Hazel closed her eyes, and pressed her face to the shabby suit hanging on the back of the closet door. She ran her fingers over the buttons, the lapels, taking deep breaths to ready herself.
A soft cough came from the bedroom, one that would soon grow, and gain, and fill the air like the baying, black waters that had swallowed their planet.
“The amazing paper skin girl!” Will read, uncrumpling the balled-up promo poster that had hit him on the shoulder. Hazel flushed –she’d been aiming for the bin- but he waved her ‘sorry’ away with an idle flick of his hand.
He reminded her of a fighter pilot from a romance novel; like someone who’d blow smoke in the face of the sun. He made her want to shield her eyes.
He smiled as he looked from her and back to the sepia photo he held in his hands. There, with her thick, spidery lashes and her Louise Brooks bob, a far cry from the wan-chewed-nail-wreck she’d become.
“So, you’re like a walking notepad?” he said, “You’re-”
“It doesn’t matter. I blew it,” Hazel said, thinking of the panel, of their stony faces as she etched a delicate lotus across her ribs with a hunting knife. Stupid to think that she’d stand a chance. “And what’s your trick?” She asked, tired of talking about herself; tired of herself.
“I hammer nails into my face,” he grinned. “I don’t have a specific talent. Hopefully being human will make me freak enough.”
He was right about that. They were the laughing stock of the cosmos; destroying their own planet and begging for quarter, now, in camps amidst the constellations.
“Well good luck,” she said as Will was called in, the words as empty as she felt. She’d lost her mother in the flood. Her sister. Everything. Luck was a brittle branch across a raging river, a tease, no help for the drowning.
But then the post arrived. An artist’s visa. A bunk on the circus steamer heading for Amaranth, the planet named after an undying flower.
And as she boarded – one amongst the buzzing dozens – she saw Will.
Hazel pulled her sword from its scabbard, and wrapped her fingers around the handle. On her knuckles were the words H.O.P.E and L.O.V.E; white welts on the pink of her skin, the letters plump as liquorice laces.
Will had engraved them into her hands a few days ago, using his nails. He’d been fit enough to sit up, then, and he’d tried to calm her as she raged on about how unfair it was.
“Of course it isn’t,” he’d said, grabbing her hands and making her promise as each letter took shape.
Both words the same.
“Tonight! Behold the marvels of the human anatomy! Her body a map, a canvas, a screen for the secrets of her soul!”
Hazel would raise her sword as the spotlight found her; use it to nick at her arms and her legs, her skin performing, blossoming, as soon as the blade touched it.
It didn’t hurt.
As careful as any calligrapher she’d etch her symbols, howls and whorls and primitive dots and dashes, then letters, words; the scratches of sound as humans clawed their way through history, transferred to the trunk of her being.
It didn’t hurt
The marks would have appeared with a nail file, let alone a sword, but Hazel knew about the thrill of the spectacle. She knew what the audience wanted as they sat crouched in the bleachers, their dim eyes fixed, their nacreous claws clacking and clapping together.
Will would massage her after each show, both of them squeezed into a tin bath around the back of the main tent, drinking smuggled hooch as the planet’s twin moons shone pink. The performance would make her memories bubble and blister, and Will would rub herb soap into her shoulders as she lanced them, keeping his mouth shut and his hands steady, even as he found the deep scars across her wrists; the ones that weren’t art. The ones that had hurt.
“One more time?” Will said, as Hazel knotted his tie and smoothed down her black dress. She helped him down the steps of the caravan, pausing at the bottom to loop the mask around her ears, over her mouth.
They’d known the risks about Amaranth before they’d arrived. Hostile environment. Adaptability. Storms. “A small percentage could be affected.”
It never occurred to Will to be careful. He thought the universe would change to fit him, even now, with his lungs full of ground-glass-dust that left him gasping for each and every breath.
Selfish, she’d called him, irresponsible. But she knew he was a chancer. He’d taken a risk on her; the strange sullen, girl who pulled away from him whenever he got too close. He’d coaxed her back into herself, reminded her that freedom – from worry, from self-protectiveness, from numbness – had consequences, but that it was worth it; that life was to be breathed in, lived, no matter what.
“You set me on fire, my paper girl,” Will said as she wheeled him into the empty marquee, trying to hold back the coughs that made his whole body buck.
“Yeah, yeah,” Hazel smiled, but it hurt her to see him looking so old, and weak.
“Well, some you win, some you lose,” Will joked, but Hazel could see that he was shaking.
“We won,” she said, understanding the inseparable pairing of joy and sorrow. One would die without the other. All or nothing, always. The odds Will liked best.
He smiled and pulled her forward; ran his finger across the skin over her heart; wrote her name there, and his. She kissed him on the lips, stood back as he bowed his head, waiting.
She raised her sword.