I. II. III. IV. V.
It goes on until X.
one, two, three, four—
Five. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
I remember little before Mother’s... untimely… death. I’d sat at the top of society with her, so secure at Father’s side, and in a blink- she’d dropped like a sack of bricks.
And when I looked down at her body, contorted, flooded, twitching in red, all I could think was-
If you kick over an ant mound, you can see what they’re hiding. It’s fascinating, really, watching them scramble to bury their eggs, the royalty rushing to calm everyone down. Ariel says I’m twisted, to make this a hobby, but whenever I tell her to leave, if it’s so terrible, she simply says, “Got nowhere better to go.”
Today is my third day in the Room, and I got here because Annette asked me, “Did you leave the estate?” and I said no, so she slapped me.
Then she asked, “Were you hanging out with that prostitute’s daughter?” and I said, “I don’t know any prostitute’s daughter, Miss Annette,” and she slapped me again.
She asked me again if I’d been with Ariel, and again, I said, “No, ma’am,” so she gave me 80 licks and said she’d call my father.
Father didn’t answer; I’m to be locked in The Room until he does.
“You have it lucky,” Annette likes to say, because my father is a statesman and I’m an only child, and all I can think is, Lucky you aren’t my mother, or anything like it, yes, though I know she wishes she were. Reminding her she is only in my life, in my father’s life, because she is paid to do so is the easiest way to get her temper, so I save it for the most precious of moments…
I have run out of things to say, to think about, so now, I will try to sleep before the silence of the Room drives me-
It is day five in the Room. Father answered. I’ll never know what he said.
“Lies of omission, hm, Miss Annette? That’s- let’s see… ah! Ten licks!
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!
“There we are! Lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely! I am an artist, my brush of choice: the fire poker! Oh, don’t mind the stains, Miss Annette, I’m sure Father won’t notice.
“What’s that? Ignoring me? Well, then, Miss Annette, I’m afraid you’ll have to spend some alone time in the Room. Terribly quiet, isn’t it? Terribly quiet, aren’t you?
“Well. When you fall asleep, tell Mother I said hello.”
When you light a stick of wood on fire, if you look closely, you can see each piece of it disintegrate into the flame. Ariel says it’s dangerous to play with fire, but when I ask if she’s scared, she always says something like, “A burnt finger hurts, scared or not.” Something about the scrunch of her eyebrows when she says that keeps me from answering truthfully when she asks, “Won’t Miss Annette be mad?”
Father, eventually, returns. He doesn’t greet me, doesn’t even look into the yard, he just goes. Straight to sleep.
Whenever I would bring up my father, Ariel’s mother used to say, “They’ll take your whole lot down before he can manage to scratch anyone else. Politics is risky business.”
But Father never showed an ounce of remorse, did he? For haggling with our lives?
I enter his room, kiss his forehead- timidly, just to give him one last chance.
His forehead feels like rubber, and of course, he doesn’t wake up.
Ten matches, lit, the house ablaze from top to bottom, piece by tiny piece. Annette and Father are soon nothing but ash.
When they ask, I say, “Father sent me out first, then tried to help Miss Annette. He sacrificed himself for the both of us.”
I don’t get licks for lying anymore, I realize.
I’ve burned a masterpiece, wasted a canvas, and now, neither fire nor ants satisfy me. Ariel knows there’s something wrong about me, but when she starts to ask, I say, “I suppose I’m just growing up, Ari,” and she doesn’t buy it, but she keeps silent.
I live with her, now, and her mother, who only comes home every other night. I don’t leave the house, won’t leave until I know there’s no one waiting out there to put me in some academy with more licks and more Rooms and women just like Annette.
One night, Ariel asks, “Chastity, how did you escape the fire?”
“I was out before it started,” I say.
She pauses, then says, “Did you see anything interesting? When the estate burned?”
I cannot tell if she asks sympathetically or condescendingly, and for some reason, that matters to me, so I say, “It was a large fire.”
“I’d imagine,” she replies.
Then she kisses me, just before leaving the house.
Something about the way her eyebrows scrunch when she does it makes me want to keep my mouth shut.
A few nights later, I wake in the middle of the evening to find her gone. Her mother stumbles in, murmurs a hello, then lies on her side and instantly falls asleep.
There’s a long, long moment where the moon pours over the woman’s face. She has pressing, twitching lips, painted red, and her eyes are caked with oily black and sparkling blue, and her cheeks are stained pink, but her neck- half in light, half in shadow- it is bare and organic and pulsing.
A pair of scissors lies just within my reach. I stare, craving.
When her lips flicker into a smile, I see Ariel in her features, and my hands move faster than my mind.
God—god, she’s beautiful!
The moon flavors the open flesh with silvery light of pearl, and in its light I can see the glow of her throat. It makes the flowing blood glisten, makes the drying blood stylistically opaque. My hands shake with thrill. I clean the blades of the scissors with my shirt and set them neatly where I found them, stepping back to admire my masterpiece, and-
I should leave. So I do.
There’s a lovely-looking boy in the slums of town whose eyes are never quite focused on mine when we talk. He gives me a share of bread every morning, which is generous, considering both of our circumstances. He has a sharp-toothed smile that glints wonderfully when he asks, “Would you like to join me tonight on a little adventure?”
His eyes are like a cat's, and his hair is like spun gold. I say yes.
That night, I meet him at our usual spot. He shows me to his home, a filthy corner behind an obscure building lined with two torn coats, and from there we climb to the top of the building. He begins to tell me stories- he’s terribly funny, and awfully charming. He rests his head in my lap at one point, and it strikes me. The moment is right, I reach for my knife, but-
“You’ve got a strange look on your face. Anything the matter?”
Something about the way his eyebrows scrunch-
I murmur a goodbye and leave.
The next day, I don’t meet him in the morning, but I find him long after night falls, asleep in his corner.
I put my soul into it, but there is no art, here. Only disgust. And terror.
I spit into his eyes before leaving with a weight in my stomach.
I don’t see this one; it’s pitch-black out. The art is in the feeling, not the sight. She sounds young, and she is unbelievably weak. I snap her arms without much of a struggle.
I feel as though I’ve reached an artistic level I previously hadn’t thought existed, because her last words are a cry for her mother.
It’s a struggle, it’s a terrifying, violating struggle, and I didn’t know he was on me until I was near-helpless, but the first thing I do, naturally, is neuter him. His neck is snapped, anyway, so I cut it clean in half, and then make a little apple-in-a-pig’s-mouth kind of sculpture.
Grotesque, I decide in hindsight, even for me, but it felt right at the time. He thought he could make a meal of me, so I gave him a meal of himself.
As long as I never feel that way again, I will never create such a thing again.
Broad daylight; no one who sees cares. It’s a cat, pregnant and sickly. Somehow, her writhing is more disturbing than any human’s, so I end it quickly before opening up the cargo. There’s a whole batch of tiny, meaty rats with dead eyes in the pouches. They remind me of skinned fish. I scoop them out each, carefully, and line them up on a scrap of cloth near their mother.
One, in particular, is quite deformed. I lay the mother on her side, and place the unborn kitten cradled in her chest, as though she is holding it in her froth-mouthed slumber.
At the sight of it all, I begin to think something has snapped inside me, but I have no idea what might’ve been there in the first place.
A roach climbs up my leg while I rest, and I smash it against my shin. When I lift my skirt, I see brown juices soaking spindly, feathery pieces of what used to be a quick, clever creature.
I am caught in theft. An officer wrenches my arm, pulling me away from the shadows. I try to fight, but he’s strong, and I haven’t eaten in at least two days, so he gets the better of me.
A clean, dapper man he is, with a full mustache that might as well be his mouth, posture straight as a rod, a nose pointed quite like a blade, and a uniform immaculate in detail and color.
His name is Officer Brady, and he makes it clear he has no tolerance for obstructions, as well as the power necessary to enforce such an intolerance. I am taken into his office, where I meet his superior, the chief of police- an unsettlingly familiar man.
He squints at me for some time, then asks, “What’s your name, young lady?”
I don’t answer.
Then he says, “Brady, get this girl cleaned up.”
I am taken to be cleaned up, the whole time terrified of what is to come.
When I return, my face clearer than before, my hair damp, my stomach finally full, the chief grins and calls me by name.
“So we’ve found you, Chastity.”
I recognized him for a reason. I curse myself for being so stupid.
He leaves to make arrangements for me to stay with him until my next of kin come to claim me.
Once we are left alone, I snatch the handgun from Brady’s side and shoot him one, two, three, four, five times in the head, blown back by the recoil. I marvel for a moment at how the organs have splattered onto the wallpaper before making my exit.
It seems silly, to run from family, safety, and inheritance, but with those things comes the risk of judgement, and I am not ready to be evaluated. Not now, not ever. My art is my own is my own is my own, and I had to lie to make it beautiful, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as no one else sees it and ruins it.
I keep running, keep running, keep running until I come across Ariel’s house. It is then that I realize that I have been heading for the estate- not the slums.
My feet begin to burn on the dry dirt, and I take a step back, breathless. The house is in worse shape than when I left it. It’s nearly rotten.
“Chastity,” someone says.
I jump, whirl around.
She is like a dream.
The air is a glaring white around her, so I cannot see her outline, just her figure. And her eyes. She is much taller than I remember.
I don’t know why I expect her to, but she does not come to hug me. Instead, cicadas screech in the trees around us, and she stares, silently. She knows.
I’m frozen, absolutely petrified. She doesn’t glower, just stares, but her gaze burns hotter than the summer sun on my peeling back, stopping my heart dead in its tracks.
“I know why you did it,” she finally says. “It was fascinating. Wasn’t it?”
I have no answer for her.
“Bored of ants,” she murmurs. She begins to move forward. I still have the handgun, but I cannot bring myself to move, let alone take aim. “You had to tear something else apart.”
I have no answer. I cannot answer.
“You’ve done a lot more since we last spoke, haven’t you?”
I have begun to tremble. My ears begin to roar, my mind begins to scramble like those ants.
Ariel has kicked over my colony, and now she is watching the pandemonium.
She’s getting awfully close.
“Was it satisfying? Did it ever fill your craving? Did you ever feel... alive?”
She is now inches from my face.
“Answer me, Chastity.”
I can only whisper, “Why did you love me?”
Something slips from my hand.
“You were beautiful in one piece.”
The last thing I see is her eyes, puffy and wet beneath her scrunched brow, the last thing I feel is cool metal against my burning temple, the last thing I think is judgment day.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six,
V; IV; III; II; I,