This short story was December 2016’s Short Story of the Month! If you enjoy it, and would like to support more, please consider throwing me a buck here.
But she was also just staring at this ring, kind of rubbing it in her fingers, like it was something perfect she might never get to touch again. There was a lot of emotion in the way her fingers slid over the stones. Sad eyes and such. Something going on there I couldn’t quite know, just from looking.
Basically, I was peeping on a really private moment. Whoops.
But to be fair, it wasn’t completely my fault, right? For one, she was right there, visible in the shop window, for any gay girl like myself to oogle at. The whole point of a big window on a store like this was to look in, you’d think. You couldn’t blame me for window shopping when I was walking by to window shop, right? Maybe?
More importantly than any of that, though, I could tell she was like Annie. In fact, that’s why I lingered on her for so long, more than anything else. I mean, being attractive helped. But mostly because I could see she was more than she was, like my eyes couldn’t decide what they were seeing. I had to make sure I was right. It’d been a while.
I’m not sure how long I stood there, just watching her and trying to figure her out. But eventually her eyes met mine. They went wide, like she was surprised, or scared. She put the ring away, and tried to move and look busy. She was leaning over, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see her also hitting her head on the ceiling.
Definitely like Annie. I grinned.
I had made two promises that I felt mattered here. The first was to myself. I had convinced myself I could afford to spend winter break crashing at my aunt’s apartment and relaxing in the big city because I was going to make things happen. I was going to find something interesting, something exciting. Well, hopefully someone, more specifically. Being a little lesbian in a tiny midwest college town was great on my wallet, classes were very cheap, but a bit empty in the realm of romance. I’d already hooked up with the only other out person on campus anyone seemed to be aware of, and while Jessica was great, we really had nothing in common besides our sexuality, so we both kind of just… stopped. Which was fine. But I was still alone, so, the city? Surely I could have an adventure. I had promised myself I’d put myself out there and, you know, try to at least find some hot makeouts.
Secondly, I had promised Annie I’d be friendly with anyone like her. I had promised Annie I’d help anyone like her. Every day I had kept a lookout, to help, and finally I had found someone like her.
So I didn’t have much choice but to go in and talk to her, did I? Even if it was a little rude to talk to her at work?
A little bell sounded as I opened the door. I took off my hat in the heat of the store and then immediately worried if that had messed up my hair and I should have left it on.
The woman looked at me. She was trying to smile politely but I could tell I was in some way distressing her. The glass of the case she was holding onto, almost for balance, was cracking, but also clearly not cracking. I could almost hear the sound of the glass.
Maybe she was more than Annie, somehow.
“Welcome to Alexander’s,” she said, still bent over a little oddly, likely to fit in the room. “Anything in particular you’re looking for?”
Her voice was smoky. I smiled. “Hi,” I said.
“…hi,” she said.
I was already clearly doing great. “I’m Madison,” I said.
“…Skye Scald,” she said.
“That’s a badass name,” I said.
“I…” She shook her head a little. “Thank you, but is there something you needed?”
“Just… uh…” I guess that was a good question. “What was up with that ring you were looking at?”
“Ring,” she said, like she didn’t understand. One version of her blushed, another snarled angrily. “Right, you saw me looking at a piece from the window.”
She moved over to where she had been before, carefully, still bent over. She pulled a key from her pocket and opened the case, pulling the ring out. Up close, it was the most gaudy, ugly thing I had ever seen. It looked like a first grader had glued gems wherever and hadn’t worried about it looking like anything. “It’s, uh,” I said as I looked at it.
“Extremely ugly, yes,” Skye said. I let out a sigh of relief. “It is easily the worst piece we have here.” She turned the ring sideways a little. “If you look closely, you’ll see how poor the settings for all these stones are, as well. Any amount of wear will likely result in losing the ruby or the topaz. And yet the stones in it are of a very good clarity. Cut very poorly, however.”
I just nodded, having absolutely no idea what she was talking about. “So why were you looking at it, then?”
Skye looked up, almost surprised I was still there. She winced as she hit her head on the ceiling, and also didn’t. She tried not to let it show.
“You okay?” I asked.
“You hit your head, I think?”
She stared at me again, and then clearly at a loss, looked back to the ring. “I like this piece because you can see the creator in it. Clearly a novice work, but one of enthusiasm. Clearly handmade, unlike most jewelry today. That’s all.”
“That makes sense. You like vintage stuff, then?” I asked.
Carefully, like she was holding eggshell, Skye put the ring back into the case. “I like craftsmanship,” she said. And then, quieter, like she was confessing, “and gems in general.”
“That’s cool,” I said, chuckling. “I can only really afford cheapo stuff myself, but maybe someday.”
She looked back up at me. “Then why are you in here?”
“I wanted to say hi.”
“You have been successful at that. Is there anything else?”
“When do you get off of work?” I asked.
She stared at me.
“I think I passed a Starbucks down that way,” I said, pointing. “You could meet me there whenever you get off? I’ll wait for you.”
I heard the glass case in front of me shatter, but it was still there. Skye looked at the non-shattered glass and raised her hands off of it slowly, carefully. “Why would I… if you have no plans to purchase anything, I do have work to get back to.”
“I really think we should talk, though,” I said. “And the tables at Starbucks are like… well, okay, I was going to say indestructible, but they aren’t. But you’ll be less likely to shatter them like these cases, right? So it would be better to do it then instead of now, when I’m bothering you anyway.”
“What are you talking about? The case is fine,” she said. For a moment, I wondered if I was bothering her by looking. But I knew Annie felt that way too, at first, when she didn’t feel like she had control. And there was little conviction in her voice when talking about the case. Not to mention her wording clearly indicated she had just broken it, right? Surely I was fine.
“Okay, look, how about this,” I said. “I’m going to go sit in that Starbucks for…” I turned around and tried to read the backwards numbers on the door. “The next two hours. And if you want to come after you close in an hour, well, you just stop by, okay?”
“Why would I stop by?” she asked.
“Because I’m so cute, maybe,” I said, chuckling. “Or for obvious reasons, right?”
“I do not think the reasons are obvious,” she said.
Well, I had been trying to drop hints, but maybe I needed to be clearer. “Your scar looks really badass as well,” I said. “Fits your name.”
“I do not have a scar…” she said. And she was right, one version of her didn’t. But I could see it, and the milky, dead eye from what looked like some sort of cut.
“Over your left eye,” I said. “Should I guess how you got it?”
Another case shattered from something. I couldn’t tell what had caused it. “Please leave here…” she said, putting a hand over her left eye.
“Alright… but I’ll be at the Starbucks, remember.” I headed to the door. But I had to admit I was feeling a little bad. She seemed to be in distress. It felt weird to apologize, especially since she seemed dead-set on ignoring the idea that anything was happening, but I did anyway. “And if this made you uncomfortable, I’m sorry. If you don’t come, I promise I won’t try to find you again, okay? But… you should come. Have a peppermint mocha with me.” And with that, I headed out.
It took me nearly 45 minutes to snag the table for two at the back that I wanted for talking with Skye. That gave me a lot of time to sip coffee and think. I couldn’t be surprised if she didn’t come. The more I debated the situation with myself the more I realized I had made an ass of myself. Wanting to keep my promise was no excuse to corner people on the job like that, right?
So I was still kicking myself when she walked in. Her coat was a big, long trench coat. She had a red scarf around her neck, which matched the color of the other her, whenever I saw it clear enough. It was much harder in the crowded coffee shop. She looked around like she was already regretting coming.
“Skye!” I called out.
She looked over to me with an expression of worry, then sighed and came over.
“Aren’t you going to get a coffee?” I asked her as she sat down. “Oh, no, wait, here, I should treat, what kind do you like?” I stood up, rummaging in my purse.
“It… does not matter,” she said.
I got up and got two more peppermint mochas. I was going to be really buzzing tonight after two back to back coffees, but I didn’t want her to drink alone. And anyway, who knew what was going to happen, right? Might be glad for the energy.
“Thanks,” she said as I handed it to her. She took a big drink.
“Isn’t that hot?” I asked her.
“Well, you would know all about why it is not too hot, would you not?” she said, frustrated.
“Not… really?” I said, smiling. “But I could take a guess.”
She studied me for a moment. “Your name is Madison, you said?”
“What are you attempting to accomplish, Madison?”
“Well, I mean, part of it is keeping a promise,” I said.
“A promise to bother me,” she said.
“Uh, I mean, it’s a little more complicated than that… can I tell you a story? To explain?”
I knew Annie when I was in grade school. She was a weird kid. Cute, friendly, but she always had this weird old coat with her. She’d carry it with her everywhere. But the strange thing was, she’d never wear it. During the winter, she’d have a different coat on, and be carrying that one. It was just weird, you know?
The kids would whisper about that coat. That it shined, that it was something else. But anyone brave enough to point it out to a teacher or other adult would be told it was just a coat.
One day, I asked her what it really was.
“It’s my skin,” she said, and then seemed nervous. “You aren’t going to take it, are you?”
“No,” I said. “It’s yours.”
“That’s good,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone.”
Once she had told me that, it was easy to see that it was a skin, not a coat. But it was also that old beat-up coat as well. But Annie told me it was skin, and I believed her. And we became close friends, with that secret between us. Her mother would worry a lot at first when I came over to play. But soon she was comfortable with me being around her daughter.
Years passed. We grew up. Our friendship turned into… well, it turned into my first crush, though we were still friends. Annie was more at ease around me, especially when we were alone. She was almost a different person. Little things about her body were different when we were alone. She was a little shorter. Her hair always looked a little wet. This is going to make me sound like a creeper, but she had a different smell.
And one night, we were out by the lake, me and her, sitting there, looking at the moon.
“I need a favor,” Annie said. “A big favor.”
“Of course,” I said. “Anything.”
“You… still believe in me, right?” she asked.
“Can I go for a swim? I… can’t anymore. Nobody around here believes in me but you… I used to be able to force it, but now I only can around you… do you mind?”
“Of course not… but I’m not sure what to do.”
“Just… believe,” she said, and she put on her coat, her skin, for the first time. And I sat there, astounded, as I watched Annie splash and swim in that lake for several hours, making such happy noises. Occasionally, I could see the fake her, the her everyone saw, the her I saw when we weren’t alone. A strange girl wearing a coat swimming. But mostly, she was her. She was free.
We snuck away to swim every time we could. If it was warm, I’d bring a swimsuit and join her, though I couldn’t match her. She’d talk about us going to the ocean sometime. I liked that idea, though probably in a more romantic way than she wanted to mean it.
And eventually, my Dad got a new job, and I had to move away from Annie.
On that last night, after a last swim, we laid on the grass.
“Promise me… promise me that, if you see someone else like me, you’ll believe in them too? That you’ll help them be themselves?”
I took her hand. “I promise,” I said.
We didn’t keep in touch. It’s not a thing you often do with friends in seventh grade, keep in touch. I kind of regretted that, but it felt like, especially with her secret, it would be a bit much to try to reconnect. But I had made a promise.
I told Skye this story. She listened, as she drank her coffee.
“Anyway, that’s why I had to come talk to you after I saw you through the window,” I said. “You’re the first one I’ve seen since.”
“I am not like your friend,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “I can tell you’re something different. Though just like with her, it’s a lot harder to see with everyone around. But I figure I could still… believe for you, I guess?”
Skye looked at her coffee cup, now empty. “It is a little late for that now. Perhaps a century ago. But it seems silly to rekindle my hope at this point, does it not?” She shook her head. For a moment, I could see her scar again. “What is the other part?”
I sipped a bit of my coffee and chuckled. “Well, your outfit was saying ‘Hello, I am a big gay,’ so maybe I was hoping that was true.”
Skye stared at me for a moment. “This is a date.”
“If you want it to be, it could be the start of one?” I said. “I mean, I’m not wanting anything serious, maybe? I’m only here for a week. But it could be fun.”
“I am not one for romance,” she said. But hey, she didn’t say “with women.” She said in general, so maybe I still had a chance.
“Doesn’t have to be that,” I said. “I mean, I’m sure you could give me an education, so to speak.” She stared at me. “Or… not, if that’s not appealing, I mean, I’m not a virgin, so it wouldn’t be…”
“Stop,” she said.
“I am open to negotiation,” she said.
“Negotiation? About… oh, you mean…”
“Yes, I…” Skye put a hand to her head. “I… am sorry. I retract that statement. You are making things very confusing,” she said.
“Confusing how? Confusing in a ‘but we’re both girls’ kind of way or confusing in a, like…”
“It is pointless cruelty to make me touch my old life,” Skye said, standing, putting her coat back on. “I will be leaving.”
As she walked out, for a moment, I saw her tail. She tripped someone. And also did not.
I sighed and got my hat on, grabbed my purse, and hurried after her.
“Hey! Wait!” I said.
Skye ignored me. She towered above everyone on the street for a fraction of a second as she tried to move through the crowd.
“Look, just wait a second!” I called out again.
She got stopped at a crosswalk. It gave me time to catch up to her. She sighed as I came up beside her.
“Why do you do this? I have lost everything. I do not know how you continue to believe so strongly but it is not enough to do anything but taunt me,” she said.
“Here, maybe,” I said. “But we could… I don’t know… we could figure something out,” I said. “We could go somewhere else. Or just be alone, and see if that’s enough.”
“It won’t be.”
“Do you know that for sure?”
There was a moment of hesitation. The light changed, and people started to walk across the crosswalk. Skye stayed still.
“We can find out together,” I said. “Negotiate.”
She still stood there. People were getting annoyed, having to move around us.
She turned to me, grabbed my arm, and pulled me to the side. “Do not call me that,” she said. “If you want to pretend you can help, use my name.”
“I thought that was your name,” I said.
“A… younger and more hopeful me thought it was a funny alias for pretending to be human, before it was obvious it was permanent.”
“So what is your name?”
“Scald,” she said. She looked like she was about to continue, but stopped herself. “I suppose the titles do not matter anymore. Scald will be fine.”
“Scald,” I said. “Hi, Scald.”
“…hello,” she said.
We stood there for a moment. The light changed back.
“You really wish to negotiate in the old style?” she asked.
“I’ll try, if that’d make you feel better?” I said. “As long as it’s not dangerous?”
She gave a little nod, thinking. “I will need time to process before we can begin negotiations,” Scald said.
“Can I see your phone?” I asked.
She pulled it out of her pocket. I entered in my phone number.
“There. You can just call me tomorrow then, maybe? I’m just bumming around the city. I can meet you whenever.”
“Lunch, then,” she said.
“Lunch,” I said, smiling.
“I… will call you,” Scald said. She turned to leave, and then turned back. “Why are you wearing animal ears on your head?”
I put a hand on my little cat-ear hat. “It’s supposed to be cute… do you not like it?”
“…I was just considering if it had a greater meaning,” she said. She hesitated like she had more to say, but gave up and walked away.
After she left my sight, I found myself bursting into laughter. Not mean laughter. Happy laughter, I guess. Relieved laughter? I had worked so hard to still believe in Annie, and things like her, but after so many years, it was a relief to know it wasn’t for nothing. I couldn’t even get to sleep that night, I was so excited. Or maybe it was all the coffee. Maybe a little of both.
I clearly slept at some point though, since my phone woke me up at 10. I flailed to grab it.
“Hello…” I mumbled into the receiver.
“Good morning,” said Scald’s voice from the receiver. “Have you given up on this foolish endeavor?”
“What’s foolish about it?” I said, getting myself to a sitting position and trying to wake up.
“The part where it will not work and we will both be disappointed,” she said.
“We don’t know that for sure,” I said through a yawn. “Where should we meet? I don’t know the city that well.”
“I know a place,” she said. “I believe this phone has a feature that will allow me to send you directions. We will begin negotiations in an hour.”
“Yeah… yeah, okay,” I said. “Wait, no, I won’t be ready in an hour, I need more time.” Maybe Scald could get ready in an hour, but I wasn’t going to look near cute enough in that amount of time for something that may or may not pass as a second date.
“…an hour and a half, then,” Scald said, and hung up. Moments later, my phone buzzed with a text with the address of this diner.
I hurried into and out of the shower, to ensure I had all the time I could to work on my makeup. I put on my favorite leggings and dress, and switched up hats, and then hurried out the door.
The place Scald had picked was a run-down diner. All the signs in the windows seemed like they’d been there for years, faded from the sun. I could see Scald sitting at a booth with a mug of coffee as I entered. She looked basically exactly the same, though her shirt was a different color.
“You are late,” she said as I sat down.
I was like, 3 minutes late, at most. “Sorry. Just takes me awhile to get ready.”
She looked at me. “You are wearing a different hat,” she said.
“Well, you didn’t seem to like the last one,” I said. “Plus this one goes with my tights.”
She leaned over to look down at my tights. “You are wearing scales,” she said. “And the fins on your hat. I see.”
I nodded. “Not into cute, then?”
“It is… not a thing we are,” she said. “But what you are doing is… effective.”
I had no idea what to say to that, so I picked up a menu instead. “What’s good to eat here?”
“The hamburger,” she said.
“Oh, okay, cool.”
A lady came to take our order. She gave Scald a smile as she refilled her coffee mug. “Who is this now?”
“This is Madison,” Scald said. “Madison, this is Rose.”
“Nice to meet you!” I said, smiling at her.
“The usual?” Rose asked Scald.
“And you?” Rose said, looking to me.
“Uh, I’ll have the hamburger plate, I guess? That’d be good. And a water.”
“Two hamburgers, coming up,” Rose said, smiling and heading back to the back.
“Friend of yours?” I asked.
“I have eaten here for 25 years and she has worked here for 18 of them,” Scald said.
“25 years! That’s like, older than I am.”
Scald looked to me. “Perhaps,” she said. She took another drink of her coffee. “Shall we begin negotiations?”
“Sure,” I said.
“As I understand it, you want me to offer you mating rights in return for your… belief in me.”
I blushed a little. Mating rights? “That wasn’t quite it… do those things need to be connected? I don’t really want to coerce sex out of you. I’m sorry if I’ve come across that way. I guess I was coming on a little strong.”
Scald studied me for a bit, and then sighed. For a moment I could see her real face, her giant good eye averting itself from me. “I… we can negotiate your way… if you prefer…”
“Right, you said the old way…” I said, running things through my head. “But I don’t know about that, so you’ll have to show me. Tell me about it.”
“I have gotten… better at social interaction by necessity. It comes fairly easy now, though some find me a bit intense.” I gave a slight nod of agreement. “But in the old days, this sort of interaction was not particularly wanted. I was alone, as I should be, as all like me are. The only interaction came in the form of negotiation and trade. And mating rights, the rights to your very traits for offspring, was one of the most valuable things for trade.” She looked up at me. “Though… occasionally… it would involve those of the same physical makeup for… other purposes.”
“Other purposes,” I said.
I blushed a little and nodded. “And that’s why you said you’re not into romance,” I said.
Scald nodded. “So I was not meaning to indicate anything about your… politeness in this situation. You…” She stopped mid-sentence as she crushed the coffee mug in her claw, but also didn’t. She took a moment to orient herself. “You remind me of all I have lost time and again, as we have established. I was not thinking in your terms.”
“Thank you for explaining,” I said. “With the understanding that that’s how you want to approach it, and us both agreeing that you can say no and back out whenever, then yes. That’s what I’m bringing to the table. We have bedroom fun, and you and I get to figure out how to use my belief for what you need.”
“I do not need your belief,” she said. “It is getting in the way.”
Rose returned and put plates in front of us, as well as my water. “Enjoy, ladies,” she said with a smile.
“That’s fine, if that’s the case. I felt like it would be valuable to you,” I said.
Scald glanced at me like she was disappointed, and then went to pour ketchup on her plate for her fries.
Maybe this was, like, a flirting thing? “In fact,” I said, “I think if you don’t think my offer valuable, you are not thinking clearly.”
“I am thinking fine,” she said, her face brightening a bit.
“You’ll regret letting this pass you by,” I said.
“I think you also are underestimating the value of my mating rights,” Scald said. “I am not some poor, gemless orphan, nor weakened by my age. I have survived more wars than you can imagine. These claws have rendered kingdoms asunder. No, the traits of the Eternal Scourge will not come cheap.”
“Eternal Scourge, huh?” I said.
“Clearly you did not know with whom you were negotiating,” Scald said, smiling.
I took a bite of my burger, thinking. I still didn’t really know the rules, but I knew enough to know she was excited by this argument. She had a nice smile. It wasn’t a good smile. It was the smile of someone who rarely smiles, and doesn’t think about how it looks. It was a very genuine smile. I wanted that smile to continue. I had to put up a fight then, didn’t I?
“Well, they call me… The Mermaid of the Midwest,” I said, pretending I wasn’t just making stuff up by looking at my mermaid tights for inspiration. “My beauty is known far and wide, and I have people lining up for my mating rights.” I mean, I had plenty of selfies up on Instagram and I did have to block that creeper that one time, so, not technically a lie? “Perhaps I should be charging you for my mating rights, and not the other way around.”
Scald scoffed. “What need have I of your mating rights? I have plenty of offspring.”
“But you’re also plenty pent up, I bet,” I said, blushing a bit at being so forward. But there was an energy between us, and I wanted to keep it going. “Though my traits are impressive, it’s the pleasure we’re really talking about here, right? You mentioned it before, and that’s certainly what I want from you.”
Scald bit into her burger, trying to look insulted.
“When was the last time you, uh, mated, Scald?”
“I am not sure that is relevant to our negotiations,” she said.
“If you won’t tell me, then it’s clearly been much, much too long,” I said. “I mean, I broke up with my girlfriend like… 6 months ago, and it’s been too long for me.”
“So you desperately need what I have on offer,” Scald said, grinning.
It took me a second to realize my error. “Clearly I want what you’re offering or we wouldn’t be here negotiating,” I said. “It’s silly to point that out, don’t you think?”
“You must clearly desire my rights very badly,” she said. For a moment I could see wings extending in an impressive display, but it was gone almost immediately. “How could you not, for I am an impressive, dangerous specimen.”
“Maybe I do, but you also want mine, and more importantly, the many other things you have not done in a long while,” I said, punctuating my sentence by pointing with a fry. “How long has it been since you’ve really used those wings, Miss Eternal Scourge?”
Scald’s expression changed, and there was a moment where I thought I had gone too far. I was about to apologize when she said, “10 flights in return for rights to one mating session.”
“I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to. I’m leaving the city in a few days. Unless you are proposing to come with me back to school.”
“How many days?” she asked.
“I get on the train back home on Sunday, so four.”
“8 flights then, two a day.”
“How long are these flights?”
“That’s too long. I don’t think I can make that happen.”
“One hour, then.” Scald was looking at me with a very serious expression. Normally I’d just give in because it was clear I had hit something important to her, but I knew she wanted me to fight.
“One flight a day, and mating rights for all four days,” I said.
“No,” Scald said. “I will not let you cut my flights short by exercising mating rights.”
I didn’t exactly understand that, but okay. “Your flights will be excluded, then. I’m fine with that.”
“Full days are too long in general. I will not be useful to you for the entire time anyway. Four mating sessions.”
“If you need me that limited, at least six,” I said.
“Five, and you cover any of my costs involved with your flights.”
“What costs?” Scald asked.
“Travel. We’d have to get out of the city, right? At least as far as I understand things.”
“…right,” Scald said. She seemed like she was doing calculations in her head. “Four, and I will cover the costs of the flights.”
“Four sessions and costs for four flights,” I said.
“Yes,” Scald said.
“Alright. That sounds fine.”
Scald smiled, and then immediately lost it. “I… suppose we can not entwine tails to bring negotiations to an end.”
“I guess not,” I said. “I’m sorry. But we can shake hands?”
She held out her hand, and we shook on it.
We finished eating in relative silence.
“…thank you,” she said, finally, after we’d finished eating.
“For what?” I asked.
“Negotiating with me,” she said. “It seemed to go against your nature.”
“It was… different,” I said, chuckling. “But you seemed to have fun, so that’s good.”
Scald looked like she was about to disagree, but then stopped herself.
“Anyway, shall we?” I said, standing.
“Shall we what?” she asked.
“Well, I got four sessions coming to me, right?”
Scald stood. For a moment, she was giant, and the table cracked off of its screwed-down base. But that also wasn’t happening. She was just standing there, in front of me, an older, well-built butch I had apparently just negotiated myself into sleeping with. She nodded. “Let us go, then.”
Her apartment was in a rather run-down building. She unlocked the door, pushed it open, and then looked disappointed.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“I was… it is nothing…” she said, shaking her head.
“…I was hoping your belief might make the door open to my lair, at least for a moment.”
“Lair? Like… a cave?”
“But it’s a third floor apartment.”
She sighed, and nodded again, before motioning for me to come in.
Scald’s apartment was sparse. The bare minimum of furniture, and basically no ornamentation. It was almost surprising there were chairs in the small living room area.
“I assume you would prefer the bed,” she said, heading towards the back.
“Uh, yeah, probably,” I said. I followed her into a similarly decorated bedroom. At least she had a king size bed.
Scald immediately started undressing.
“H-hey, no need to rush or anything,” I said.
She looked at me, stopping in the middle of undoing her bra.
“I mean, it’s awkward just to… do it… right?”
She threw her bra away, which made it difficult to focus on her as she spoke. “You desire me, right?”
“I… I mean… yes?”
She moved to me, and gently grabbed my chin, making me look her in the eyes. For a moment, I could feel rough scales, intense heat from her breath, the powerful look from her one good eye… but it was also two good eyes, and human skin. “Then you should take what you want. You worked hard to negotiate for it, to force me into negotiations. And I must admit, as you surmised, it has been too long for my liking as well. So do not hesitate.”
She let go of me, obviously disappointed.
I grabbed her, and pulled her into a kiss. I expected her to maybe melt into it. But it became very clear that kissing wasn’t really what she did as she pushed me backwards onto the bed and started working on my clothes.
It was… intense. Partially because Scald clearly thought of fucking as an fierce competition that she was determined to win. Mostly, though, it was because every so often, there would be a white hot moment where I’d feel an enormous tongue on me, sliding up my body almost painfully, as the bed creaked and threatened to collapse. Once it did break, but was also fine. I found myself trying to focus, to believe more, to get that to happen more often, but it didn’t seem to really work that way.
After we were both spent, Scald let me get a little more affectionate. I laid my head on her chest, and she even put her arm around me a little.
“Was that acceptable?” she asked, after a long silence.
I burst into laughter. “Are you kidding me?”
She frowned. “I do not understand why that was a humorous question. It is important to fulfill my side of the deal.”
“Well, you’re definitely doing that,” I said.
She nodded. There was a bit more silence before she spoke again. “It is… comforting to know my skills have translated.”
I processed that. “I… uh… am I your first? Human, I mean?”
“No,” she said. “But the first one that sought me out, as opposed to otherwise. And I feel you are likely to give me an honest assessment. It is hard to tell with those who do this for a living, who assume their clients want to be flattered.”
“Well, I… it was very rough,” I said. “But that was fun in its own way.”
Scald nodded. “It is good to know I am not over-valuing this for negotiation purposes.”
“Nothing, just… nothing… you’re just different,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
She eventually got up and got in the shower. I looked myself over. I had small scratches and what I assumed were very minor burns up my stomach and boobs. Those big licks were enough to have left a lasting impression. She’d been herself completely for at least one moment. I wondered if I should be proud of that.
I tried to find some lotion or something to put on it, but Scald’s bedroom didn’t even have a bed stand. I debated looking in the bathroom, but that seemed rude while she was showering. “Do you have any lotion?” I called into the bathroom. There was no answer. I sighed.
The only place anything like that could be was in the closet. I opened it, and had to take a moment to catch my breath. Other than shirts and pants hung very neatly, the closet was filled with crates of coins. A lot of them seemed to be those weird dollar coins. I closed the door quickly and sat back down on the bed.
Scald came out in a towel a bit later. “You may use the shower,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said, and hurried into the bathroom. The water stung against my reddened skin.
“How did you get burned?” my aunt asked as she rummaged around in a cabinet for me later that night.
“I, uh, leaned against a heated pipe and didn’t realize it for a second,” I said.
“That’s ridiculous. They should cover those,” she said, and handed me a bottle of some goop.
“Thanks,” I said, and hurried away.
All gooped up, I laid on the bed and stared at the ceiling. It didn’t really hurt that bad. I’ve been hurt way worse before. But it still made me think a bit. But no, I was doing the right thing. I was helping, and having an adventure. What more could I want?
The next morning, I awoke to Scald once again calling me. Sleep, I guess, was what more I could want.
“You wake up really early,” I mumbled into the phone.
“It is nine o’clock,” she said, as if that proved me wrong.
“Look, just, what’s up?” I asked.
“I have borrowed a truck,” Scald said. “I have also borrowed basic camping supplies, but you may want to pack more for your comfort. Please meet me at Alexander’s when I get off of work at 7.”
“Camping…?” Camping was near the bottom of my list of things I wanted to do on my break.
“We are going flying,” she said.
“Okay… sure, right, that was the deal…”
There was no way I packed any clothes that would be okay for camping. I had packed for maximum attention-grabbing cute.
And instead I’d ended up grabbing Scald.
I did my best. I ended up stealing some stuff from my aunt. She was bigger than me, so nothing fit right, but it also wouldn’t disintegrate the first time it touched a stray twig, so that was a plus.
I walked into Alexander’s right before closing. Scald and a man I did not recognize looked up.
“Hey…” I said.
“I’m sorry Miss, but we’re about to close…” the man said.
“She is with me, sir,” Scald said.
He took Scald in for a moment. “Niece?” he finally guessed.
“Something like that,” I said. “I can just wait outside for you if you want, Scald?”
“The truck is out back,” she said, and then went back to counting the register.
I headed through the alley and to the back of the store. There was indeed a beat-up pickup truck, with a bunch of stuff strapped into the back under a blue tarp.
“I am sorry about that,” Scald said as she finally came outside a bit later. “I have clarified our situation to my boss.”
I chuckled nervously. “Are you sure you wanted to do that?”
“I refuse to apologize for my choices,” she said, unlocking the truck. “You did not bring a bag?”
“I don’t really have any camping stuff? Especially here. So I just stuffed an extra set of clothes into my purse,” I said, getting into the passenger’s side.
“Your clothes seem ill-fitting today,” she said. “And your face seems different.”
“Borrowed some stuff from my aunt,” I said. “Seemed sensible to wear, like, jeans, if we’re going camping. Same with less makeup.”
Scald nodded and started the truck. “Your non-sensible wear of before was appealing, though.”
I chuckled and smiled. “Thanks.”
We drove for several hours by headlights. We didn’t talk a whole lot. Suburbs started changing to a bunch of nothing, and cars started getting sparse. Scald accidentally tore the roof off of the truck several times, but not enough that it stuck to reality.
“Do you need me to drive, maybe?” I asked. “That seems really disorienting.”
“I am fine,” she said.
Finally, we bumped along a dirt road past a sign reading “Tarragon Campground.” There was a chain across the road, blocking access, saying it was closed until spring. Scald got out, undid the chain, and drove on.
The road ended, and we got out.
“Well, this seems pretty far away from people, for sure,” I said, pulling my coat tighter and looking around. There was no light besides the headlights of the truck.
When I turned back around, Scald was standing at her full height, towering over me. Just being somewhat close to her made me want to take my coat back off, as she was radiating heat. She had closed her good eye, and was spreading her wings wide.
“…hi,” I said, unsure what else to say.
She opened her good eye and looked down at me. I could not read her expression like this, but it seemed like she was pitying me, in some way.
“There are flashlights in the truck bed,” she said, her voice large, almost shaking me, but still somehow clearly hers. “Get one, and follow the trail to the overlook, and do your thing.”
“My thing?” I asked.
“Believe in me.”
With a gust of wind that nearly knocked me to the ground, she flapped her wings, and burst up through the trees, causing a small shower of twigs and leaves. The cold of the night returned.
Using my phone for light, I fumbled with the tarp, found a heavy metal flashlight, and headed down the path labelled “Overlook.” Above me, I heard a loud cry, almost a growl, the sort of sound that made the animal bits of my brain want to run for cover. But I kept going, until I reached a small outcropping of rock, with a guard rail made of welded pipe, and a nearly destroyed wooden bench.
And out there, in front of the moon, was Scald, wings flapping. I couldn’t help but think of Annie, jumping and playing in the water as Scald flew in loops, quick dives, moving close over the trees. Still, her movements seemed retrained, like fun was beneath her. But she understood she needed to take advantage of this flight to the fullest, so she still ran maneuver after maneuver.
I just sat and watched. Eventually she flew to the overlook. I had to hold onto my hat to keep from losing it as she flapped to stay there before me.
“I would like to keep going,” she said, in a voice I would have almost pegged as scared of my answer.
“Y-yes, yes of course, please do…” I said. And she took off into the sky again.
What felt like hours later, I walked back to the truck. Scald dug a fire pit with easy motions of her claws, tore branches down from the trees, and set them on fire.
And then she was a human again, adjusting her red scarf and staring into the fire.
“You should stay like yourself… while you can,” I said, sitting beside the now blazing fire. “I’ll be fine.”
“I figured, after having used three of my four hours of flight, you would desire more mating,” she said.
“I’m still recovering from last time,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“Recovering?” she asked.
“Your tongue burned me a little…” Scald’s eyes widened and I held up my hands. “Nothing serious, but just… I guess your form stuck for a second or two last night, that’s all.”
“That is… heartening, in the middle of the city,” she said. “I am sorry to have injured you.”
“It’s perfectly fine,” I said.
And Scald was herself again, curling around the fire, hotter than it was.
“What’s it like?” I asked.
“What is what like?” Scald asked, clearly trying to keep her booming voice to a minimum volume for my sake.
“It is movement,” she said.
“But it’s flying,” I said. “That’s amazing.”
“It is… being able to move how you desire,” Scald finally said after thinking for a bit. “Like a leash has been removed from your neck, and you can do anything once more. The only limit is what you would like to do.”
“I can see that, maybe…” I said, thinking.
“But I must put the leash back on,” Scald said softly. “That is the difficult part.”
“Hopefully it’s not so bad?”
“It is a nightmare. A nightmare I live daily.” She closed her good eye. “I am still unsure if this is a good idea. If this is a final goodbye, or if I should have hope. If it is even worth living out my few remaining centuries.” She huffed, and a small spout of flame escaped her nostrils. “I am sorry, this is not talk to be having with you. I knew these things when I entered into negotiations, and they have nothing to do with you.”
“It’s okay,” I said, having to take off my coat because it was so warm being so close to her, even in the cold darkness. “It… I can kind of understand that… I mean, I can’t, I know, but… I’ve wanted to be more than this…”
Scald kept her eye closed. I figured her milky, dead eye couldn’t close, or it would have at this point, but it felt like she was staring at me with it. “You seem like a very quality human,” she said. “Appealing. Strong, desirable traits. Your offspring will be an impressive sight.”
“I, uh, thanks… I think…”
“You are welcome.”
I chuckled nervously. “Probably not going to have kids, though… what with the whole being gay thing and all…”
“I never let that stop me,” Scald said.
“You have kids?”
“They gave in to this fate quicker than I. In some ways, perhaps they were smarter than me. They have successful human lives. Human children, two of them. None of them keep the old ways. Which is perhaps for the best.”
“Seems sad too, though,” I said.
“Perhaps… or perhaps they are just smarter about finding joy in what they can have, instead of craving what they cannot.”
I yawned. It was really late.
“There are sleeping bags,” Scald said. “We can rest.”
“I… guess you won’t fit in one,” I said, getting one out of the truck bed.
“I will be fine,” she said.
I found a flat part of the ground, got in the bag, and tried to rest.
I was woken up by a huge burst of wind as Scald took off. Sun was shining through the trees as I blinked, trying to get my bearings.
“Scald?” I called.
I heard her exhale a large burst of flame into the sky. But also, I didn’t.
My eyes opened wide as I realized what that meant.
Tree limbs cracked above me as I saw Scald, wingless and human, plummeting downwards.
I tried really really hard to think of her as herself, and at the last moment, with a loud boom, her huge form hit the ground. Almost immediately she was human again, groaning.
“Scald!” I said, running over to her. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
She shook her head, but cried out in pain as she tried to push herself up with one arm, eventually using the other one to get to a sitting position.
“Did you break it?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” she said. She seemed furious. “Are we not far enough out? Why can I not fly?”
“Maybe… well, you are very big, maybe someone can see you in the light?” I tried.
Scald just growled in anger.
“Let’s… let’s get you to a hospital, probably?” I said. “Let me help you stand?”
She protested, but eventually got seated in the truck. I threw everything into the truck bed and drove us down the dirt path. Scald winced with each bounce.
“I am a fool,” she said softly. “To even try to fly again.”
“You were amazing up there, though…” I said.
Scald said nothing.
I spent the rest of the day sitting with Scald in the hospital. Even after she told me to go and leave her to her weakness, I couldn’t think of anything else to do to help but wait. They set her arm in a cast, and as it was getting dark, we walked out.
“I will not be an adequate mating partner like this,” Scald said, angrily looking at her cast.
“That’s fine, we don’t have to do any of that… I just wanted to know you were okay.”
“My frail arm is broken,” she said. “I am not okay. I now carry a monument to vulnerability.”
“It’ll heal though…”
“…yes, it will, for what that is worth.” It was clear it was not worth that much to her. “I do not wish to be seen like this. Please leave. I will fulfill my side of our deal, of course, but not now.”
“But Scald, maybe I can…”
“Leave me and this useless body alone,” she snapped. “I was wrong to want this again.”
I stood there as she walked away from me.
When I got back to my aunt’s apartment, she had a million questions for where the heck I had been and why I hadn’t been answering my phone which I did my best to avoid. Eventually I was laying down, staring at the ceiling, and thinking about Scald, and her flying so effortlessly.
I would never fly like that. And in a day or so, I’d be getting back on the train and probably never see her again. And she’d be back on her leash.
What good was I if I couldn’t help her like Annie wanted me to?
About an hour later, frustrated, I was on my aunt’s laptop, searching. Eventually, I found her, I thought. Annie Eccase. There was a phone number.
It was one in the morning, and I was being an idiot, but I called it anyway.
“Hello?” came a thankfully non-asleep voice backed up by a chorus of baby screams.
“Uh, hi… Annie?” I said.
“That’s me,” she said. “Don’t mind Joey, he’s got an ear infection… sorry about the noise though…”
“That’s okay, that’s fine,” I said.
“Who is this?” she asked.
“This is, uh… this is Madison… Madison Taylor… from grade school?”
There was silence for a while. Well, relative silence. The baby was still screaming. “Huh. Madison,” she said.
“Yeah, I… I wanted to talk, if that’s okay?” I said, feeling stupid. “What’s up with you? You have a baby?”
“Yeah, I do, if you can believe it,” she said, a bit of a chuckle in her voice. “Planned, if you’ll believe that too.”
“Was about to say. We’re a little young for it.”
“Maybe,” she said, smiling. “Not really for me in my… well, you know… but yes, found me a husband, and I’m going to school online while I raise this little screamer. What about you?”
“I… well, I mean, I’m going to college and stuff… and… and I just…” I closed my eyes. “Annie, are you, like, happy? Without being able to swim?”
“I still swim all the time. Just not the right way, that’s all,” she said. “And I am happy, when this little guy shuts up anyway.”
“But isn’t it… like… like…”
“I’m more than the water, Madison, I promise,” she said.
“Okay, yeah… of course…”
“Now, if you ask me, this is clearly about you, and I’m not about to get to sleep anytime soon, so why don’t you just tell me about it?”
“…I’m sorry, this is super selfish of me.”
“It’s fine. I don’t have anything better to do while I rock this guy. Just promise me we’ll talk for real later, okay? Now, what’s going on?”
“I… well, I just thought that was, like, my purpose, right? To help you swim, and help her fly… like I was special… and then she doesn’t want to fly again because she doesn’t want to think about it… and what was I even doing, you know?”
“Woah, hold on, who are you talking about?”
“Uh, I… found someone else… sort of like you… who I’m kind of… well…”
“I don’t even know if it’s even that, but sure.”
Annie chuckled. “Okay, that’s fair. And she doesn’t want you to help her?”
“No… not that I’d even be able to… I’m on a trip, I have to go home soon, but…”
“You can’t force people to take help, you know,” she said. “It sounds like you tried. That’s all.”
“But this is… I’ve been looking for years! Ever since I moved away, and then I blew the…”
“Oh shush. You didn’t ruin anything.”
“But Annie… she needs someone… I think…”
“Not someone special, but someone,” Annie said.
“…yeah,” I said.
“So, try that instead, hm? Don’t be the chosen one, just be someone.”
We said our goodbyes, and I hung up.
The next day I went to Alexander’s again. Through the window, I saw Scald. She had a bandage over her left eye. Between that and the cast, she seemed like she was in bad shape. I hurried inside.
“What happened to your eye?” I asked. “Are you okay?”
“I… made some poor decisions in anger,” she said. “I am fine. Why are you here?”
“I just wanted to apologize…” I said.
“You did nothing,” she said.
“I pushed too hard… I pushed too hard because I wanted to be special and because I wanted… I thought that, if you were… I… anyway, it was selfish. I just wanted to apologize and say you don’t have to do anything else with our deal, okay?”
Scald frowned. “You are stronger than apologizing, and I do not go back on my deals.”
“But I hurt you, and it wasn’t really for anything.”
“You tried something,” she said. “Did you not? There is nothing wrong with going your own way. Certainly not to me.”
“Well, it matters to me,” I said. “It matters to me that I hurt you. You don’t have to accept my apology or anything, but I needed to say it. So… there.”
“Is that all?”
“…yes,” I said.
“Then I will get back to work.”
“Okay…” I said. “And if you need me… you have my phone number, okay?”
“I will not require your services again.”
“No, I mean, like…” I sighed. “Nevermind. Bye, Scald.” I left.
My last day was a lot of wandering. Pretty empty. I got kind of drunk, honestly. But soon I was on the train, rolling back towards campus.
My phone rang.
“Hello…?” I said.
“What did you mean?”
“What did I mean when?”
“When you said you would be there if I needed you.”
I put my hand on my forehead. “I don’t know. I just… wanted to be, like, friends, I guess.”
“That is not something I do,” Scald said.
“Yeah, I get that. Sorry. It was a bad idea anyway. I don’t want to use you anymore.”
“You still have three…”
“No, no, I mean… to feel special… I already have to make it up to Annie…”
There was silence on the line for a while. Then, Scald spoke. “One of my children, who has taken the name Eustace instead of the name I gave him, is asking me to join his family for Christmas again.”
“Oh, that’s… that’s nice.”
“I do not want to face his wife and children. They will not understand me.”
“That can be scary, yes… but you’re, what, the Eternal Scourge, right? Surely you can handle it.”
“…yes, I can,” she said. She paused. “In these short days you have constantly tried to understand me. I do not think that was out of some requirement to be ‘special.’ You may correct me if I am wrong.”
“…I… no, I guess not. It was fun trying to, like, figure you out.”
“Then do not fear. Act not out of requirement or bonds, but out of desire. That was what you have done with me.”
“What do you desire?” I asked.
“I desire to see my child and his family, despite it going against how things are done. So I will go to this awkward Christmas party. What do you desire, Madison?”
I chuckled nervously. “I don’t know. I’m going back to school. Not like I can come back to visit or go with you to this Christmas party or something.”
“It is a matter of travel funds, is it not?” Scald said, an energy, maybe excitement, in her voice. “Let us negotiate.”
Thank you very much for reading my story! If you liked it, please share it with your friends and stuff. That would mean a lot to me. There’s plenty more stories and things coming, so I hope to entertain you again soon!