The jarring ringing coming from our empty living room makes both Oleksiy and Hadeon crane their necks, as if to figure out whether they had missed a third person living in the house. The ringing stops, but its echo spreads throughout the hall. Hadeon turns his head sharply towards his big brother Oleksiy, expecting for the big man to decide what to do, when the call bell rings again. In the living room’s swarthiness I can’t see the bell’s button being pushed down. Kateryna is waiting for us to approach the dining table.
“I-it’s that bell over there, right?” Hadeon asks, both on edge and excited. “But there’s nobody ringing it! It must be Kateryna!”
Oleksiy exhales sharply through his teeth.
“Hadeon! Our sister is dead! That must be some kind of alarm!”
“No, that’s truly Kateryna,” I say, and cough some of the blood dripping down my throat from my split lip. “We set up call bells in a few rooms of the house so she can notify us whenever she wants to talk through the ouija boards.”
“Oleksiy, come with me, p-please,” Hadeon says. “Kateryna did kill herself here, and people who commit suicide are known to leave their ghosts behind, right? We need to contact her, perform an incantation!”
“What the fuck, man,” Oleksiy grumbles while staring at his younger brother as if Hadeon is embarrassing him.
Hadeon stops restraining my girlfriend, who falls to her knees. The younger brother makes a frantic pleading gesture with his hands towards his brother, but as he opens his mouth, the call bell rings. Hadeon shakes his head, turns around and runs into the living room. He switches the light on. Once he stops next to the ouija board, he observes the bell as if witnessing a miracle. The bell keeps ringing almost as if transmitting a morse message, but I know that Kateryna simply intends us all to gather there.
“O-Oleksiy, someone is pushing the call bell’s button!” Hadeon shouts in a high-pitched voice. “It’s getting pushed down!”
Oleksiy frowns, and he lowers his baseball bat absentmindedly from his shoulder so the end touches the hardwood floor.
“What? What fucking nonsense is this?”
“Come, damn it!”
I haul myself to my feet, although I’m getting dizzier by the minute.
“As I told you goons, I only learned about Kateryna’s existence when I first came to this house, a few days after I possessed Asier’s body. Your wonderful sister threw some shit at me with her poltergeist powers, because she thought I was Asier. And I meant the adjective ‘wonderful’ honestly, even though back then Kateryna almost destroyed my testicles. But the three of us are best friends, now that she knows I’m some other ghost occupying that rotten bastard’s body.”
Oleksiy looks at me with his eyes unfocused and his lips parted. He seems as overwhelmed as I guess the average construction worker and Real Madrid fan must be in the sudden presence of a ghost. But then he raises his baseball bat to point at the living room.
“You two, get over there,” he says in a hollow voice, then glares at me. “And don’t try anything, because I will fucking crack your skull.”
I stagger forward quick enough that I reach Alazne, who has her back turned, and I put my arm around her waist. When she feels the contact she flinches, but then realizes that it’s me. It takes her one look at my damaged face, with a likely bruised cheek, a swollen upper lip and a split lower lip, for her face to scrunch up in pain and for some more tears to fall. She raises a trembling hand to stroke my unscathed cheek.
“My love…” Alazne whimpers.
I feel a cold pain in my chest, as if my heart had snapped, but I force myself to smile confidently.
“It’s alright, sweetie. Kateryna knows what she’s doing.”
A few seconds later the four of us are standing in front of both the ouija board, with the planchette waiting at its center, and the call bell, which has stopped ringing. Hadeon lifts his gaze towards me as if eagerly seeking my advice. He reaches with his shivering hands, the index fingers outstretched, to touch the planchette with his fingertips.
“I-I need to keep my fingers on this, right?”
“No, you don’t, actually,” I answer. “Kateryna can move it by herself without issues. She’s one of the most talented poltergeisters I have ever seen, and I knew plenty of them in my twenty years of experience as a ghost.”
Oleksiy covers half of his face with his free hand, and he shakes his head.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all, Hadeon.”
I have no clue why Kateryna hasn’t introduced herself already by moving the planchette. That would astonish her brothers for sure, which would make it more likely that I would survive this day to keep loving my girlfriend. I clear my throat.
“Hey, Kat. I suppose you are expecting us to ask, but just say anything, so your brothers understand that I wasn’t bullshitting.”
As soon as Hadeon turns towards the ouija board again, the planchette starts sliding to spell out something. Both brothers flinch, but I don’t want to tear my gaze away from what Kateryna is sharing.
“Holy shit, it’s moving!” Hadeon cries out.
The planchette spells out YES ITS ME YOU PAIR OF IDIOTS.
Despite my pain, I burst into laughter, which showers the call bell with spittle and blood.
Oleksiy crouches to look under the table, as if I had installed some convoluted fraud to deceive them through magnets. When he straightens his back again, the big guy opens his eyes wide, and a bead of sweat rolls down from his light blond hair.
“This is some vedma shit…” he mutters.
Hadeon keeps staring at the ouija board, spellbound. His lips are quivering. The planchette slides again, this time spelling out OLEKSIY AND HADEON DONT HURT MY FRIENDS ANYMORE.
Oleksiy nearly jumps as if he has been pricked by a scorpion. He points his index finger at me and starts jabbering.
“What the fuck have you done?! How are you moving that thing?!”
I narrow my eyes.
“Are you seriously this thick? Can’t you see that ghosts are real, you motherfucking thug? That’s your dear sister over there, telling you to stop screwing with us.”
Oleksiy’s face is losing its color. He raises his fist to hit me as if by reflex, but Hadeon quickly lays his hand on his brother’s shoulder. Oleksiy freezes with his fist raised as if saluting.
“P-please. The board hasn’t confirmed yet that it’s Kateryna!”
“What else do you need?”
Hadeon begins stammering an answer, but he notices the planchette moving.
I AM KATERYNA DAMN IT KATERYNA ZARETSKY YOUR SISTER.
Hadeon and Oleksiy step back.
“T-that’s her, it’s her!” Hadeon cries out.
I’m rubbing Alazne’s back, which trembles through the bones in my arm. I can’t bear to look at her pained face.
The planchette keeps sliding, and it spells out ALAZNE ITS TRUE YOU ARE LOVED ASIER DIED IN CAR CRASH AND WHEN BODY CAME BACK HE WAS SOMEONE ELSE.
Alazne sobs. She lifts a hand to her mouth, then nods as if she can’t push words through her throat. I can tell that Kateryna worded it that way, instead of saying ‘she loves you’, because she knows I haven’t confessed to being a woman. I have burdened my best friend with all these lies almost from the first time we met.
Oleksiy exhales noisily. When I turn my face towards him I meet his stumped expression, as if he is beginning to understand that not only his sister’s consciousness has survived, but that he has attacked a ghost possessing a dead man’s corpse.
“What if this is some demonic shit…?” he mutters.
I take a deep breath through my teeth.
“Oleksiy, you are the fucking worst. Why don’t you start lifting weights with your brain for a change?”
“What the fuck do you mean?”
The thug has gone wide-eyed. I don’t know how much he will understand of anything I bother to explain. I recall that day when Ainhoa came to my apartment possibly to cheat on her husband, and she found out that ghosts existed. She imploded in a panic attack. Oleksiy’s mind might be unable to integrate such a far-reaching new concept.
“This is not demonic shit. This is a ghost who has survived and wishes to communicate with the people she cared about. Well, at least with the two people who broke into our house to attack me. And she’s not any average ghost, but the sister you wished she hadn’t killed herself!”
Hadeon looks guilty, but Oleksiy’s nostrils dilate, and his Adam’s apple bobs in his throat.
“Ghosts are fucking demonic,” he states confidently.
I’m displeased with this stereotype.
“A ghost is the imprint of a deceased person’s soul. It’s not demonic.”
“Demonic shit,” he whispers to himself.
“What the fuck would you know? Until five minutes ago you were sure that ghosts didn’t exist!”
Hadeon groans. A solitary tear is sliding down his cheek, but his stubble ensnares it.
“Please, stop it,” He stares down at the board. “Our beautiful Kateryna, say something more. I beg you. I want to feel your voice through your words, even though I can’t hear it anymore.”
WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT ME TO SAY TO YOU.
“I-I don’t know… Are you happy in the afterlife?”
NOT REALLY IF I KNEW I WOULD REMAIN HERE AND HAVE TO SEE OTHER GHOSTS I WOULDNT HAVE KILLED MYSELF.
Oleksiy steps forward and grabs his younger brother’s shoulder. His eyes are alert, as if he expects a sudden poltergeist to shake the entire house and collapse it on him.
“You have no clue what we might be dealing with,” he says with a raspy voice. “It could be some demon pretending to be our sister.”
“Hadeon,” I start, “you need to start thinking by yourself, man. You have the opportunity to talk with your sister, and you aren’t pressed for time either, because Kateryna lives here. I’m sure she would… Well, she might be open to talk to you some other day as well!”
Hadeon’s gaze looks at his big brother and then at me, standing a few steps behind him.
“I feel that it’s really Kateryna. O-or maybe that’s what I want to believe. But if this is some demonic trick, I-I couldn’t forgive that.”
“Ever since you two idiots harassed me at that coffee shop and left with Kateryna’s laptop, I wanted to invite you home so you could talk to her and get some closure. People who kill themselves don’t think enough of the grief they infect others with.”
Oleksiy stares at me with his bloodshot eyes, but his gaze is different from how he was scowling while he beat the shit out of me. That was an angry thug aching to beat up some stranger who might or not deserve it. Now he’s on edge as if I might leap onto him and tear out his throat.
Hadeon nods. He’s come to a decision.
“Alright, I’ll test if this is truly our beautiful Kateryna.” He straightens his back and clears his throat. “Please, ghost, could you prove that you are who you claim to be by revealing some information only us siblings would know?”
YOU REALLY WANT TO GO DOWN THAT PATH, the planchette spells out.
Hadeon steps back as if he feels threatened.
“O-of course! We need to be sure, r-right? Please!”
IF YOU PREFER I WILL GIVE YOU MY PANTIES SO YOU CAN JERK OFF INTO THEM.
Hadeon gasps. The skin of his face suddenly looks like it belongs to a desiccated corpse. Even though he remains paralyzed, the tears, which had been building up, overflow their banks and stream down his cheeks.
“You walked right into that one, buddy,” I say.
His head jerks towards me. He realizes that I know as well. That his sister’s ghost lives here, and that she has shared his sins with anyone who might listen.
“You know, what you did to her was unforgivable,” I say, lowering my voice. “I’m sure Kateryna was thinking about you as well when she swallowed all those pills.”
Hadeon’s jaw trembles. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dropped to his knees and asked for forgiveness.
“N-no, I don’t…”
Oleksiy puts a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder.
“Hadeon, stop crying! What the hell does that mean? What’s this about masturbating into panties?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have led with that,” I say. “Ghosts aren’t meant to be confrontational.”
“Shut up!” Hadeon wipes the tears off his face, then attempts to walk towards the doorway into the hall, but Oleksiy blocks his path. “Let’s leave, Oleksiy! There’s no point in us being here.”
Oleksiy snaps his head back and grimaces.
“What the fuck are you talking about? We are not done yet!”
“We are too!” Hadeon whines. “Asier was already dead. Kateryna is dead, and she won’t forgive either of us, ever.”
“Shut up, Hadeon. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He points at the ouija board. “You were going to test the demon to figure out if it was pretending to be our sister, right? And what was that about some panties?”
“I… I did something stupid,” Hadeon says.
Oleksiy shakes his head and frowns.
“Did what? Having to do with panties?”
Hadeon hangs his head low. His tears are forming puddles on the hardwood floor.
“I-I was… lonely, okay? I was so lonely that I couldn’t take it anymore. I-I didn’t mean any harm…”
Maybe I’m being too harsh on this incestuous fucker. I remember what it was like to be terminally lonely, and the lengths I went to achieve some semblance of happiness. Granted, I never resorted to incest as a way of escaping the cold embrace of isolation, but then again I didn’t have Kateryna as a sister.
“I’m not following,” Oleksiy complains, “What does this have to do with panties?”
Hadeon sobs into his hands.
“Allow me to clarify it, my simple-minded nemesis,” I say. “Kateryna told me all about her little brother’s escapades. He used to watch her while she changed her clothes so he could catch a glimpse of her glorious breasts and pussy. He even took pictures of her naked. Kateryna woke up some nights to find this little creep standing nearby with his pants down and pulling on his possibly little dick frantically, no doubt while he imagined himself exploding inside of his supermodel sister’s womb. He also stole her panties, sniffed them, masturbated into them as he whispered Kat’s name, all that good stuff.”
I can’t tell if Hadeon’s sobbing is increasing or if it’s starting to give way to hysterical laughter.
“You’re lying! You’re such a dirty fucking liar!” he shrieks.
Oleksiy uncovers his brother’s face forcefully, and then grabs him by the collar. The big brother’s face is twisted in cold disgust.
“Hade, you better tell me that’s some lie,” he says almost in a whisper.
When Hadeon shakes his head, some of his tears fly away. His gaze is unfocused.
“S-she was so pure…” he mumbles. “So luminous…. She was… a g-g-g…”
Oleksiy lets go of his brother’s collar and slaps him across the face, connecting with a wet smacking sound. Hadeon reels back, but prevents himself from falling on his ass by leaning against the dining room table.
“Hade… You haven’t answered me,” Oleksiy says monotonously. “You didn’t defile our sister like that, did you?”
“No! No, brother… The things he described…”
Oleksiy turns his head slightly while one side of his lower lip remains raised. He stares unblinkingly into his incestuous brother’s eyes.
“You wanted to fuck our Kateryna?”
Hadeon opens and closes his mouth a few times.
“N-not like that… I wanted to take care of her… I loved her!”
“Did you want to fuck her?” Oleksiy repeats as if he can’t comprehend that he would have ended up associating such a concept with his little brother.
“I… I…” Hadeon’s voice falters.
I witness his animal instinct taking over. His gaze focuses on his violent brother’s eyes, and faces that he might become the new target for Oleksiy to launch his fists again. And then his pupils slide to the left corners of his eyes, as if contemplating whether Kateryna remains a bigger threat. He blinks, then turns around sharply and glares at the ouija board.
“T-this is a demon! It’s fucking with our minds!” Hadeon says, pointing with a trembling finger.
“She’s not,” I say sternly. “You wanted to make love to your sister.”
“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!” Hadeon screams.
The planchette is sliding towards the left side of the ouija board, but Hadeon slaps them both away. They land on the coffee table, hitting a vase that shatters against the floor.
Oleksiy straightens his back and lowers both his fist and the baseball bat, which he had angled up.
“Of course, it had to be a demon,” he says hoarsely, as if speaking to himself. “That couldn’t be true.”
Hadeon breathes hard while he rests his hands on his knees. He’s deathly pale.
“S-sorry… I think I need to vomit.”
He throws up on his sneakers. Both Alazne and I step back reflexively. Oleksiy looks like he might end up vomiting as well. Suddenly both the ouija board and the planchette lift themselves into the air as if Kateryna had picked them up with each hand, and they float while bobbing slightly as they return towards the dining room table.
“You annoyed your sister,” I say. “That’s her only way to communicate with the living effectively.”
Oleksiy opens his eyes wide, then turns his body sideways to defend himself. Hadeon, still bent over, was following the board’s movements, which were about to pass him by, when both the ouija board and the planchette dart speedily towards Hadeon’s face. He makes a gagging noise as he raises his palms, which block the projectiles.
“Fucking demon!” Oleksiy shouts.
He wields the baseball bat, ready to whack any projectile coming his way. I grab Alazne by her arm so we can retreat towards the doorway, but Oleksiy notices me and turns around as if I were about to ambush him. Those pale blue eyes now belong to a cornered beast.
“Asier, you fucking bastard!” he shouts.
I was about to speak when Oleksiy twists his torso as if charging his bat for strike, and I barely begin to realize what’s coming when the thick wooden barrel bashes the left side of my face, crumbling most of it. I land onto the hardwood floor with a thud. I quickly prop up my elbows, fearing I will need to defend myself from another strike. The left half of my lips, which were already injured, feel numb and detached from my gums. I spit out pieces of teeth, which clatter on the floor. My nose has squirted blood, it hurts like hell and I can hardly breathe, so it might be broken. I shake my head to avoid fainting.
I hear Alazne’s muffled yell over the ringing in my ears. Oh no, she was standing close enough to that motherfucker that he might strike her too. But Oleksiy is entirely focused on me. He’s breathing hard while he holds his bat, which is dripping my blood, expecting me to leap to my feet and charge against him.
Alazne’s eyes go wide as the tears stream down her cheeks. She releases a guttural scream, then she raises her fists, separates her feet and twists her body to kick Oleksiy’s right leg, which bends slightly inwards.
I cough up a mixture of saliva, blood and mucus as I haul myself to my feet. I need to get between him or my girlfriend, or he will bash Alazne’s brains in.
Oleksiy has lowered his bat to the point that the bloodied end is resting on the hardwood floor. Without having turned his body he’s staring down at Alazne with a perplexed expression, as if a stuffed animal had sprung to life and had kicked him with the same strength. He seems to have forgotten about ghosts and demons for a moment.
“What the hell are you doing…?” he mutters in disbelief. “Stay back.”
He keeps holding his bat with his left hand, but with the back of his right one he slaps Alazne across the face. My girlfriend’s head snaps back and to the side as if it was hit by a hammer. She stumbles backwards, hits the console table and falls on the floor.
A rush of blood roars in my eardrums. My vision gets constrained to a tunnel with the edges blurred. Oleksiy’s bust is tinted crimson red. His face is turned to the right and slightly down as his gaze remains focused in that direction. His lips move, forming words. My whole body burns as Oleksiy’s face grows closer. He turns his head sharply, alerted by something happening in front of him.
Both his eyes and his mouth open wide in a panic, but before he can react, a fist enters the frame from the right side and crashes against Oleksiy’s mouth. A tooth and a fountain of blood shoot out as he’s launched backwards. He must have dropped the bat, because he reaches out with his arms to grab something for support, but his lower back hits the edge of the dining room table. I feel the damage in the knuckles of my right hand as if they were a line of four burning spots in my consciousness. I draw back my fist and thrust it with all my strength against Oleksiy’s face. It crushes the bridge of his nose with a wet crunch of shattering bone and tearing cartilage. An electric burst of pain shoots through my entire right arm, but I launch my fist against the thug’s face again. This blow smashes his nose into his skull, crushing his upper jaw, caving in that part of his face. A fine mist of crimson blood spurts out of his nostrils as it mixes with the saliva pouring out of his mouth, which hangs open like a grotesque broken trap door. I can see the splintered edges of his teeth. My shoulder hurts, I feel as if my right scapula has popped out. The fingers of my right hand have gone numb. I draw that fist back and propel it against Oleksiy’s face. I feel his jaw break, and his mouth becomes a toothless cavern as the force of that blow causes his head to snap backwards. His eyes roll up into the back of his head, then he slumps down in a sitting position as if the thin cord that connected his upper body to his lower one had snapped.
My body only waits until I take two steps back to inform me about the battering I have taken. Most of the left side of my face below the eye feels gone, as it burns where it doesn’t feel numb and unresponsive. I takes me two seconds of probing with my tongue to prick it with the jagged remains of some teeth, either chipped or broken off at the gum line. Warm, metallic tasting snot keeps flowing down from my left nostril, forcing me to breathe through my mouth carefully, because some of the blood from my busted lips is pooling around my tongue and dripping down my throat. My skin feels clammy with cold sweat, and I feel that if I allow myself to close my eyes for a few seconds, I will pass out.
All of the muscles of my right arm are sore from the hand to the shoulder, and I might have pulled a muscle near my scapula. When I try to move those fingers, except for the thumb the other four merely twitch, and remain half-closed like a dead tarantula’s legs. The four knuckles are swollen and rosewood pink, encircling bleeding lacerations.
Alazne. I look over to where she last fell on her ass. She’s leaning sideways with her back against the console table, propped on one elbow. Her left cheek is bruised near the mouth and the skin is grazed in two spots, but no lasting damage. Her glassy eyes are staring up in alarm at a figure that has sneaked in between us. I first catch a glimpse of black drawstring pants, but then Hadeon’s blocky head appears as he crouches to pick up the baseball bat. He straightens his back wearily as he holds the bat by the handle, letting its end rest on the hardwood floor. Hadeon looks down at his unconscious, bloodied and disfigured older brother.
“Did you kill Oleksiy?” he asks with a shuddering, pitiful voice.
I cough out blood.
“I hope not. I don’t want a ghost roommate who despises me. Other than that, he fucking had it coming, didn’t he?”
Hadeon’s widened, emerald eyes, a near copy of his sister’s, slide to stare at me with a resigned sorrow. He doesn’t part his lips.
“It’s my fucking house, ever since I stole it from Asier,” I say sternly as I eject droplets of blood with every exhalation. “You’re the ones who broke in here to assault me, not the other way around. How do you want to play this? Because both your brother and I need to get to a hospital, and you already know that the guy who led to our dear Kateryna killing himself has already moved on to the beyond.”
Hadeon’s face darkens with rage. He opens his mouth to shout, but only a groan comes out as he shifts his jaw.
“Y-you have messed up everything,” he mutters.
Alazne has snapped out of it, and is moving on her hands and knees towards the backyard door. I need to keep distracting this underling.
“Me? Motherfucker, you were the one who chose to pretend that the sister you were unhealthily in love with is now a demon. How fucking insulting! That was your decision, which led to your unsophisticated brother getting his nose pushed into his skull. Own up to your actions. It’s about time, don’t you think? You should have confessed to Kateryna formally, in case there was the slightest chance you had a love story in your hands.”
A pained gasp escapes Hadeon’s lips as he shakes his head in shame. Alazne has stood up and she opens the backyard door forcefully. Hadeon, startled, grabs the handle of the baseball bat with both hands and lifts it slightly, then he looks over his shoulder. From my position I see my girlfriend’s profile as she stands on the grass and looks up towards the neighboring house.
“What is going on with all those noises? What the hell are you doing?”
I recognize that the raised voice belongs to our middle-aged male neighbor, whom I have only spoken to twice because he seemed to be spying on me.
“Please, call the police!” Alazne pleads. “Our house was broken into by two men who are trying to kill us!”
“Really? Well, I already called the police. You were making too much noise.”
Hadeon snaps his head towards me. I can tell that he fears getting caught. Today he may be facing the consequences of his actions for the first time.
“What’s your name, ghost?” he asks me with a hollow voice.
I smile with my bloody mouth, which hurts as if I’m tearing my lips further.
“No, that part was a lie. I’m actually the devil.”
“You’re a bitch,” he snarls as if imitating his collapsed older brother. “If I’m going down, you are going down.”
I turn my body sideways so I can defend myself with my intact arm.
“Out of general principle, huh? Alright.”
Hadeon’s face twists in rage as he raises the bat to throw his entire weight into crushing my head.
“Go to back to hell!”
An invisible force yanks the baseball bat backwards from his grip. Hadeon twists around and gapes at the bat, which floats as if Kateryna was holding it by the barrel over her head. Then it drops onto the dining table with a thud and rolls slowly.
“Ah… K-Kateryna, I’m s-sorry,” Hadeon whimpers. “I-I’m sorry that I called you a demon, and that I d-defiled you…”
Nothing moves for a few long seconds. Hadeon steps back and looks around, expecting the ghost of his sister to manifest herself. He looks down towards his big brother to receive instructions, but Oleksiy’s ajar eyes are white.
“N-no…” Hadeon whimpers. “I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry that I hurt you… I want to go home…”
Hadeon’s head snaps back, and suddenly something is protruding from his left eyeball. The tip of a pen is lodged into his pupil to the extent that the emerald iris is ringing the barrel of the pen. Hadeon staggers back as he moves his eyes around as if to figure out what has shut off half of his vision, and the pen swings along with the left eyeball. Hadeon tries to scream, but he cannot find the air to do so.
He clutches at his face only to push the pen with the side of his left hand. He yelps, then probes the foreign object that has blinded him in one eye. As he realizes what has happened, he yells in feral terror. He rips the pen from his eye, which leaves a perforated hole where most of his pupil used to be. His whole body trembles. He turns around and vomits onto the console table.
Alazne has stepped back into the living room, and is frozen midstep between one of the sofas and the coffee table. I want to tell her to return to the backyard or even climb that fence, but I fear Hadeon’s reaction.
The younger brother looks up with his healthy, bloodshot eye towards the front door, and as he wails he lurches up to it, opens it enough for him to pass through the doorway, and closes it behind him. I hear a muffled, angry scream.
“Well, I guess that’s that,” I say feebly.
Alazne snaps out of her trance and runs up to me. She holds me in a tight embrace.
“I’m so sorry for lying to you,” I say, pained.
Alazne pulls back to check out the wounds on my face. She grimaces in empathy. Fresh tears start coursing through the wet paths that previous tears had imprinted on her cheeks, but she looks determined.
“You need an ambulance.”
“To be honest, sweetie, I need a new body. The next time I should try to figure out first if the previous owner had ruined his own life.”
Alazne holds my face in her hands and kisses me softly on the unscathed half of my lips, but my blood stains her mouth anyway. I feel so relieved that my adrenaline might wear off, which would cause me to collapse.
“You need to lie down,” she says. “I should have told that neighbor to call an ambulance as well…”
I pat the right pocket of my pants, then pull out my cell phone. I push the button to wake the screen up. It works. I hand it to Alazne.
“Pretty sure it’s 112, but I can’t be convinced of much right now,” I say wearily. “Too many hits to the head.”
My girlfriend finishes dialing the number, and raises the phone up to her ear. As she waits with her head lowered, I sigh.
“By the way, Kateryna, thank you so much,” I say. “Sniping your creepy little brother to save my life… I’ll have your back forever.”
Kateryna’s voluptuous self is standing next to her broken older brother. She holds my gaze warmly with her slightly slanted, feline eyes, and her full lips curl up in a smile. The sunlight flows along her luxurious, sunflower-colored hair.
“My baby, I’ll always protect you,” she says with a slavic accent.
My vision blurs in and out. I blink, and Kateryna’s image disappears. I’m losing it, maybe because of the blood loss and my rattled brain and the terror. But Oleksiy’s hands are waking up. He lets out a zombie-like groan. Alazne, who was talking on the phone, turns around startled, and the both of us back away. Blood keeps pouring down from his mangled, toothless mouth, dyeing the front of his shirt red with wet blood. Some pieces of teeth are glistening, caught in the wrinkles of the fabric.
“Oh shit,” I say.
The big brother is already shaking his head slowly, and his eyeballs have rolled down to the extent that the lower half of his irises peek out from under his upper, half-closed eyelid. The bat rests on the dining room table that Oleksiy is sitting against. The smell of his mouth, filled with blood and bits of broken teeth and gums, wafts over.
“Alazne, let’s get out of here,” I say. “He can wander around the house in a daze if he wants.”
My girlfriend nods nervously, then hands me the phone.
“Yeah… The ambulance is coming. They said they’ll also make sure to send the police as well, in case the neighbor was lying.”
I nod, then put down the phone and grab her hand.
“Let’s go,” I say anxiously.
I open the front door of our house and take four steps when the both of us stop abruptly. Oleksiy’s brick red Toyota 4Runner is waiting near the side wall of the community, facing our front door in a thirty degrees angle. It looks like an invading army’s battering ram. Hadeon is sitting behind the driver’s wheel, and is glaring at me with his remaining eye as if nothing remains in his life except for flattening me against my house.
“Alazne,” I say with a thin voice, “get out of here. Run to a neighboring house, one of the next column of houses. Now.”
“What about you?”
She attempts to grab my arm, but I push her hands away. The Toyota’s engine growls as it accelerates towards me. I shove my girlfriend, and she stumbles towards the space between our house and the next, but she doesn’t fall.
By the time I look back at the Toyota, it almost fills my vision. I leap out of the way and I feel the wind as the Toyota passes me by and smashes into the front wall of my house in a thundering crash. I have landed poorly. My ankle hurts, but I stagger away from my home in the direction of the first column of houses. I hear the thud of falling bricks as the Toyota backs up with a roar. Hadeon is turning the steering wheel frantically so the crumpled front, which is blowing white smoke, faces me. He doesn’t slow down fast enough, and the back of the Toyota slams into the wall of our gated community, which collapses that stretch and shakes both the car and Hadeon.
I see movement out of the corner of my eye. A white car with an azure blue hood is entering the community through the gate. A police car. Its lights are flashing silently. As they maneuver towards the destruction, Hadeon leans back to wedge the gas pedal against the floor of the Toyota. He’s gritting his teeth, and nothing remains in his surviving eye but bloodthirst. The engine roars as it tries to propel the heavy Toyota at the highest speed towards me while the car trails white smoke.
Time crawls to a near standstill. I can’t run. I know that if my ankle doesn’t fail me, my weakened body will. If I try to jump out of the way, Hadeon just has to swerve a bit to the side to ram me. It will hit me anyway. I should jump onto the hood at the right moment, and I might be able to bounce off the roof of the car, or at the worst break the windshield with my body. It might knock me unconscious. If I hit my head wrong, it might shatter my skull and kill me instantly. But I’ll have better chances jumping than if the car runs me over.
Hadeon’s bust is so close that I can make out his whitened knuckles as his hands clutch the steering wheel. I turn sideways and bend my knees slightly to charge the jump, but a force that hits me from behind knocks the wind out of my lungs. I’ve been shoved out of the way. Someone has saved me.
The car hits my legs and my body swirls as I hear a crunch of metal and shattering glass. I fall on my back. The car’s tires are screeching to a stop, but a body is hurtling through the air, as rigid as a mannequin. I spot the light brown hair trailing behind the head, the Wings of Freedom logo in the hoodie, the cloud grey sweatpants. The body lands face first, and for some meters it keeps sliding while prostrated like a contrite sinner as the asphalt burns off the fabric and rips off the skin. The body comes to a halt.
I hold my breath and jump to my feet. I hobble towards the body as quickly as my stolen muscles allow me. There’s a splatter of dark blood where the head landed, and a skid mark of fabric and blood and skin leads to the splayed, facedown body. When I reach it and see half of Alazne’s face, her mouth bloodied and broken, her eye ajar and empty, I fall to my knees.
I want to embrace the body, scoop her up, feel her blood seeping through my clothes, cradle her to my chest. But I don’t want to store in my mind for the rest of eternity the image of the other half of her face. I don’t need to touch her body to know that she isn’t inhabiting it any longer.
I raise myself to my feet. Although tears are jumping from my eyes, my teeth are chattering and my throat is closed shut, I swallow and force myself to speak.
“Don’t be afraid, sweetie. Wait right there.”
I turn around and limp towards the blurry vision of two cars, one a crumpled Toyota and the other a police car with its lights flashing and parked close. I hear two strangers shouting at the driver of the Toyota, telling him to raise his hands, to get out. The corners of my eyes tingle as a new wave of tears wells up. I blink rapidly to focus my vision. A deadly anguish is spreading throughout my body, rotting every organ it reaches. I want my heart to stop.
The closest officer is a woman with black, curly hair. She’s wearing the denim blue uniform, with a bulletproof vest that on the back reads ‘ERTZAINTZA’, and a bulky belt with equipment. The officer has drawn her gun out, which she’s pointing at Hadeon. The weapon trembles with every barked order.
Although I don’t know why, I look at Hadeon. He’s still clutching the steering wheel, but he has raised his one-eyed gaze towards me. Streams of tears are flowing down her eyes, snot is running down his nostrils. He grimaces as if apologizing.
When I reach the police officer, with my healthy hand I grasp hers, which are closed around the grip of the gun, and yank her hands towards me, twisting her torso. It startles her so much that for a second she doesn’t react. I squeeze the thumb of my ruined right hand between the trigger guard and her thumb that she’s resting on the trigger. The woman’s face is tanned and angular, and her dark eyes widen and tremble as she faces a monster.
“W-what are you doing?! Stop!”
I lean my forehead into the cool, solid muzzle. The officer’s nerves tremble through my skull as I push my right thumb against hers.
I’m lying face up. My eyes are closed. Two people are shouting, but they sound wrong, as if coming from a slighty detuned radio playing in another room. I don’t feel any pain. No, that’s not true. I don’t feel any physical pain. I haul myself to my feet, and I open my eyes.
The world arounds me looks muted, like a two hundred years old painting that nobody has bothered to restore. In some time I will forget how the colors are supposed to look, how vibrant they should be. The same for the smells, the tastes, the feeling of temperature.
A shadow is standing next to Alazne’s corpse. It retains her outline, even that of her hair falling loose around her shoulders, but it’s fuzzy as if I’m watching through unfocused lenses. A pang of pain in what used to be my heart, or the mental image I retain of it, makes me hunch over. The shadow hurries up to me. She reaches with her hands to put them on my arms, but the feeling of contact feels wrong, just a nebulous echo of what touching someone else used to be, as if her energy was passing through mine. I lift my face. Hers is so close that I should be able to tell all the details of her angelic, pale, freckled face, but the shadowy veil conceals it.
My consciousness allows a realization to pass through, even though it would have stopped my beating heart. I will never touch Alazne’s warm skin again. I won’t run my fingers through her soft hair. I won’t hold her naked body in my arms. I won’t caress her tongue with mine. We won’t make love. We will never become a family. I had yearned to save her, but I have caused her to die. I want to fall to my knees. I want to scream and wail until my mind cracks. I want to disappear from this world.
“You have breasts,” Alazne says matter-of-factly. “I didn’t know you were a girl.”
I can make out her hazel eyes holding my gaze, her slightly furrowed brow. I nod.
“I can’t see your face clearly, but I have seen it before, haven’t I?” Alazne says. “What’s your real name?”
If I had a jaw anymore, my teeth would keep chattering.
Alazne snaps her head back. I see her eyebrows, thin and curved, and her nose, which is small and cute, with its bridge just beneath her eyes. Her lips curl up in a soft smile.
“Irene, huh? I see… I’m glad to finally meet you.”
Her freckles pop up. They spatter her upper cheeks, the bridge of her nose, the skin around her eyebrows. I want to say sorry, but I can’t speak.
“Irene, you fucked up my life,” Alazne says nonchalantly.
What remains of me runs cold. I finally see myself, straight through her eyes.
“Yes… That’s what I do.”
Alazne stands on her tiptoes and cups my head with her hands like she used to do to run her fingers along my scalp. Now her palms pass through my skull. I feel a tingling sensation as her fingertips brush my spine.
“But… I had so much fun,” Alazne says.
My girlfriend narrows her big, hazel eyes, smiling with the surrounding skin as well as with her grin.
As her face whitens and blurs, her freckles fade out one by one. Her hazel eyes and her smiling mouth get rubbed out.