The Stories She Tells Herself
by Kelly Sandoval
He stole her skin. Yes, that’s the one. He stole her skin, so he had her heart. Or her soul. The part of her that would have fought him otherwise.
She remembers the before. A life that tasted of salt and crunched between her teeth like fish bones. She shared the waves with her sisters, and they were fierce, the lot of them. What was a second form when measured against the chilly caress of waves and the laughter of her siblings?
But she liked to wander. She liked the feeling of her skin as she peeled it off, the sharp, painful tug of it. The sounds it made, the wet noise of separation, made her shiver. Without her pelt, she was pale and unpleasant, all frail, pathetic humanity. Gone was the muscle and weight of her true form, gone were teeth made to tear raw flesh from bone.
She felt like a fish, all brittle scales and no coral to hide in. There was an allure to such vulnerability. The day he found her, she’d hidden her skin in the shadow of a boulder and gone walking where the water met the rocks. The wind stung her eyes and her fragile human skin. She rubbed the raised flesh of her bare arms, glad at the life she didn’t have to live.
Until he took it. She felt him pick it up. The stomach twisting shock of an unfamiliar hand stroking her pelt. The tug, right at the core of her, drawing her toward him.
He was tall, soft looking, with a long black coat and an easy smile. He draped the coat over her bare shoulders and pressed his warm, wet mouth to her neck. She let him. Let him lead her, unresisting, back to his house. Her house too, he told her. He didn’t ask her to marry him. He didn’t ask her anything at all.
That night, after he had finished, he stroked her back while she shook.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll do better next time. I’ll teach you.”
“I’ll try,” She dug her nails into her palms and the sharp shock of pain made her breath come easier.
He tugged at a dark, coiled strand of her hair. “Tell me you love me.”
“I love you.”
He had her skin.
The skin is a distancing device, isn’t it? A way of saying, you see, she had no choice. It was only ever him.
Perhaps he was a monster. Golden eyes and blood on his breath. She knew it from the moment she met him. She could see it in the shape of his smile, in the too tight way he squeezed her hand. And still, when he offered to walk her home, she agreed. Hunger, she thought, was better than apathy. At least he wanted her for something.
She found she enjoyed his attentions. He whispered to her of eternity, of beauty never fading. She wondered if he expected her to believe him.
There are girls who fight monsters. And girls who become them. And then there’s the girl who lays, still and broken, when the movie opens. Maggots crawl out of her open mouth as the camera pans across her bare skin. Someone vomits. The opening credits roll.
She knew which girl she was.
But monsters are patient. He walked her home, just as he promised. He didn’t ask to come in, and she didn’t invite him. And just so, the next day, and the next. He listened to her problems, her worries, her hurts. He didn’t argue, or offer solutions. He agreed with her. Yes, she was too fragile. Yes, she was boring. Yes, it was true that her friends probably hated her. But he had time for her. He forgave her all her faults.
She thought it must be love, the urge to always say yes to him.
It happens that way. One day, you’re walking home with a monster. The next, you can’t remember why you ever distrusted him. You open the door. The story ends poorly. It’s best to tell another.
Let’s say she bought him in a store. An artificial lover, wrapped in cardboard and plastic, like a child’s doll.
She found him in the clearance section. Discontinued models, no refunds or returns. He looked so harmless. Warm brown eyes, crooked teeth, a softening mid-section. Here was someone who might love her. Clever, said the box. Experienced. Good for self-improvement.
She just wanted something safe. She wanted to be able to say, Here, look, I am loved. Doesn’t that mean I’m okay?
When she first got him home, she couldn’t bring herself to wake him. What if she’d chosen wrong? What if he was disappointed? A boyfriend from a box was still a boyfriend. There were rules she didn’t know. And she liked to know the rules.
She took a shower. Cleaned the house. Read the instruction manual. The sun was setting when she took his right hand in hers, just as the instructions said. The hand was cool, but the skin felt almost real. When his fingers squeezed hers, she couldn’t tell that it was metal, not bone, beneath their surface.
He opened his hand and stretched in his box. Then he looked at her, warm brown eyes with nothing behind them. He smiled, and it was exactly the sort of smile it should have been.
She tried to echo it.
“Well,” he said, as he sat up. “What a quaint place we have. And aren’t you cute? You even dressed up, didn’t you?”
She blushed. He had called her cute. And if that was his job, if that was what was written on the box, he’d still done it.
“Yes,” she said, pleased with herself. “I did.”
He stood, and helped her to her feet. “It’s important that you’re trying,” he said. “Everyone has to start somewhere. And now that I’m here to take care of you, everything will be better.”
He kissed her then, and she ignored the quiet whir of electric motors and the plastic smell of his skin. She imagined that his tongue was not cool and dry as it pressed its way past her lips.
“Do you love me?” she asked him, when he pulled away.
He touched her face, traced the curve of her neck. “I will,” he said. “You have so much potential.”
Remember you were young. Remember, he was not. Remember, stories change.
Once upon a time there was a girl. When she was young, and not yet wise, she wandered into a dragon’s cave and could not find her way out again. The dragon held her with promises, with words, pretty and cruel. He learned her fears and whispered them to her like love songs. He taught her the mantra of her imperfections and she memorized every word.
Walk taller, he said. She held her head up. Kiss me, he said. She burnt her lips on the furnace of his throat. Fly, he said.
“Fly?” she asked.
“Only teasing,” he told her, running a talon down her bare back. “You’ll never fly. But you needn’t worry. That’s what you have me for. You can watch.”
He spread his great silver wings and danced in the wind. She stared up at him, remembering what it was to be powerful and free.
That night, she waited until he slept, and crept into his hoard. She ignored the gold, the gems, the silks and bones. Iron did not shine like treasure, but there were blades enough for her to choose from. She tested each against her palm, selecting the one that drew blood.
She started at his throat, cutting down from neck to groin. The blade slid in easily, the edge blessed for some poor knight’s quest. He woke, while she was still at work. Told her, his voice chilly with disgust, that she would never manage to kill him.
“I’m not trying too,” she said. She could see, already, the man within the dragon. His eyes were gold. His teeth, too sharp. His bones, she knew, were metal. He looked so small, so frail and needing. He cried, as she cut away the last of the skin. Grabbed her hand and claimed to love her. She was young enough to believe him. To apologize. But not quite so young that she stopped.
The skin was sticky with blood. When she draped it over her shoulders, it clung to her flesh like wet fabric. She pressed the ragged edges closed across her stomach and the skin knit itself together, stretching and resettling as it shaped her. She had been small for so long. But no longer.
She stretched her wings, felt the power and grace of her lost self. The air smelled of salt, blood, and freedom.
End it there, in flight. Pretend his memory doesn’t follow. Make it simple. Safe. That’s the thing about stories. They end how we choose. Happily ever after.
About the Author
Kelly Sandoval‘s fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Because she hates free time, she edits the online short fiction magazine Liminal Stories with Shannon Peavey. She lives in Seattle, where the weather is always happy to make staying in and writing seem like a good idea. Her family includes a patient husband, a demanding cat, and an anarchist tortoise. You can find her online at kellysandovalfiction.com.
About the Narrator
Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.