friend’s gone, you argue with Saffron and push her down the stairs. She dies in your arms, not knowing she’s pregnant. Two lives stolen by you, Aaron.”

Laya ripped the tape off his mouth, pulled out the sock.

Aaron panted for air.

“Shout and I’ll put my fist down your throat.”

“You crazy bitch! It’s not true! How could you know that?”

Laya stared at him until he stopped crying.

“What are you going to do to me?”

She leaned over and whispered in his ear. “I’m going to hide you. But you have to be a good boy. And you have to accept this decision as final. This way, your wife and her daughter survive.”

Aaron began to cry again. “What about me?”

Laya stared at him until she felt the gateway stars begin to shine from her eyes. Just a little.

Aaron McPherson moaned.

“I’m going to hurt you. A lot. But I promise it won’t last forever. And after... Well, I’ve never tried after before.”

* * *

What had been so different about him? What was so different about Ellie?

Laya sat on the park bench and thought about it while she watched other people’s reactions to the January rain. She had no umbrella. The rain came in flurries: a pounding assault, a sudden retreat.

She called him <it > in her thoughts, like palms sheltering a guttering candle flame from a tempest.

Ten. Ten weeks. Ten degrees of torment to which she’d been the gateway for thousands of years.

By now <it > was about three centimeters long and weighed up to four grams. There were arms and legs, eyes on either side of <its> head, as if expecting attack from the rear. Tooth buds were forming. Next week, Laya had read, the heartbeat could be detected with something called a Doppler device. It would beat like someone having a panic attack--up to 180 times a minute--and who could blame it. To be so small and vulnerable, yet determined to be, in a world like this.

<it > shouldn’t even have happened. But here <it > was, on the park bench in the rain with Laya and Ellie, soaked always, but safe. Laya’s hand twitched. She dug her nails into her palm. She wouldn’t give <it > away. She wouldn’t acknowledge this life until she knew what to do with it. Her emotions had had paint stripper applied. She felt bared, primed, almost newborn herself.

How could Design understand? It had never been flesh, never been blood and victim of neurochemicals and circumstance.

A bike sped past, spraying Laya’s bare legs. An old couple strolled under tartan umbrellas. Their Scottie, too, had a tartan doggy coat and the strut of an aged street fighter.

The dog’s face shimmered and was replaced by something even less human.

You know what you have to do, Laya.

She did. The drugs. The sweating, bleeding pain. But if she went through with it, she’d be breaking a promise, condemning Aaron McPherson to torment for something he hadn’t even done, showing Ellie that truth and beauty were meaningless.

“Can’t you see that it’s wrong, messenger?”

The old lady clutched her husband’s arm: Smile at the pretty mad girl, Derek.

Derek looked at his wife. “Come on, Horace.”

The dog strained towards Laya. But if you don’t do this, you’re challenging Design itself. Are you so arrogant that you dare claim to know better?

“I know human and suffering, and that’s where we part company.”

But it’s not your decision. It’s not your body. You don’t have a body. If you take Ellie’s, what happens to her?

Laya thought of Ellie’s recurring nightmares. “Maybe it’s about time I introduced myself to my host.”

Don’t you mean again?

Laya was unrepentant. “She’s an interesting girl. I think she could take it.”

If you do this, you can’t imagine the consequences.

“Can you? When was the last time you thought for yourself? Smell the grass, take a leak on it, roll around a little. It’s beautiful, messenger.”

Derek’s hand went a little slack on the lead.

Make the right decision, Laya. We need you.

The dog sniffed at her fingers and waddled off.

Laya watched it go.

<it > would be born in August, if <it > survived. So many things <it > had to contend with, not least of all Laya herself, sitting on a park bench in the rain looking for the will to live, the strength to defy.

There were agents to deal with crimes like this.

What would it be like, to give the condemned another chance? To be there when flame transmuted to flesh and the piercing cry of the newborn? Could she ensure that it turned out differently next time? She could at least be the vehicle for a second chance. She could try, if only she could find the courage to be more than she’d been Designed to be.

“Over to you, Ellie Flynn.”

* * *


Anne Smith is a recovering cat addict who lives in Scotland with a guy and a literature degree. When not writing, she trawls the internet for inspiration profundity kitten cams. Her fiction has appeared in Dark Tales

What inspires you to write and keep writing? The People in the Page compel me.

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