by Rebecca Gomezrueda
The first time Emmy sees her, Lana Torcini isn’t beautiful. “Miss Torcini” is what Mr. White calls her when he greets her; She extends a hand out to him, and his glassy eyes widen in delight. ‘Beautiful’ is so obviously at the head of his thoughts that the word might as well be stamped across his face. Somehow, Emmy finds herself incapable of agreeing with him. There’s something there, at the tip of her tongue, at the forefront of her mind, a way to explain why she feels so unsettled. When she can’t get a hold of it, well, she figures it’s an explanation she never owed anyone anyway. The much talked about new secretary speaks in a voice slightly slanted by an accent. Her dark hair is worn down, against company policy, and brings out the richness of her tan skin. Her lips and cheeks are flushed, and her dark eyes are protected by darker lashes. Emmy’s discomfort goes beyond her regular reflex. Lana doesn’t offer her hand, and Emmy is grateful.
Although she can admit that obsession must play some sort of a role in her eye for detail, Emmy has always thought that the thorough way with which she looks at the world is a respectable inclination. It is that quality of hers that always validates her faith in her own intuition. She doesn’t believe in anything like auras and never will, but it’s impossible not to notice the ticklish pinpricks that creep up on her whenever Lana is nearby, whether she is out of sight or not. A wicked veil covers Lana up to Emmy’s senses and blurs her out no matter how hard she stares. Emmy, usually not one to waste too much time on people, might have thought of Lana as unremarkable had she not felt ice in her stomach upon their meeting. But she knows her own mind, knows better than to underestimate, trusts intuition over all else, can paint her own picture of what is underneath the girl’s veil, and as she does her nerves light with new anticipation. She wants to ask Lana why she’s trying to make herself small. She catches herself watching, waiting for Lana to act, to scream, to run, to reveal herself, but Lana stays in hiding.
“Hey, Emmy,” Lana calls from three desks away. “I locked up all the closets. You can go home.” Emmy doesn’t turn her head, but she can hear Lana leaving the room. She tries the handles on all the closets anyway. None of them open.
“No need to check then,” Emmy says to herself, pinching her fingers. She waits ten minutes before checking again.
Lana can count all the times she’s seen Emmy smile in the company of others on one hand. Emmy never meets anyone’s eyes, even when spoken to directly. Autism? Emmy doesn’t shake hands. Obsessive-compulsive disorder? She stops herself. Leave it. You know nothing about her. Still, she writes out damnable formulas in her head that measure exactly how close she can get before Emmy shows her hand, how long until that aversion becomes unnatural. Math to her, a solid thing, a measurable thing, will never stop being a comfort.
Lana has felt people’s hair and she knows the weight of it as it slips through her fingers, how soft and sleek it is, how silky, and it wounds her to consider her own hair; sharp like steel wool. She wants Emmy to reach out, to touch it, wants to see what she looks like when she’s amazed, wants to look and look and look at her until she can paint out every bone beneath her skin from memory. When Lana is feeling especially self-loathing, she realizes Emmy would never give a damn about her, even if she did know anything about her.
Someone thinks it’s funny to mess with her cabinets.
Someone thinks it’s funny to screw with her.
Someone thinks it’s funny to rearrange her safe place.
Everyone’s looking at her like they’re preparing for a meltdown, and that’s what makes Emmy’s heart race fastest. The entire drawer and its contents are swiftly dumped out onto the floor, and Emmy makes sure the whole ordeal is carried out as loudly as possible. Most of her officemates cringe at each clang, but when Emmy sneaks a look at Lana hunched over in her seat, she can see the girl’s shoulders stiffen. Emmy’s hands shake, and the desire to strike Lana across the face with her desk chair is so strong she fears she will. “Lana,” Emmy says, words coming out low through her teeth. “Please don’t touch my things.” The girl says nothing.
Lana bares all her teeth when she smiles. Lana is a predator. Lana matches the body language of whomever she’s talking to. Lana is a con artist. Lana walks like she’s uncomfortable in her own skin when she thinks no one is looking, and Emmy admits to herself that she doesn’t know what to make of that. Lana has no presence of her own. Lana should not exist. And how can anyone think she’s beautiful? Emmy thinks. Perfection never interests Emmy, and it certainly doesn’t suit Lana.
Perfection doesn’t appeal much to Lana either. She is unaccustomed to impossibility.
Lana’s smiles have dulled since the day Emmy met her. As she witnesses Lana losing her luster, she feels an irrational burn of disappointment low in her belly. What was it that had knocked the girl down so many pegs? Carelessness? Emmy can hardly guess, but she’s not one to give up when she is so deeply puzzled, and she will never walk away from or accept something she doesn’t understand.
* * *
Emmy knocks on Lana’s door three times out of habit, or perhaps compulsion, soon before the works day’s end.
“Miss Torcini, what are you doing for dinner?”
‘Miss Torcini’ scrunches up her brows until a deep grove forms between them.
“Tonight? I’m just eating at home I guess.”
“Could I join you?”
Something icy lights up in Lana’s eyes.
The dinner that evening is a child’s game, a back and forth cat-got-your-tongue- I know that you know silent exchange. Lana’s skin itches all over, too tight, too stretched, and sharp jolts course through her arms and legs. When the girls’ eyes meet for the first time, what Lana sees there could strike her dead. Emmy’s skin is flushed with redness the way skin as pale as hers is wont to do. When the color is so sheer the skin takes on the shade of the blood beneath it Lana recalls, slightly dazed. Her hair and eyes are pale as well. Albinism? Lana shuts the thought down; tries to crawl out of her head. Emmy looks at her like she’s trying to get a read on her, like she’s passing judgment, and Lana is the first to look away. The surrender is sweet on her tongue as Emmy’s eyes bare down an impossible heat on her cheek. She doesn’t know how she can be so close to a flame and not die from it. Emmy’s sigh of disappointment stings like a burn.
One thing Emmy does find out about Lana is that she really loves the color green. The shutters on the windows are painted green; the walls of the bathrooms are all green, even the cushion a seemingly stunned Lana sits on is a rich, pleasing, green. The small quirk is so human that Emmy needs to stop and stare.
The girl blinks hard.
“Do I have to go?”
Lana’s glass nearly slips from her fingers.
“No, but I really need to get a shower. Feel free to stay though.”
Emmy mumbles a thanks as Lana leaves her by herself. Something catches her eye just then, a shimmering green ribbon, worn and long, stretched out widthwise across the end table. Something childish sparks in her, drives her to do something she didn’t think herself capable of. She takes it and leaves.
* * *
Although she stayed up the entire night vomiting through her panic, Lana still makes it in to work on time. She swears she can see the cracks in her skin already and drives herself into a frenzy wondering if anyone else can. When Emmy stops by, the set of her body is stiff and professional, and her expression is stern. Emmy looks her straight in the eye.
“You don’t look well. Go home, Lana.”
Lana nods dumbly. Her heel catches on the carpet on her way out. Her entire body feels like one huge bruise, tender to the touch, throbbing in waves. She looks at herself in her bathroom mirror and sees that her skin has been stretched thin and is glowing blue with the hue of her blood. Her eyes are no longer just dark, they are venomous.
* * *
Emmy knocks on the bedroom door three times. Lana, with her hulking gray form drawn into a crouch on her bed, refuses to look at her.
“I’m sorry, Lana,” Emmy says, laying down the ribbon beside the stricken creature.
“I didn’t mean to.”
Lana digs her claws into the mattress and vaguely registers a sharp tearing sound. I’ll kill you for this, she thinks, fury buzzing in her head like a deafening swarm of insects. I’ll kill you. Do you know what you’ve done? She hears the bed creak as Emmy shifts forward, feels the weight of a hand in her hair, her own hair, thorny and coarse like a thousand strands of rusted metal, both hears and feels Emmy gasp in wonder. Her own eyes sting with phantom tears. She clenches her jaw against a loud “Get out” as her tongue flops uselessly against her chin. Her teeth are not made for speaking through. Emmy’s hand comes to rest on the tough skin of her shoulder, and the shock of it, the garish contrast of pale skin glowing against gray, knocks her out of her rage. She howls low in her chest and lifts her head from her knees. Emmy’s eyes glow with understanding. You don’t know anything, Lana wants to say. You never will. Emmy graciously shows herself out of the bedroom. “I think I see it now,” the bright girl says, seemingly to no one. Lana stares with her coal black eyes until Emmy is out of sight.
Well, Emmys thinks to herself as her feet drag themselves across the hall It appears I’ve miscalculated. There is something there in her, something that she had observed in others but could never understand, something that made the sound of her breath in that room cut through Lana’s guard, something that widens her eyes and clenches tight around her heart. Awe. Wonder. The way a child feels when they enter a church for the first time, a mother who has just heard her baby’s heartbeat in her belly. That airy feeling, delicate like spun sugar, keeps her seated on Lana’s kelly green couch. Out of courtesy, Emmy doesn’t turn her head towards the footsteps approaching. She notices that they are soft footsteps, light footsteps, human footsteps.
Lana says nothing, but settles herself into the matching green armchair. The girl is naked, but either doesn’t mind or can’t be bothered to get dressed.
“I thought about trying to make you think you imagined it all,” Lana says.
“It wouldn’t have worked.”
Lana tilts her head in a question.
“I trust myself. I know what I saw.”
Lana’s small, sardonic smile is more genuine than Lana had ever been before. Emmy’s throat constricts in a futile attempt to cut off her words.
“Whose skin did you steal?”
Lana rears her head back and glares as though she has just been gravely insulted.
“I don’t steal anything.”
Emmy disregards the obvious jab and keeps a close eye on Lana as her feathers smooth down. She seems to be fighting against something caught in her throat.
“I actually wouldn’t be able to steal anyone’s skin. None of us can. I need permission.”
“What kind of permission?”
“Like…” Lana thinks for a moment. “A totem? A token? The way it works is they give you something little and it’s like the physical form of their permission. This one was dying. Most of them are. She gave me the ribbon she was wearing. If I don’t have that ribbon it’s the same as the original owner of the skin withdrawing their permission. It starts pushing me out. Her body starts to reject me.”
Emmy’s eyes glow with fascination.
“Then what happened to the girl?”
“Well, she died,” Lana says, “so I’m not really sure where she is. Her soul and all. But she’s not here.”
They take a moment. Lana’s eyes are sharp and focused as they probe at Emmy’s expression. Emmy looks thoughtful for a long stretch of time.
“I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react to all this, but I’m pretty sure it should be different.”
Lana shrugs and hides her face in the crook of her elbow.
“I’ve never really had this conversation before,” Lana says.
Emmy suddenly feels miniscule. Lana starts in surprise when Emmy moves to rest her hand on her shoulder. Emmy digs her fingers into the muscle there and marvels at the smoothness of the olive skin when the gray was so tough.
“I don’t really touch people most of the time,” she says.
“I’ve noticed that.”
Emmy’s answering smile is slightly dreamy.
“I might actually like you.”
Lana huffs out a laugh.
“What’s your name?” Emmy asks, moving to kneel down beside the green seat.
“Lana. I didn’t really get one the same way you did, so I took hers. I like it.”
Emmy hums as she traces the outline of Lana’s knee somewhat clinically. She gives it a sharp flick and gasps in delight as the knee jerks.
“So what happens when you get sick?”
Lana looks down at the delighted girl with a scrunched brow.
“I guess.” She bats away the fingers poking at her ribs. “That tickles.”
Emmy laughs, and Lana suddenly goes tense all over.
“I’ll back off,” Emmy says, feeling exceptionally silly. Lana’s eyes are wide. She shuts them so tightly Emmy can see tears form in the corners.
“What do you see when you look at me?”
Emmy’s blood goes cold under her skin.
“The same thing everyone else does,” she lies.
* * *
“You know,” Emmy says as she digs her nails into the dirt. “You used to make me so angry. I don’t even remember why, but I used to obsess over everything you did.”
When Lana raises her head, her brow is uncomfortably damp with sweat.
“Really?” she says, lifting a hand to wipe at her forehead, realizing too late that her fingers are caked in dirt. “Dammit. How bad is it?”
“You’ve got a smudge of it on your forehead. No, to the left. I think I just noticed that something was off about you. You’re also a pretty horrible secretary to be honest.”
Lana squints against the bright sun and smiles wryly.
“I used to watch you all the time,” she says. Emmy bites her tongue.
* * *
The idea of calling ahead never crosses Emmy’s mind.
“You can let me know when you’re coming over you know,” Lana says, even as she opens the door wide and ushers Emmy in.
Lana attempts to look put out, but her eyes, soft with fondness, give her away. It’s only then that Emmy realizes that she and Lana have been ‘hanging out’ for the past month.
* * *
The gray creature has long curved claws and a thick gray tail. Its eyes are dark and promise death. A long forked tongue hangs out of its mouth, and the black lips are pulled back to unsheathe a set of devastating sharp teeth.
“I didn’t know you could draw,” Lana says, her voice so soft it hardly carries.
“Those are just some little things I do when I can’t sleep.”
Lana stares at the sketch with shadowed eyes.
“Please don’t draw me anymore,” she says as she gently sets the notebook back down. She reaches the door to her bedroom before she turns back. “You’re very good.”
* * *
Lana whips her head towards the sound of several knocks at her door. She knows she will never get used to how light and quiet Emmy’s footsteps are. Emmy’s jaw is clenched to the extent that it looks painful, while her eyes flutter from wide open to clenched tight. The resulting feeling of déjà vu is dizzying.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” Emmy says.
Lana blinks in surprise.
“What, the drawing? It’s fine, draw whatever you want. I was just surprised.”
“Not that,” she says, and Lana is horrified to hear shakiness in her voice. “When I took your ribbon. You were trying so hard to feel natural and I took that from you. And then I saw you and you were so scared, and I shouldn’t have. I stole your most prized possession. I shouldn’t have taken that from you Lana. It was wrong. It’s like I’ve just realized what it was I did to you. I took your body from you. I’m so sorry.”
The memory of Emmy dumping out her cabinet onto the floor that day, of the way she shook all over, of the dark sound of her voice when she told Lana not to touch her things, of the panic in Emmy’s eyes, in the way she held herself, hits Lana like a blow. When Lana leans forward and presses her forehead to Emmy’s she can see how hard the girl is fighting to meet her eyes.
“Be honest now. What do you see when you look at me?”
Emmy doesn’t look away, although her breath catches.
“Never anything human.”
Lana runs her fingers through Emmy’s hair with a small smile.
“Tell me you don’t think I’m beautiful.”
Emmy says nothing.
* * *
Some time later, when the days are cooler and the nights are longer, when Lana is exhausted and itchy and Emmy is petting her hair in random intervals, Lana pulls out a long green piece of yarn and ties it around her companion’s wrist. “It’s my permission,” is all Lana says before she kisses her.
* * *
Emmy taps Lana’s forehead three times to make sure Lana pays attention.
“What’s up?” she says, her accent thickened by sleep.
“Are you going to live forever?”
Lana stretches her arms over her head in anticipation of a long conversation.
“No. I age with this body.”
Emmy is silent for a moment. When she seems to have reached some sort of conclusion, she nods.
“Sorry to wake you.”
Lana’s too dull from sleep to be worried.
“See you in the morning then.”
Emmy doesn’t say anything until she’s sure her words won’t wake Lana.
“I do,” she says. She strokes the girl’s dark hair rhythmically. “I do think you’re beautiful.”
Emmy tries to deny it, but her relief cuts bone deep.
* * *
Emmy is already out of bed by the time Lana wakes up.
“Good morning. Didn’t you sleep well?”
Emmy shakes her head. Her bed ruffled blonde hair pokes her in the eye.
“Hardly slept at all, actually. Mind if I use your shower?”
“Go ahead.” Lana isn’t quite ready to give up her comfy spot yet.
A dog-eared black notebook catches her eye, but somehow she manages to knock everything off the shelf before she gets her hands on it. The notebook, Lana notes with little surprise, is organized impeccably and is broken up into several sections by pink sticky tabs marked with pen. As she turns through the pages, it’s the sketches marked with last night’s date that take her breath away. The first of the sketches is of Lana sleeping. Her dark hair is completely covering her face, but the arc of her body is fluid and open. The next is a colored drawing of a green thread tied around a pale wrist. In the last of the pictures, Lana is without the skin she wears. She’s curled in on herself, terrifying black eyes shut in sleep, and Emmy, several heads shorter than her, is pressed against her back. When Lana smiles, the skin along her cheekbones stretches tight, but somehow it’s the easiest thing she’s ever done.
* * *
Rebecca Gomezrueda lives in Pennsylvania. Her works of fiction frequently feature LGBT characters. She has also written poetry published in The Rusty Nail, The Red River Review, and The Camel Saloon.
What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?
Dynamic characters. When I write fantasy, I spend much more time developing my characters than I would with any other genre. The plot sets the genre apart, but the characters are what can make or break a story's immersion.