Amanda slit a line up the center of the red cloth with her serrated kitchen knife. She set her purse down on the cracked toilet tank and dug around for a safety pin, then tucked her knife into an inner pocket. Amanda put the pin in her mouth and made sure her purse would not tumble down into the filthy toilet before tearing the rest of the red cloth apart with her withered hands. This used to be so much easier.
Amanda wrapped the cloth around her left wrist, took the safety pin out of her mouth and fastened the two hanging ends. The solution was temporary. Green bile began seeping through the cloth after a few seconds and ran down her sleeve or dripped to the ground. She looked at her right wrist. Another crack threatened to surface. She picked up her purse and opened the stall door. Her heart was beating too fast, pumping more green bile from her wrist into the cloth.
The smell of sour milk and copper threatened to overwhelm Amanda as she staggered over to the freestanding sink and grabbed each side of the cracked porcelain. She spat a yellow wad of phlegm into the sink and looked up at the blank space of wall where a mirror had once been.
Amanda dipped her finger down into her bandage until she found the crack and the hot stick of bile on her finger. She drew a greenish-yellow circle on the bricks above the sink and then crossed three lines within it. Amanda’s heartbeat slowed. She heard a knock at the door.
“Ma’am,” a female voice called, “are you all right in there?”
Amanda reached over and lifted the hook-latch. The cloth on her wrist had already darkened to black. She found the handle of the knife in her purse.
“Darling, I can’t leave the counter empty for long but I can help you with something or call someone if you need me to,” the woman said, pushing open the door.
Amanda noticed her nametag — Susan — then looked up and caught Susan’s narrow eyes. Her expression of concern wilted and she tried to step backward out of the bathroom but Amanda grabbed hold of her plump wrist. Susan froze, her pupils dilated, her mouth open. She took short breaths and her head began to tilt toward her left shoulder. Amanda dug in her fingernails and pulled Susan into the room.
Without releasing her arm, Amanda hooked back the latch and then let Susan slide down against the door and curl into a fetal position. Her right cheek fell against the chipped, dirty tile. Amanda kneeled down and touched the long knife blade to the upturned side of Susan’s face. Pinpricks of blood welled up around the serrated points in a line from her jaw to her temple. Amanda licked the blood from the blade, careful not to cut her tongue. Delicious.
Susan groaned and her arm was shaking. Amanda kept her fingernails in the fatty flesh of the wrist and touched the points of the blade to Susan’s face. She took three deep breaths. Then she let go and tore the red cloth from her own wrist with her teeth. Amanda put her knife back into her purse and stuffed the cloth in Susan’s mouth.
“Shhhhh,” she whispered, as Susan began crying. “There, there, dearie. It’s over now.”
Amanda stroked her face, trying to remember if she had ever really enjoyed all this. She felt full. The pain was gone, her wound healing. But nothing more. Surely, once, she had felt more.
Amanda stood up and dragged Susan away from the bathroom door into the stall. She put her purse over her left shoulder and then straightened a few strands of her long, white hair while she considered what to do with Susan. Amanda could cut the woman’s stomach open, gorging on the helpless terror and pain Susan felt as everything inside her seeped out and pooled around them. She could smear Susan’s blood across her face, tear out her entrails. Rolling around on the floor in them might feel nice. Glutting herself on pure ecstasy.
Susan stared up at her, the cloth still in her mouth. Amanda looked directly into her eyes, and thought a moment. She looked ready to die.
Amanda walked out of the gas station toward her Buick. Her knees cracked as she stepped onto the concrete, reminding her that her chrome-handled, beechwood cane was still in the trunk. She stopped and rummaged through her purse until she found the electronic key and thumbed the unlock button.
A pair of headlights in the pre-dawn dark ahead of Amanda began to slow. An orange blinker clicked on. Shit. On the other hand, maybe they would be useful. She looked back over her shoulder and let her purse fall back against her side. Amanda walked quickly around the back of her Buick to open the trunk. She bit into her index finger and drew a bloody triangle with six dots on the trunk’s upholstery.
The car pulled up along the left side of the pump; Amanda shielded her eyes from the glare. She grabbed her cane up out from under a garbage-bag full of dead foxes and closed the trunk while a man exited the car next to her. She heard his frustrated sigh as he worked the buttons on the pump station.
“Goddam thing!” he said.
Amanda caned around to her driver’s side door. She took her time so the man could fall under her influence — no one appeared to be heading for the bathroom so she could indulge herself. Maybe this idiot and his family could even cheer her up. She felt a tinge of warmth as the man’s frustration with the gas pump augmented.
“What’s wrong?” said a woman from the car.
“Will you just give me a second?” He jammed his credit card into the pump station like he was trying to kill it. Amanda caught herself smiling in the reflection of their car’s windows. She looked haggard and an odd sort of fat. She used to be so pretty.
A small boy was sleeping in the couple’s back seat, his face tiny and peaceful. Amanda opened her door and took a few extra seconds to carefully lay her cane in the back, as she waited for the boy to sense her presence, too. She was close enough to turn his dreams into nightmares: a nice dollop of cream on her dessert.
The man cursed again and pounded his fist once on the car. His companion opened her door and Amanda felt the skin on her wrists tighten. The child’s face remained still and calm. She inched a step closer to the gap between the gas pumps, her gaze fixed on the boy’s small, dreaming face. Her heart beat too quickly again. He felt… wrong.
Amanda looked over at the couple. The man was sweating and his wife pulled at the arm holding his credit card. He turned on her and she retreated back a step. Amanda felt almost nothing from them, so she looked again at the boy. His face remained still. Angelic. She felt hot and her chest hurt, even as the man’s rage swept warmly into her again.
Amanda sat down in the Buick and closed her door. The man’s voice became an aggravated mumble as his wife berated him. Amanda started the car and left them in her rearview mirror.
Before she reached the interstate Amanda pulled over and turned off her engine to sit in the dark. When the sun rose she would have to meet with the Dakini, but she did not want to be surprised by her. Amanda felt the bile moving under her arms in hot, coiling spirals. That boy. It must be that boy. She closed her eyes and took slow, deep breaths.
When she opened her eyes again, Amanda saw the car from the gas station with the family — the boy — pass, headed toward the interstate. She followed them. When the sun rose they would surely stop to eat. The boy would wake up and leave the safety of his parents’ car. Amanda felt a smile break out across her face. She would catch the boy’s eyes, and then maybe get close enough to breathe in his scent. She would feel better after that, as long as she drew the right shape.
Amanda stayed three car lengths behind the family’s modest sedan, following them into the oncoming morning.
No less than an hour past sunrise, the man pulled off the interstate ten miles from the North Carolina border and parked in front of a Shoney’s. Amanda parked on the street edge of the lot, as far from the restaurant as she could. She waited ten minutes before caning her way inside. The hostess dropped the oversized plastic menu twice and nearly cursed as she showed Amanda to her booth. Once she was gone, Amanda scanned the mostly empty tables for the family and discovered them near the walkway to the restrooms.
Amanda stared at the boy, mindful of not letting his mother see her looking their direction. The boy was coloring on a paper menu while his parents drank coffee and ignored each other. His thick black hair hung down over a wide, ghostly pale forehead and he constantly changed out crayons and shifted the position of the paper. Normal, boring, human.
“May I sit down?” the Dakini asked, startling Amanda so much that she nearly knocked her cane on the floor. A careless, childish mistake. She should have felt the Dakini the second she walked into the restaurant, or at least smelled her approach.
Before Amanda could answer, the Dakini was already sitting down. This one was younger-looking than the last, with long dark hair, full lips, and hollow, almond eyes. Her breasts strained against the tight white cloth of her button-down shirt in that annoying way of immodest young women. The Dakini displayed her flat white teeth, smiling relentlessly.
Amanda reached into her purse and held the hilt of her knife ready. The Dakini stank of melons, honey, and soft leather. She stared directly at Amanda’s eyes, even as the waitress approached to take her order.
“I’ll have a coffee. Oh, and can you fetch me some real sugar, please? Thank you, sweetie,” the Dakini said. The waitress had a mole on her chin and spilled coffee when she poured a cup for Amanda. The sudden, delicious eruption of self-hate for burning herself in front of her customers made Amanda relax enough to let go of her knife. But then the waitress’s anger turned into a restrained sexual fawning over the Dakini. Amanda could feel it, but not taste. She shooed her away, complaining about the service.
“Maybe she will spit in your food, now,” the Dakini said, her voice worming into Amanda’s ears. “You’ll like the way she tastes, believe me.”
“I hope so. You’re interrupting my breakfast.”
The Dakini snatched up Amanda’s coffee cup and licked the rim, all the way around. An obese man at the next table noticed and gave them a disgusted look.
“Your tribute is in my motorcar,” Amanda said quietly, gripping the knife in her purse. “Try to close the trunk this time when you leave.”
“You’re going to die today,” the Dakini whispered.
“Promise me?” Amanda said. “On second thought, wait one more day. I want someone here.” Amanda still remembered a time when she had enjoyed playing with the Dakinis. She had enjoyed their visits, how they could inspire lust and feed deeply right out in the open, not little scraps. She appreciated the cruel way they treated any living thing they could isolate. They would take equal joy in slitting an abandoned toddler’s throat, attacking a woman cooped up in deserted office late at night, or even something as simple as crushing an ant that fell out of line. Amanda felt a tinge of pleasure remembering how the last Dakini had coaxed a girl not much older than the boy across the restaurant into a condemned hospital. The way she had made her beg. Scream. This new monster, on the other hand…
“Amanojaku,” the Dakini said, “why do you hurt yourself so? I want to lick your tears as you die, today. Can I? Will you beg me for your life, my pretty one?”
A ray of sunlight beamed in from the window on Amanda’s left shoulder. The Dakini held up one finger, her nail painted black, and lazily made a circle with a single line through it. Amanda felt the fingernail digging into her skin as if the Dakini were cutting right under her breast. She tightened her mouth to avoid grimacing, but let go of her knife and took her keys out of her purse.
“Take your tribute,” Amanda said, pushing the key across the table. “Let me eat in peace.”
“I promise you will make me smile today, Amanojaku,” the Dakini said. She lowered her finger, scooped up the keys and flashed her teeth again at Amanda. “I will stand over you today and press my foot into your neck. I can’t wait to see the look in your eyes.” She closed her eyes, and her head nodded a little as she breathed. “I will see the light in them go out and watch you dissolve into the void. My lips will be the last things you see.”
Amanda took advantage of the Dakini’s closed eyes and stole a glance at the young boy. He was staring at them. Rather than make eye contact, Amanda jerked her head back to the thing sitting across from her in the booth.
The Dakini giggled at her, softly, her rictus grin stretched tight. “You noticed him, too?”
“Why doesn’t he fear me? I have never –- ” Amanda cut herself off.
The Dakini’s eyes widened and she tapped her feet, one after the other. Amanda buried her own face in her hands, listening to the Dakini’s feet on the floor.
“Please, Dakini, take your tribute and go.”
“He’s not for you, my pretty one.” Tap-tap. “In fact, I sent him here to weaken you.” Tap-tap. “And when you die, you’ll die with my foot on your throat.” Tap.
Amanda shook her head and then met the Dakini’s stare.
The Dakini closed her eyes and took another deep breath. “I will eat more than my foxes, today, my pretty Amanojaku. Shall I tell you his secret? Do you really want to know? Do you really not remember?”
“No,” Amanda said. She would not be taken in by the Dakini’s foolishness. The boy was only a boy. Amanda wanted him to scream, to beg and cry as she soaked up every bit of his terror and consumed him. Let the Dakini challenge her after that. Let the Dakini’s empty threats fall on her ears for another century, as long as she could feed on this strange little boy.
“I will have another tribute for you in three days. Assuming you don’t kill me, of course.”
“I look forward to our next meeting,” the Dakini said. “Ta-ta, Amanojaku.” She fluttered her fingers and then kissed the air at her. Amanda shut her eyes and felt a revolting heat pass through her body; a sick warmth that lingered in her stomach and made her want to vomit. The Dakini slid out of the booth and her spiked heels clicked away.
The two tables nearest Amanda changed occupants three times. Customers sat, ate and argued. Some looked at Amanda once, and only for a second, their hands trembling as they held heavy mugs of coffee, cold glasses of water, forks full of pig meat. None of them mentioned or even looked at her when they asked to be moved to a new table.
The family across the restaurant ate slowly, no doubt exhausted from driving all night. The boy had not moved from his seat or looked at Amanda since the Dakini strutted out. He rarely spoke. The mother stroked her son’s hair and moved her knife and fork around on her empty plate as he tore into pile after pile of fried egg yolk. He looked away, chewing with his mouth open, and his round, silver eyes found Amanda’s. She had him.
Amanda fell back against the booth, clutching at her throat. She coughed and held the napkin to her mouth as the latest couple next to her looked her direction then quickly dropped their eyes. Amanda dared a glance back at the boy but his mother was helping him put on his coat, so she only saw the back of his head. A small star-shaped birthmark poked out just under his hairline.
As the boy mother’s walked toward the bathroom, Amanda put both elbows on the table and spider-webbed her fingers across her face. She breathed slowly, failing to ignore the tightness of the flesh on her wrists. Her skin was cracking again. Susan, at the gas station, had been bountiful — but this boy. This boy could make Susan a distant memory if his mind would open to her. Amanda refused to believe the Dakini had been telling her the truth. There was no way she had literally set the boy in Amanda’s path to kill her. Lying about him and threatening murder was just a Dakini being a Dakini.
A woman who was not the boy’s mother exited the restroom, allowing Amanda her opportunity. She gathered her purse and cane and hobbled over to the bathroom, as the boy and his father walked over to the pay counter. Once inside, Amanda carefully bent over to make sure only one pair of feet were visible in the stalls. She set the chrome handle of her cane under the door grip and set the tip of the beechwood into the groove between two tiles. The toilet flushed and then the woman was shuffling to open the stall door. Amanda crept up next to the stall and pulled the knife from her purse, holding it in both hands, like a katana, with the hilt at the side of her right knee. Two cracks had opened on her wrists and dripped green filth onto the tiled floor. She drew a rectangle with her shoe in one of the puddles forming. Amanda’s chest burned with a hot, heavy soreness. She risked not healing properly if she was as lenient with this woman as she had been with Susan.
Amanda grabbed her purse and hid her knife. A heavy fist was pounding on the other side of the bathroom door. The boy’s mother, on the floor, stared straight ahead, her mouth dripping a thin line of spit that Amanda could not resist tasting before climbing to her feet. She leaned over and pulled up the cane. The door sprang open and Amanda was quick to speak before a man wearing a thin black tie could come in and see what happened. She had to catch his eyes.
“Oh thank goodness. This woman collapsed! Please, help her, sir.” Amanda had both hands on the man’s shoulders as soon as he entered the room. His reaction to her was immediate.
“Just how did you manage to jam this door, lady? She might be in serious trouble because of you!”
Amanda felt more warmth in her belly but now so much that she was sick to her stomach. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. I think she’s hurt, can’t you help her, sir, please?”
The man brushed her aside and Amanda hurried out of the bathroom. He yelled at some of the waitresses who had gathered nearby.
The boy’s father breezed by her as Amanda walked toward the pay counter. The boy was not with him. She turned around, but found him nowhere in the restaurant. A few of the patrons were wandering over to watch the ongoing show at the women’s restroom. Some of them had even set their plates down at the buffet.
Amanda walked outside, where the boy was kicking small rocks into a flowerbed near a painted bench. She made her way toward him, gently setting the cane into the sidewalk to muffle the sound. Amanda looked around to make sure no one was pulling into a parking space or getting out of a car. When she was close enough to smell the boy’s hair, she raised her cane, aiming the tip of the chrome handle at the point where his skull curved, his small cowlick sticking up at her like a bulls-eye, directly over the star on his neck.
The Dakini had actually done Amanda a favor by leaving the trunk open. She set the boy into the space where the bag of dead foxes had been and shut the trunk. No one was running toward her or hurriedly exiting the restaurant, and there was no sign of the boy’s father or mother. Sweet success.
Amanda’s breath was short and sweat ran down her sides and collected under her breasts. Her wrists were seeping bile again. The boy had started to wake when she put him into the trunk but she felt no relief pouring into her yet. Perhaps he was simply confused, and the fear would come next. But it was better not to think too much and keep moving.
Amanda hobbled over to the driver’s side and sat down in the car. The Dakini had left the keys in the ignition, too. Amanda shook her head and started the engine. She heard sounds from the trunk — the boy was either kicking or pounding his fists. She should be feeling so much better. He had to be afraid — there was no reason why her wrists would still be bleeding. Amanda was forced to dig her knife out of her purse and cut up her own sweater to bind the wounds. It was such a shame: she had really liked that sweater.
Amanda pulled out of the parking lot, her arms stinking of sour milk. She crossed the border into Nouth Carolina and made sure to clear Charlotte before pulling to the side of an off-ramp. It curved around a pocket of forest and eventually led to a small road stop.
A wide stretch of longleaf pine forest rose up beyond the drop of the off-ramp. The boy was still kicking in the trunk, but she still felt nothing. Amanda could discern no clear path, so they would be tearing through wild brush, but that also meant they would disappear from sight after only a few yards. She ground her teeth and walked over to the trunk as cars blew past up above them on the interstate. The sky had become overcast and raindrops began popping on her head, shoulders, and the surface of the car.
Amanda pulled the knife out of her purse and held it with the blade pointed at the trunk. She would not risk catching the boy’s eyes yet, lest she have a reaction similar to the one earlier, in the restaurant. Once they were deep enough in the woods she could risk trying to feed again. She pressed the unlock button on her keychain and kept her eyes on her knife.
The boy never spoke. Amanda was ready for screams, questions, pleas, fear, despair, panic. All the common reactions. His silence made her ravenous. She walked with the cane in her left hand, the knife in her right, and she waited, endlessly, for the boy to say or feel anything as they trudged through the rain into the woods. Her wrists were bleeding and the skin stretched across her ankles had split. She’d carved a dozen shapes into her stomach, the pain exquisite, but nothing worked. The boy’s back was becoming a blur of a soaked shirt, and the branches scraping their faces and arms dug fresh cuts into her skin. She was a mess of bile.
All the while, the boy had obeyed every command, he had kept his head and eyes forward and never once slowed down enough that Amanda had to dig the tip of her knife into his back. She stopped him twice, just to see if he would ask a question or have a feeling — any feeling — that she could feed on. Both times: nothing.
“This is far enough,” Amanda said. She would have preferred a spot with enough space to quickly make a symbol out of branches, but they were past the luxury of ceremony. Worse, she detected a faint hint of the Dakini in the air: honey, melons, and leather, but now with an undercurrent of raw sewage. The Dakini was watching them, somewhere among the trees, her borrowed body stuffed full of dead foxes but her eyes still hungry to watch someone suffer. Amanda began looking over her shoulder every few seconds and listening for footfalls on the wet leaves. Her heartbeat reverberated from head to toe.
“Get on your knees and pull your shirt up to your armpits.”
Again the boy obeyed without a word. His arms shook as he held the bottom of his shirt up across the top of his chest, elbows jutting out. Then his whole body was trembling. She should have felt his fear. She should have been feasting. She should have been gorging on a hot gush of his terror as the rainwater ran down her face. Without feeding, she would be at the Dakini’s mercy. This needed to work.
Amanda tossed her cane to the side and reached around him to pull the front of his shirt up over his head. She had bled so much she could barely feel the pain any longer. Amanda stood in front of the boy and kept the knife pointed at his throat. She reached forward, hearing him breathe against the shirt over his mouth and face. So much fear. So much warmth, trapped inside him, and all she had to do was pull down the shirt and surely, this time, she would see it in his eyes. If that did not work, she would cut stars into him until she was full.
The boy jerked away when Amanda’s bony, crooked fingers touched his head. He was crying. She braced herself, carefully pulled down his shirt so his chest was covered again, and then looked him dead in the eyes.
Amanda saw two wet, reddened, silver eyes, but she might as well have been looking at the back of his head. She felt nothing.
“What are you?” she asked.
The boy sobbed, squeezing his eyes shut.
“Answer me. You cannot be human.”
Amanda waited a moment and then touched the tip of the knife to the center of his chest. He was shivering, and he sucked in a quick breath when he felt the knife, but her question remained unanswered.
“Did the Dakini send you? Are you here for me?”
Amanda applied pressure to the knife and tried to ignore the pain in her wrist. A patch of blood spread out across the boy’s shirt. She drew back the blade and held it up to her nose as the boy swayed forward and he was forced to right himself. He breathed through his mouth, teeth clenched, snot running over his lips.
The boy’s blood smelled empty. Devoid. He was a bowl of plastic fruit. A painting. A commercial for a breakfast buffet. A vice tightened around Amanda’s neck. She grabbed her throat with her free hand and almost dropped her knife. Spots appeared in front of her eyes and she sank to her knees. Amanda coughed and retched. The heavy, bile-laden cloth bandages around her wrists unwound. She felt pressure on her chest, already an image forming in her mind of the Dakini standing on top of her, digging her heel into Amanda’s throat. She could smell the thick stench of honey and melon and raw death even as she choked on the air.
Amanda looked up at the boy’s exposed throat. He had not yet reacted to the sounds she was making. Only one choice left. She would have to slide the knife across his neck, bury her face in the wound and drink in everything inside him. Amanda would be free of her withered body and buried in his dying skin. He would be her vessel. She would wake up anew with the withered husk of an old woman lying dead in the mud for the Dakini to find. She would grow in this boy’s body and feed and live, until his skin grew too old, until his wrists began to crack, or maybe with this one it would be his neck, whenever she was hungry or tired or had not fed in a while. It was simple. Messy, but simple.
But really, all of this was nothing more than a temporary solution. Eventually, Amanda would find another little boy or girl who had the same empty little eyes. The same odorless, tasteless blood. She was so hungry. No matter how much she ate, she was always so hungry.
Amanda shut her eyes. “Run away,” she said, waving her knife at the boy. “Leave me in peace, whatever you are.”
Amanda dropped the knife and fell on her side, her legs kicking out as she clawed at the leaves and pine-straw in the mud. When she opened her eyes the boy was gone. She could hear him climbing through the brush among the trees, and then she heard nothing but rainfall.
Amanda turned over on her stomach. She tried to crawl forward and managed to reach her cane before a fit of coughing turned into retching up green ropes of bile. She nearly had her hand around the cane when she heard a voice from behind her.
“You disgust me, Amanojaku.”
Amanda let her face fall into the filth and vomit on the ground. The Dakini was squishing up behind her in the muck. Amanda turned over on her back and the rain pounded her face and body as the Dakini approached. She clawed for the knife with her left hand, but it was so far away that the Dakini made no effort to stop her. She stepped up and put one foot on either side of Amanda’s chest, almost under her arms. The rain pelting down on Amanda’s face stopped, blocked out by the Dakini’s large black umbrella.
“Why didn’t you kill him?” the Dakini asked, turning the pole in her hands so that the umbrella spun like a slow-turning wheel. Her face looked different. Still gorgeous, almost regal. But Amanda had water in her eyes, and her head was too fuzzy to put her finger on exactly what was missing. What looked so different.
Amanda looked away and went on reaching for the knife, stopping only when the Dakini sighed, lifted her right foot, and gently stepped down on her wrist. Her black leather heels were being ruined in the rain and mud. She had ugly runs up her designer stockings. Amanda felt pretty good about that.
“Answer me,” the Dakini said, pressing down on Amanda’s wrist until she cried out and began coughing and choking again.
When the fit passed, Amanda looked up at the Dakini and opened her mouth. She stuck her tongue out and licked at the air. The rain made everything smell so good, even the wet leather of the Dakini’s skirt and shoes, the earth and the grass and the mud. Amanda loved the smell of wet mud and grass. Because of where the Dakini stood with her umbrella, however, she could not taste a single drop of rain. That was a shame. She closed her mouth.
Amanda’s whole body felt numb and she let her eyes close. The pressure of the Dakini’s shoe on her wrist disappeared, and when she opened her eyes, the red, muddy sole of the Dakini’s high heel was descending from directly over Amanda’s face down to her neck. She shut her eyes again.
Amanda realized why the Dakini’s face had looked so unusual, and she laughed until the pressure on her throat made her gasp and her whole body tighten up. She bunched her fists in the grass and mud, refusing to make any feeble attempt to pry the Dakini’s foot from her neck.
Amanda would do nothing that might bring back the Dakini’s smile.
Steve Conn lives and writes in Charleston, South Carolina.