2: The Soapbubble Moons

Florence kept on looking at her arm on the drive home, glancing down or running her fingers along the carefully sutured line where Arlene had opened her up. And that place at the base of her palm, where her tendons curled into her hand—

"You doing okay, Flor?"

Thorn, sprawled out in the driver's seat, their arm dangling out through an open window into the cool night air; body language as open as ever. A sharp contrast to the concern in their voice.

"Yeah, I'm just ... it's just like a dream, you know?"

"Mmm. You've been spacing out."

"... have I?"

"I've been trying to get your attention for a while, yeah."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't even realize ..."

"Yeah. You didn't."

She glances out the window at the sparse city rolling by, islands of stripmall light split by undeveloped fields and ruined estates. For a moment she imagines herself out there, stretched out looking at the vast sky above; something she hasn't had time to do for long enough that the soapbubble moons have almost faded into normalcy.

Soon, she promises herself for the hundredth time. Soon.

"... Florence."

"Huh? Oh ..."

Thorn sighs, their fingers tapping against the wheel and their unseen hand against the car's weathered surface.

"Like, I know you've just done something really big, even if I don't really get what or why. But ... I don't know. It's so hard when you're never here."

Another long sigh, cutting off whatever reply she might have been able to offer.

"I still like you, you know? Even though we didn't work out."

"... I still like you too, Thorn. And I know that you're about to remind me that it was my fault."

"Yeah. It was."

"But can we not do this right now? I just want to get home."

"... yeah, fuck. I'm sorry. Let me pick up some food to make it up to you?"

"Sure, Thorn."

Later, back at Florence's apartment (tucked away near the back of a low, blocky building that allegedly started its life as a witch-house and now finds itself sandwiched between a gas station and a cloudy mall) with a few boxes of mediocre takeout cooling on the table, Thorn's footsteps lingering in the threadbare carpet just outside her door, she stretches out on the floor and tries to relax.

It doesn't go very well.

She's not especially successful; it's harder than it should be. Relaxing always is.

The oozing congealed-fat smell doesn't help.

She's not even hungry, not really; it's hard to be hungry after something like what Arlene did to her. She'll be ravenous in the morning when the rod's roots sink deep enough to touch her core, but right now she just can't.

Just like she couldn't say no to Thorn's offer.

... gods, they always do this. She knows why they're like this, knows why they treat gifts as tokens to buy forgiveness, but ...

Her stomach roils. She can't be here, can't be in this putrid room with that horrible smell, can't be here can't be herecan'tbeherecan'tbecan'tcan't—

There's a little walkable space on the roof, a patio ringed with token fences. A few beach chairs, ashy flowers sprouting from old cigarette butts and crushed cans carelessly tossed to the side. No one's supposed to be up here, but the lock's been broken for years, so ...

Florence stares up at the sky, absentmindedly scratching her wrist. The soapbubble moons are so large today, so bright; vast intersecting holes shining with distorted light and shot through with distant stars like pinprick teeth. A few unwary clouds wander across their faces.

When she was younger, so much younger, she used to like to tell stories about the moons. Mostly to herself; she's never had many friends. How lovely it was to imagine what life on the other side might be like, what wonders might be hidden behind the sky—

How lovely, to imagine a life where she could be a whole person instead of a ghost haunting her own corpse.

Sometimes she misses those days, before the unironed flag on her wall and the pillbottles on her shelf. She knows she shouldn't, but being a ghost was so much simpler. No goals, no aspirations, just the dreary routine of a life gratefully sloping down into death's inevitable embrace—

A wave of pain rolls through her arm from fingertips to elbow, too quickly for her to react—a scream dies on her tongue in the seconds after it's gone.

"What the fuck?" she asks herself, and her bones writhe in reply.

(This story continues)