by J.G. Formato
I drag my gift towards her house. The heavy stone guts the lawn, a gash of dark soil spilling out over the torn grass. Beetles and night crawlers are unearthed, brief obsidian flashes of panic. They retreat frantically, burrowing even more deeply into their dirt asylums.
When I reach her door, I grab a hand and pull it to its feet. My latest statue. The moonlight clamps down on his marbled face and holds it.
I run my finger along his lips, pulled back over his canines in my favorite type of scream-silent and eternal. A misguided mosquito lands on his cheek, and I brush it away roughly with my thumb. A little too roughly, I suppose. It splatters, leaving a smear of someone else’s blood. My tongue darts out to lick it away, and I feel a small bump below his right eye. A tear.
I hope she sees that.
There’s a stirring inside the house. I sprint for the curb, crouching down behind her large black trash can. It’s Garbage Day.
The front porch light flicks on as she opens the door. She’s pretty, like a little doll, with lots of fluffy blonde hair and dainty features. Her high cheekbones are accentuated with the greenish tinge of fading bruises.
Face to face with my gift, her body stiffens. Her shaking hand traces his features, one finger resting on the frozen tear. She glances quickly around the night.
“Hello?” she calls. I don’t answer.
She shoves the statue with every bit of force in her tiny body. It totters, then tips backwards, crashing into the walk. It crumbles. I mean, he crumbles. She laughs.
I like her.
Back at my den, I can lose the disguise. I run my hands over my head, sliding off the tacky blonde wig and release the Snakes. They hiss, indignant as always, at being confined. I pet each one in turn, soothing them into relaxed submission. They curl tightly against my scalp, huddled together for warmth.
I crawl into the storm drain, the winter home to a score of Red Diamondback rattlers. They barely stir as I slink in. I stretch my body over them, their rippling smoothness caressing my skin as I settle into them. They wrap themselves around me, encircling my waist, my arms, my legs. The moonlight stops short at the curving mouth of the drain, my den. Soothed by the writhing darkness around me and the lullaby of soft hissing, I can sleep.
But not for long. I feel, rather than hear, the scream. It’s more of a muffled squeak, but her terror pierces my chest like a dart, dripping its poison into my stomach. I flip my hoodie up, tossing the snakes back into hidden submission. Hurriedly, I grab the dark glasses from the pocket and conceal my eyes.
I rush from the storm drain, banging my head on the concrete as I stand. I ignore the objecting fangs that prick my scalp and run towards the sounds- the boorish grunts and disrupted cries.
I cross the highway, dodging the rushing headlights with my head down. My bare feet are assaulted by the asphalt and roadkill, but I only gain momentum as I search for the source of the sound.
Veering off into the abandoned parking lot, I see her. Pinned against her car, he has his hand on her throat and his body pressed to hers. A trickle of blood leaks from her mouth, running down her neck and pooling between his fingers. It immobilizes me.
The image I’ve spent centuries trying to imagine and erase, is reanimated and consuming my mind. Is that what it looked like when she died? His hand at her throat, the blood leaking through his fingers, then holding his trophy aloft. My baby sister’s head swinging gently in his hand, ragged skin skimming the air as the final red droplets of life spatter at his feet.
And I wasn’t there.
I am here now, though. For this girl, this little sister. I shake the vision of the false hero and broken sister from my mind and sprint toward the car. Grabbing him by the back of his shirt, I yank him off of her and throw him against the pavement. His ass makes contact first, then his head rocks the ground with a satisfying thud.
He stares up at me, trying to intimidate me with a dazed glare. “What the f-“
“Hush,” I snap, not bothering to conceal my fangs. I’ll show him a glare.
I turn to the girl. She can’t be much more than 18, with a round baby face and springy black curls. She wearing a green cashier’s vest from the supermarket, and her name tag flashes in the moonlight. Lucy. I wrench the car door open and push her gently into the back seat.
“Lucy,” I murmur, rubbing her back gently as she sobs. “Lucy, stay in the car. And stay down. No matter what you hear, you stay in the car and you stay down until I come back for you.”
She moans softly, “Don’t go.” I can hear him lumbering to his feet behind me.
“Stay in the car and stay down. Do you understand me, Lucy?”
She nods, and curls up in a tiny ball. I close the door quietly behind and turn to the man, who’s rushing me like a drunken linebacker. I step forward and hold up my hand in a disregarded stop sign. Okay, then.
He slams into my palm and I unleash my claws. I reach into his chest, shredding skin and chipping bone until I can just about tickle his heart. Sloppy wet squeals bubble up from his throat and sweat drips down his face, cascading over his neck until it floods my wrist. Disgusted I remove my hand from his body, claws retracting with a sharp click.
The Snakes are agitated. I can hear their hissing protest at being blinded, at being left out. He hears it, too. Searching for the sound, his blurry dead-fish eyes zero in on the tumult raging against the cloth of my hood. I bare my head with my bloodied, sweat-soaked hand and snatch the glasses away with the other.
The hissing is at a fever pitch, a high breathy whine echoing in the dark parking lot. The Snakes are standing on end, flicking forked tongues and snapping with ancient fangs. Venom sprays the ground, sizzling and smoking on the shiny black asphalt.
“Shhhh…” I purr soothingly, petting them gently with my clean hand. This display of aggression is completely unnecessary. He can’t see them anymore. He’ll never see anything again.
I hide the Snakes away again, promising we’ll be home soon, and shade my eyes. I contemplate my new statue, not entirely sure what I should do with this one. Under the usual circumstances, I would present it to her as a gift. But I like to do that anonymously, and I’m just not sure she’d be up for it. I’ve got to figure something out, though. I can’t leave her in the car all night.
I shrug and grab him around his granite waist. I drag him across the parking lot, grinding his stone feet against the pavement. He leaves a trail of his new rocky flesh, glinting whitely in the moonlight. By the time we reach the dumpster behind the supermarket, I’m bored of him. I lift him up along the side of the dumpster and let him tumble in with a moist thunk.
I’m halfway back to the car when I turn and run back. I climb into the garbage myself and cover him with old newspapers and cereal boxes. I don’t want her to have to look at that if she has to come take the trash out tomorrow.
I tap gently on the window. “He’s gone.”
She looks up at me, crouched down on the floorboard of the car. Her eyes are light green, like olive leaves in spring. Like Medusa’s before she turned.
“You’ll be fine now,” I manage to choke out, and run for the sanctity of my den.
I do a final mirror-check before heading back out into the bar. The Snakes are behaving tonight, resting motionless beneath the long auburn wig. Tonight’s guy is into redheads, I’ve noticed. The new contacts are stunning; sapphire blue glowing against my pale skin. The black dress couldn’t be any tighter, and the shiny pleather boots couldn’t be any skankier.
Sitting at a smoky table alone, I order an Ouzo with water. He’s not here yet. But he will be. He’s always here, when he should be at home.
“It’s like one of my favorite people said: there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” A chirpy voice from the corner television cut into my internal rant. Some little pop star was being interviewed. Talking about haters gonna hate and women need to stick together. That’s cute. I raise my glass to her and drain it.
And he’s here. He’s disgusting, really. Not so much his face– that’s fine, I suppose. It’s the cloak of conceit he’s all wrapped up in. Shrouded in his armor of buoyant self-talk, he’s the invincible hero. The Gods’ gift to women.
We’ll see how invincible he really is.
Across the bar, we lock eyes. I smooth back a lock of my beautiful fake hair and smile, swallowing a hiss. Swallowing my revulsion. He saunters over, cool guy style, and slides into the seat next me.
“Hey there, what’re you having?”
“Whatever you’re having.” The Snakes cringe, but I lean in a little closer.
It doesn’t take long to lock this one in. Within minutes, he’s pulled out his phone and is sending his last text: Working late tonight. See you in the morning. XO
He flops back onto the bed of the motel. The No-Tell Motel, he calls it. Classy.
“I’m just going to go slip into something more comfortable,” I say, borrowing a line from a thousand old movies. It’s true, though. I am.
“Don’t be long,” he shouts. Drunk-loud.
I throw a towel over the bathroom mirror and free the Snakes. They’re in a frenzy, flashes of red scales and fangs dart in and out of my peripheral vision.
My fingers circle my irises, fishing out the contacts. I press the sticky lenses against the wall, vibrant blue eyes with no pupils and no soul.
“Close your eyes, honey,” I call.
I crawl onto the bed and straddle him, my hands running over his body. He just wriggles and sighs, laying back with his head on his hands. Smirking.
His phone vibrates on the dresser. I know he hears it, but he doesn’t even bother to open his eyes. Bastard.
My nails turn to claws, slipping between his ribs, holding him fast. My tongue darts out, black and forked, flicking the air. A drop of saliva falls to his chest, trickling down his sternum like rain on a window. The skin bubbles and bursts, graying almost immediately.
His eyes fly open and he sees me. But only for a second. His eyes turn first, granite consuming his pupils, spreading like a dark stain through the irises and whites. Within seconds, his entire body is rock, whimpers embedded in stone and silenced.
“Hot date?” Her tone is sweet and unyielding, honey on a sword.
I carefully lay my newest statue down on the abandoned sidewalk. I don’t want any of his features marred. “Euryale.” I rub my sweaty hands on my dress and step forward to embrace my sister. It’s been a while.
She steps back from me, even her Snakes recoiling. Dozens of serpentines eyes are glittering with disapproval. “Stheno, this has to stop,” she says.
I don’t have a response for her. But she’s wrong. And she should know better.
I wrap my arms around the wretched stone husband and pull him to his feet. Euryale watches as I awkwardly drag him to the front door. Defiantly, I ring the doorbell and sprint for the road, hiding behind the parked minivan. Euryale crouches down beside me.
The girl answers the door looking as though she’d bathed in baby formula and spit up. But underneath the stained pajama pants and ratty tank top, there’s a beautiful young woman. Her too-big eyes blink into the darkness, confused at being called to the door this late. I hear a sharp intake of breath as she notices the statue. She leans in towards his face, reading his features. Her hands reach out, but she doesn’t touch him. Her breath comes in ragged gasps, and she slams the front door. I hear the faint beep of a cell phone dialing wildly.
“That didn’t go quite as planned, hm?” Euryale’s Snakes hiss at me in agreement. “She didn’t seem very pleased with your gift.”
“And what should I have done? Let him come home and infect her? He had gonorrhea, you know. She’s pregnant. Again. He could have killed that baby. It was a gift,” I spat back at her.
“You could have left it alone. None of this is going to bring her back.”
Our sweet baby sister Medusa. She had gone to Athena’s temple to pray for wisdom, to find a way to a way to hide from that stalker. We didn’t have restraining orders back then, and I don’t think they would apply to gods anyway.
When Poseidon attacked her in the temple, she was so sure that Athena would come to her aid. When the outraged goddess finally did appear, it was too late and with blind, misguided fury. So much for the goddess of wisdom. I will never understand how she could have looked at my beautiful Medusa, sobbing in her shredded clothes and dignity, and cursed her. Cursed all of us. As her uncle slunk back to the sea, that self-righteous witch-goddess left us with nothing but each other and heads full of snakes and vengeance.
But I’m still here, and Athena’s nothing but dust in the wind. Nobody even prays to her now, they all know how useless she is.
I don’t want to talk about it. And I shouldn’t have to explain myself again. Not to my sister. She should know what I’m doing and why I do it.
“You know, Euryale, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. You think you can pass judgment? You’re no better than Athena,” I snarl, my voice ragged and strangled. And then I run, run until the Snakes stream in ribbons behind me, run until I reach my den.
Euryale doesn’t even try to follow me. She’s a terrible sister.
In the obscurity of the storm drain, I throw myself onto the warmth of the sluggish Diamondbacks. We exchange body heat, writhing against each other in our dark nest. I kiss each one of their scaly heads. Tonight’s sleep will be a good-bye sleep, tomorrow I’m moving on.
I awake to knees digging into my back, spreading my shoulder blades and pressing the breath from my lungs. I reach behind me, claws extended, but an iron hand grabs my wrist and forces it to the ground. The Diamondbacks have all scattered, panicked shadows slithering to the far corners of our den. Deserters.
I struggle, bucking my hips and drawing my knees up beneath me. But it’s just too strong and I’m just too tired, and once again I’m flattened against the concrete. Sharp claws dig into my shoulder and pin me against the ground. I struggle and gasp for air, inhaling the hot breath on my cheek.
“I am trying to help you,” Euryale grunts in my ear. “But you always run away.”
“So, you attacked me?” I’m choking on my heart, beating wildly in my throat. But I’m not entirely angry.
“I’m not attacking you. I’m just trying to talk to you.”
I flip over onto my back, but she holds me fast by my wrists, knees digging into my chest now.
“I’m not like Athena,” she spits out. That must have really gotten to her.
“Then who are you like? Who are you now? You spend your life hiding. You’re spending eternity hiding.” I shake my head. “That’s how it is isn’t it? Oh, excuse me, sir, is my power disturbing you? Well, then I’ll just spend forever in a deep, dark cave alone. You’re weak.”
Her Snakes flare in all directions, swirling around her head. She looks like a lightning storm. “I am not weak.” A drop of venom drips from her tongue and burns my shoulder.
“You wouldn’t even help me avenge her. We could have killed Perseus, like he killed her. But I needed your help, and you let us both down.”
“Vengeance isn’t everything, Stheno.”
“No, but justice is Sisterhood is.” I throw her off me, like I could have at any moment. I have always been stronger than her. She flies back, banging her head against the rounded concrete walls. Her snakes whine, offended.
I crawl out of the storm drain and stand at my full height, waiting for her to follow me.
“What do you think I do, Euryale?” I shout. “It’s not blind. I know what I’m doing, and I know who I am doing it to. I have never turned anyone that didn’t deserve it. I don’t have pity for any of these bastards, and I won’t be like you or Athena and just stand there and let them hurt people. I’m turning this curse into a blessing.”
Euryale blinks at me, her Snakes drooping and framing her heart-shaped little face. “I’m your sister, too,” she whispers.
“Are you still? Then help me. Stay with me. Don’t waste our forever,” I plead.
She thinks for a moment, twisting a Snake in her finger like a lock of hair, then shakes her head. No.
“Then we’re done. Don’t follow me again, or you’ll be following grief.” My Snakes echo the threat, snapping and spitting venom at hers. As I walk away, they pull back and massage my neck and shoulders, eager to soothe my shaking muscles. The scaly caresses are comforting.