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When She is Empty

Damien Walters Grintalis lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed, and others. She is an Associate Editor of the Hugo Award-winning magazine Electric Velocipede, a staff writer with BookLifeNow, and her debut novel, Ink, was released on December 4, 2012 by Samhain Horror. You can follow her on Twitter @dwgrintalis.

This is Damien Walters Grintalis' fifth story to appear in Daily Science Fiction.

Kat knew something was wrong the moment she opened the front door.
There was a change in the weight of the air and divots in the rug where Iriana's wingback chair should be.
The first stirring of pain bloomed in her chest, a dark flower of possibility. Of warning. Her bones softened, her muscles tensed, and her skin tingled, ready to shift into a new shape. Her body knew the dance well.
Perhaps a dimple in her cheek to show she laughed easily and often? Longer legs so she could run with a wider stride? More curves to fit into Iriana's hands?
No, she'd go for a run. A run would help.
She pulled out her shoes and glared at her defined calves. Iriana was the one who took her to the store to be properly fitted for shoes. Iriana kept track of their mileage and pace. The muscles in her calves, the running, made Iriana happy.
Kat threw the shoes across the room. The flower opened its barbed wire petals, and pain rushed in, bright and intense, as if a piece of her soul was tearing free. The sick-sweet tang of wet pennies flooded her mouth, sweat ran down the center of her spine, and her fingernails made half-moon bruises in her palms. Her back arched. The smell of damp flesh, of heat, filled the air. Tendons tightened, muscles shrank, nerves adjusted. A terrible symphony of pops and liquid snaps. She cried out, muffling the sound behind one fist.
When it finished, she had an ache lingering behind her breastbone and a newly slender calf. Not a runner's calf at all. She stretched out her other leg and clenched her jaw. The second reshaping was worse.
She coughed, liquid and deep, into her palm and grabbed a tissue to wipe away the drops of crimson on her skin. Save for the evidence in her hand, there was no blood in the room, no trace that anything had happened at all.
She wore her scars on the inside.
Jonathan was one of the easiest to please. He loved the piano. He said so on their first date. He loved women with curves. He loved cooking.
She forced her fingers long and slender. Forced her hipbones and her ribcage out. Padded the rest with extra fat and, later, with Jonathan's culinary creations.
When she had the piano delivered, her fingers moved over the keys, barely touching. She was never great, but good enough to make Jonathan clap his hands and ask her to play again and again.
They listened to jazz and drank red wine. She crafted the length of her toes and the arches in her feet so she could comfortably wear the high heels he adored on her. And he was happy. Until he found another woman with curves and heels that fit into his life better than Kat.
She swore she'd get it right the next time.
She slept with her phone on Iriana's pillow. A pitiful surrogate. The empty space in the bed felt like a cavern of failure. The sheets held a trace of Iriana's scent, lavender with a hint of spice from a sandswept land. How long before it faded, leaving behind only the memory of her skin? Kat breathed it in, not ready to let go.
It wasn't fair. No one ever stayed. She was never good enough, no matter how hard she tried. And she'd loved Iriana best of all.
Hadn't she?
She'd been sure she was perfect for Eric, even though he liked petite women and making herself small hurt more than anything else. She'd made her eyelashes dark and her cheeks rosy since he didn't like makeup. She took up smoking so they could sit on the porch together at night and blow smoke rings toward the sky.
But when his job transferred him across the country, he hadn't invited her to come.
A photograph sat on the bedside table. She and Iriana on the beach with their fingers linked and smiles on their faces. Kat remembered the day well. Too cold for swimming, but not too cold for walking along the water's edge. She peered closer at the photograph. Even though her image was smiling, the emotion didn't reach her eyes. But she was happy that day, wasn't she?
She got out of bed, pulled out an old photo album, and flipped through the pages. Her mouth twisted into a frown. It was the same in every photograph--sad, vacant eyes to match the emptiness inside. She shivered though the air was warm.
The hours dragged by as she stared in the mirror trying to find what she lacked. Her chest ached and her scalp burned in pinpricks of hurt that buzzed with a bee-swarm frenzy as she forced her hair straight.
Pain radiated beneath her skin like stiletto spokes. Different, somehow. Stronger. She tried to pull it back, but it was too late. The world turned grey and swimmy, her hands shook, and she gagged on the blood. Then everything went dim.
When she woke, she was on her side with one hand tucked beneath her chin. She sat up and pushed the curls back from her face. Her fingers trembled. The front of her shirt was caked in dried blood. Too much blood. But she was fine. She just had to be more careful. That was all.
Once she had a new lover, she'd know exactly what to change.
She made coffee but found herself staring at her coffee cup. Iriana always said black was the best way to drink coffee, the only way to discern its real flavor. Kat used real cream and sugar with Jonathan because that was his way. And before that, skim milk and artificial sweetener with Deirdre who, like Violet, was always counting calories. Kat made her waist expand and her thighs lumpy so they could lose weight together.
Unable to decide exactly how she took her coffee, Kat dumped her cup in the sink.
She thought about going to the movies but frowned over the choices. Did she prefer action? Comedy? Horror? No, horror was Eric. He always laughed when she jumped and spilled popcorn all over her lap.
A walk, then. Everyone liked walks, didn't they? She stood in front of her closet, frowning at the contents. The clingy dresses Jonathan picked out. The slim-fitting clothes to show off her athletic build for Iriana. The jeans and t-shirts for Eric.
In the end, she wore yoga pants (from her Deirdre year) and a long sweater (from Eric, she thought), and a patterned scarf that belonged to her mother wrapped round her neck.
She nodded at her reflection. Maybe she'd meet someone new today.
Violet, her first lover, taught her how to kiss. Violet liked to run her fingers down the center of Kat's back, all the way to the dimples at the base of her spine. Kat made her shape curve to fit the way Violet's fingers lingered here and there.
The blood on her lips frightened her, but she wiped it away, pretending she hadn't seen it. She told herself Violet was worth it.
They ate ice cream sundaes, Violet's favorite food, and Kat pretended not to hear when Violet vomited in the bathroom. Kat kept her thighs slender and her belly flat so she wouldn't have to make herself sick.
Violet loved the rain and, together, they would run through storm after storm, until Kat caught pneumonia and spent a week in the hospital. Violet never came to visit, never bothered to say goodbye, but Kat didn't cry.Tears were a weakness, like illness.
She should've made her skin waterproof.
She washed the sheets clean of Iriana's scent and scrubbed the walls and the floors, removing every stray hair, every drop of perfume. She practiced different smiles in the mirror and wondered which one her next lover would like best.
Her mother wanted a princess, a little doll of a girl to dress in lace and ribbons. Kat kept her stature small, even when her bones screamed in protest, straining to break free. She wore cherub cheeks and rosebud lips and took ballet classes and everyone said, "Oh, your daughter is so pretty, so pretty."
In public, her mother held her hand and patted her head; in private, she preferred the company of whiskey and vodka.
The night of her spring recital, when she finally had the chance to show her mother just how perfect she'd become, she looked out into the audience, searching, but her mother wasn't there. Neither the bouquet of roses placed in her hands nor the thunderous applause could erase Kat's failure.
She ripped her tights to shreds and wailed into her hands as she reshaped her bones into the sort of figure not suitable for ballet. There was no blood. She was too young to understand what she'd done. Too young to know how deep the wounds would become.
Kat knew something was wrong the moment she opened the front door.
Iriana was sitting on the sofa, her eyes twin pools of dark. Unreadable. Unreachable.
"I forgot to leave the key," she said.
All the breath rushed from Kat's lungs. Her chest tightened and she crossed her arms, cupping her elbows in her palms. The muscles in her calves tingled. She wouldn't have to find someone else. She wouldn't have to be someone else. She took a step forward, but Iriana moved back.
"Please," Kat said, her voice hoarse. "I will do whatever you want, I swear I will. Please come back."
She reached for Iriana's arm. Iriana pulled away.
"This was a mistake, my coming here," Iriana said. "I should've… never mind. I left the keys on the table."
"I can be whoever you want me to be. I promise, I can change."
"That's just it, Kat. I wanted you to be you."
Kat tried to speak, but the words stuck in her throat. Her voice found its way free after Iriana slammed the door shut behind her.
"But how can I be me? I don't know who that is."
She slumped to the floor, cupped her hands over her ears, and rocked back and forth.
She practiced her smile in the mirror, but there were clouds in her eyes that wouldn't break. Iriana's words echoed in her head: I wanted you to be you.
Was she anyone at all?
In the morning, she made coffee and added cream and sugar to one cup, artificial sweetener and skim milk to another, and left the third black. She tasted each one and when finished, pulled a face. In the back of the cabinet, she found a box of tea Iriana had purchased months ago when her mother came to visit. Kat made a cup, laced it with honey, and took a tentative sip.
Then she smiled.
The coffee went into the trash. She tucked the running shoes in the back of her closet, took endless walks in the park, and watched movies. The scary ones made her sleep with the lights on and filled her dreams with uneasy images. She opted for old black-and-white films with femme fatales and gangsters instead.
Iriana called her late on a rainy Saturday night. Kat heard the phone ring but didn't pick it up, and she deleted the message without listening. She thought of the taut stomach that drew Iriana's touch. The full breasts that Jonathan and Eric desired. The hips that Deirdre envied. The slim thighs that Violet wished for her own. The feet that fit perfectly into toe shoes for her mother's sake.
Agony tore the breath from her lungs. She fell to her knees. Blood dripped from her mouth and a liquid rip, like wet leather torn in two, came from deep within. Dozens of thorn-tipped roses scraped at the soft parts and gouged at the hard.
"No, please, no," she cried.
She struggled for air, her mouth opening and closing in frantic gasps. Sweat ran down her back in icy streams. Spots of light flickered in her eyes. Bones snapped and healed anew. Muscles twisted. Her flesh bulged and sunk in and bubbled back out. Her back arched, bowed, then arched again. And still it did not end. She couldn't make it stop. No mere dance, this, but war.
The pain turned to razor blades, cutting away every bit that belonged to someone else. Fire, cauterizing the open wounds. She writhed on the floor, shrieking into her hands. It hurt too much. Far too much.
The room spun in chaotic circles, the thorns ripped and tore, and darkness pulled her down. Its gentle hands promised an end to the suffering. Her eyes fluttered shut; she drifted in a calm silence. She didn't have to try and make anyone happy anymore.
She cried out, shattering the peace. She didn't want to die a stranger, shaped to fit in someone else's life. She struggled, twisting and turning in the shadows. The hands turned hostile, fingers digging in hard. She fought harder, wrenching away from their grasp.
Her eyes snapped open. Bitter blood gushed from her mouth, another wave of torment rushed in and out, and then it was done.
She rolled onto her back, sobbing. Her body ached from head to toe. The air reeked of sweat and prices paid.
After her tears dried, she crawled over to the mirror, inch by labored inch, but paused. What if she saw nothing at all? She shook her head. It didn't matter.
She lifted her gaze.
There was a shade of all of the women she'd been, but someone new, too. Would Iriana even recognize her? Would any of them? But she didn't belong to them. Not anymore.
She smiled and traced her fingers over her lips, memorizing the new shape. It felt strange, yet oddly familiar, as if, perhaps, it had been there all along.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 28th, 2012
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