Archive by Author | Scarlett R. Algee

Inhale, Exhale

Over the wind’s howl, you hear yourself breathing.

Your shoulders ache dimly from the strain of your arms pulled behind your back and bound to your stake, but you lost feeling in your hands an hour ago. Your legs are numb up to your knees. The pain in your face has become a mask you wear, dull and stiff; your head is fixed in place, held by your hair, the braid nailed into wood.

You cried when you were lashed here in the twilight, when everyone hurried away, when your mother stroked your hair but wouldn’t look you in the eyes. You stopped crying when you realized the sting down your cheeks was the wind-torn tracks of your tears, freezing to your skin.

There was no fanfare. There never is. Now all you do is blink, and breathe, and wait.

When the first breath of winter skirts across the land, someone has to be sacrificed. It’s the way. Flesh and blood must be traded for a few more weeks of strong sun and clear skies, for a safe end to the late harvest, for a peaceable season bereft of storms. When the gift isn’t given, the crops shatter on the vine, the cattle freeze beneath mounds of snow. It’s always been the way.

You cried at the thought that anyone else could have been chosen. You stopped when you realized there was no reason it shouldn’t be you.

Nothing moves when you try to flex your rope-bound limbs. You drag in a deep breath and something breaks within your nostrils, spilling down your face. You feel nothing, taste nothing; only the slowness of the ooze tells you it’s blood. You open your mouth to breathe out, and there’s merely a muted tingle when your wetted lips rip apart from one another.

Whatever plume your exhalation makes, it’s swallowed by darkness. The gale shifts, tearing at the tatters it’s made of your clothes, curling around and into you like a living thing with breath of its own. The knifing pain frigid air made in your chest at sunset is now only a distant twinge.

You blink. You breathe. It’s becoming difficult. You have the slow cold-glazed thought that you’ll be buried at sunrise, and you’re surprised to find you still have a few tears left.

It had to be you. It always had to be you.

You breathe in.

You breathe out.

You wait.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

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Bone Deep

For the first time in weeks, I’m alone in the house. Gran’s out talking over the garden wall with one of the neighbors; Mam’s hanging out the wash. Me, I’m sitting on my bed with our best kitchen knife, running the edge over the hard points sticking out beneath my fingernails. It should hurt, but it doesn’t; the skin parts just a bit, bloodlessly, and there’s the grating sound of metal scraping bone.

I press harder.

***

It started six weeks ago last Sunday, the day after I turned fifteen. When I went to bed that night, it was insidious, a little niggling almost-itch behind my kneecaps and in my wrists. But my knees swelled under my skirt when I trudged dutifully to school the next morning, and writing notes in my lectures just made fire blaze down my right hand in waves. The next day, it was both hands. Within a week, I was sneaking aspirin from the kitchen cabinet in handfuls, stuffing them in my skirt pockets, biting down on the bitter discs so I wouldn’t sob from the searing ache twisting me inside out. I did that at home, at night, into my pillow.

It took Mam a full ten days to notice: “Ellie, you’ve shot up like a poplar.”

She didn’t smile. She grimaced instead, and backed me up against the edge of the half-wall between the kitchen and dining room, plopping the family Bible against the top of my head and marking the paint with a pencil before fetching the measuring tape. “Five feet and eight,” she pronounced, wide-eyed, when she pulled the tape away. “Are you taller than me?” Mam demanded, and crowded so close my nose touched between her eyes. “Jesus, you’re taller than me. And since the first of the month, too.” She turned to look over her shoulder at Gran. “Is this normal?”

Gran shrugged, mouth tight around her cigarette. “Some girls get their height early, all at once. I did.” She stood five foot four in bare feet.

It was Gran who sat at my bedside that night, patting my aching hands and balancing ice packs on my oversized knees. “Growing pains,” she said, though her gaze narrowed as she eyed the length of my legs. “Best to get it out of the way now. Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.”

But in the night I woke screaming, my nightgown spotted with blood. My ribs had expanded and grown sharp-edged, tearing my skin from the inside. Mam yanked the fabric up and stared at me while Gran sponged me off with stinging alcohol, and this time there wasn’t puzzlement in my mother’s eyes. There was fear.

The doctor they took me to the next morning glanced at my knees and hands and ribs, took some measurements and jotted notes, muttered to himself and gave Mam a prescription for something with codeine in it. He never said a word directly to me. Growth spurt, he called it, and mumbled something about long bones and inflammation of the growth plates. It would pass, he said. That was the end of it.

That afternoon the pain in my knees came back, jabbing and twisting so bad I could almost see my shins bowing inward. So I begged Mam for one of the pills, but she only said, “Not yet. Let’s see how you are after school tomorrow.”

I woke up next morning with my mouth throbbing. My cheekbones strained the contours of my face; I could see fissures forming in the skin. My teeth had become longer; my lips stretched when I formed a bite. Mam measured me again. I was another three inches taller. Gran looked up at me and whispered, “Swear to God, her bones are growing out of her.”

I could barely get out of bed that day, despite hanging over it. There was no school. There was no school ever again.

The next week kept me changing, growing. My neck stretched with crackling noises. My jaw and elbows locked and loosened at odd times. Going through the doorways in the house meant bending nearly double, sleeping on my bed took folding myself in half, and the biggest shoes Mam could buy only fit on my feet a few hours. Gran crossed herself and swore and fed me aspirin, codeine, whiskey. None of it touched the pain. I lay on the floor and howled till the neighbors’ dogs barked.

This morning, Mam needed a stepladder to measure me, and her tape wouldn’t reach in one stretch. Six feet. Seven inches. I watched tears roll down her face as I tried to steady my too-long, agonized legs, and felt the ceiling against the top of my head.

***

Now I sit on the end of my bed, legs mostly on the floor, and I draw the knife over my fingertips again. They split entirely, and it’s relief enough to make my eyes water. Tentatively I press the knife point into my thigh, where the outline of my femur is broad and plain, and push in. My skin rips with a noise like tearing tape, and there’s no pain, no blood, only a release of pressure that makes me stuff my bulging knuckles into my too-wide mouth. Only a great glistening white expanse beneath the stretched crepe of my skin.

Gran was right. My bones are growing out of me. I take a few breaths and stick the knife in again.

If they want to escape, I’m setting them free.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

 

Ashes

I open my eyes.

The floor is icy; that’s the first thing I notice. The flagstones are freezing, a leaching cold, and I can feel the warmth of my body seeping into the granite underneath me, though the temperature of the surface itself doesn’t seem to change.

The quiet encroaches on my mind. My breath rasps in my ears, seconded only by the thud of my heartbeat. I’d performed the summoning ritual perfectly. Whatever I’d called out of the void should still be bound here, waiting my command, breathing, gibbering, something audible. Silence is never a good sign.

I try to push myself up. Can I? The stone under my back is a gravity well pulling at my skin, but I strain, getting my shoulders off the floor. The air smells of ash and smoke from burning flesh, my stomach twists. Pressure rises in my throat. I drop back, turn my head to the side, and open my jaw to let out the flow. I spit when I’m empty and sit up fully at last, weak but moving. A final trickle slides from my lips down my shirtfront.

I spare the liquid staining my shirt a glance. It’s black. I keep my eyes on the blotch for a second before I finally look down at my forearms, at the markings there. The glyphs should have faded before I was awake; they’ve always faded before when I’ve tinkered in the void, but now they cover my skin in neat perfect rows, as if they’ve been painted on. I rub my left thumb over my right forearm, but the marks don’t smear. I’m not imagining them, and the realization makes my gut wrench again. This is new. A message? A warning? I can’t read them this time. The knot tightens, rises toward my throat.

I stand unsteadily, wishing I had someone to prop me up. Nothing happens, yet the thought alone should have been enough to bring the creature I’d called forth to my side. I take a few tottery steps out of the quartered and rune inscribed glyph I’d long ago etched into the basement floor. I turn back to see the smeared summoning circle, the scattered ash and salt, for the first time.

It isn’t just broken; it’s empty. I don’t know what I’ve pulled from the void—I never know until I see it—but it’s gone. It’s loose.

I limp up the basement steps, lay my hand on the knob. It rattles in my grasp, the door bowing outward. On the other side, something growls.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

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