Unburnished, By Rhonda Eikamp
The demon is coming for me. He's here, in fact. You, beautiful over there in your castle, with your hair all gold coils and sweaters so soft they look like clouds – you know nothing of demons. At least not my kind. When I stand on my balcony smoking (which is prohibited, even out there, the super'd give me hell if he saw), I see you living your enchanted life, in your castle that must cost three times what my little box does, and I know you're too light for demons. There's a gulf between us, more than that created by the chain-link fence down there, the thoughtless gentrification that built these places so close to one another. A gulf of experience, I suppose, and yet every time I see you across this divide I fall in love over and over, with the large airy rooms of your soul.
Sometimes when you're on your balcony your golden head has turned my way and I think you see me too. The dark, unburnished figure I cut, that someone once called noble, always at attention at least, I'm proud of that. And I don't know if you can see this, because I stand behind the balcony partition, I don't know if you know there's only three-fourths of me here.
Coming closer in the dark the demon makes a sound, a rattle in his throat, a laugh or sob or both, a sound as if I'm fighting in the war again.
I've seen you dance, did you know that? I've watched you move from window to window when you're alone, some kind of ballet over there, little leaps. When your head turns toward me then, I wonder if your eyes are open. I think they're not. You spin and spin in a whitewash of happiness, all the coils of your hair are your gold. Then the man comes in – your prince! – and the unheard music stops. Your face crinkles like tissue. I see what happens then too. All of that money going up his nose. Your money, I suppose. Your gold. Sometimes I've leaned over the balcony so as not to see your sadness then, looked far down there into the night gulf between our apartments, to the sidewalk and the high fence with its gate, and I've caught a glimpse of the demon sauntering by in the sodium-lit underbrush on my side. He always looks up at me when I do. The demon is very old, but he looks young. He wears a baseball cap and keeps his head shaved. The demon is only here for me.
I knew a girl like you in high school, before my tale began. She had skin like fine notebook paper and she would never look at me. Until one day when her parents were gone and she took me to her house and up to her bedroom. It was all to shame me, with a camera two of her jock friends had helped her set up, because I had tried to stay clean, for my mother's sake and for the imam's. It made the rounds. When my mother found out, she wrapped her arms close, crossed upon her chest in the manner of the fajr or the dhuhr, but I don't think she prayed. She wouldn't look at me.
I know that girl's not you.
The demon mutters something about rags now. There are always rags in a fairy tale. The ragged youngest son, inheriting nothing, gaining all in the end. And the demon has a rag, here in the dark that is shot with demonic scent, a pungent evil. The word he uses means nothing and I'll say nothing in return. I'll stay so silent that perhaps he won't find me.
And so I went to war. It was the only way to escape my mother's eyes, when she finally did look at me. An adventure! From the moment you land over there it's like being drawn down a fast dark river. The people in the marketplace are loud, or too quiet. There are dusty flowers everywhere, tulips, you don't expect that. Things happen. They happen under the harsh sun and they happen by moonlight. I was meant to be the prototype weapon there, with a pass to every place, stamped from the same mold as those called the enemy because they're unburnished like me. Tasked by my sergeant to be two-faced, but I was never good at it. I only have one face. I loved my squad, whether we stank or cheered or cried. We were the ones who had been poured from the same mold, all made in the same home we were so far away from. Have you ever loved a group like that, loved unconditionally, regardless of whether you hate this one's jokes or know that one's a secret coward? Maybe you felt that way once, dancing with others. I don't think you've always danced alone. And one day, on a great adventure in a village where we were the enemy, because there were lip ferns among the sand and rocks and the smoky-green ghost odor of thyme rising and because I was thinking of that girl in school, I didn't see the tripwire until I felt it against my leg, tight. Already tripped. The evil spell cast, the deed done. Everything transformed. My team was behind me, close. I twisted and fell on the grenade with my back to it. My backpack took the brunt of the explosion. Only my right leg, which I couldn't draw up fast enough, stayed behind, in bits and pieces. No one else was hurt. I was transformed into what I am now. The explosion catapulted me across the sand and into another world. Kept me bouncing around, landing me eventually in this little box, with this little pension. With a medal and a magic leg, shiny good spells meant to counteract the bad one except they don't. Looking across every day at the most beautiful girl in the world, who looks back but doesn't know I have only one real leg to stand on, who doesn't suspect there are demons in the tale at all.
He's muttering again. I don't know how he got into my little box, slithering along the wall now from the hall door to the kitchenette to my bedroom. I only hear his body drumming – the dark is too deep for sight. I only imagine his cap pulled low on his shiny head. He whispers: Seen you looking. That's a pretty one, huh? You got no right. For a second I think he'll finish this sentence...No right leg. I fumble for my magic leg, but the dark is conspiring. The leg is not where I left it. My tale has taken it away, my ever-after ending has eaten it, and the smell grows heady. Light flares orange. In the light I see the demon toss the rag into the liquid he's just poured from that can he's holding. Their meeting is like an explosion. It's faster than his spell-casting imagination has led him to believe. His smile becomes a frown.
He turns and runs.
I roll from the bed, try to crawl.
The heat is a dancer, a giant, laughing at me. Doors opening in the flames, teasing, and when I pull myself toward them they close. I can't breathe. I'll be soot soon. This will be the last adventure.
I want you to know someone loved you, and it was clean.
Sirens in the distance now, someone's called for help, surely no one from here, the ones who don't see me.
I stop trying to scoot, lie on my back. I'll hug the fire, make it quick.
And there you are suddenly, at the bedroom door, on the other side of the flames, and I think I shout No, because you don't even know me but you were watching out for me, because you edge closer now, tossing your phone aside. Because your face is full of determination. You shouldn't do this, I don't want you to. You're silk and tissue, you'll burn, you can never drag me, but your strong arms and legs brace. You leap.
Rhonda's bio: "I'm originally from Texas and live in Germany. Stories of mine have appeared in Lackington's, The Dark, Timeless Tales and Lightspeed's special issue 'Women Destroy Science Fiction,' among others."
Altered image by HJ Ford.