Short Fiction by Shannon Benson
The first time he came inside her he wasn’t meant to, but she didn’t get mad.
She realised, as he jumped up in a show of panic, that she quite liked it.
She lay there, staring at the ceiling and felt it inside of her. Moving her hand to her stomach the potential of what had happened thrummed in her veins. She felt grown, she felt closer to him, a part of him.
Sex before this paled in comparison for her. All of that was child’s stuff now, playing with something she didn’t understand, like the first time she received holy communion. But this, this was sacred. As his come suddenly released from her, oozing into the bedsheets, she realised this was a form of worship and she ached for more.
The next morning, they went to the walk-in clinic.
She sat in a little white room with a petite nurse who asked her some questions and handed her a pill in a box busy with tiny black letters.
He waited outside looking sheepish. When she walked out, the pill dissolving happily in her stomach, she stood on tiptoes and kissed him with the need that had been building within her, sucked his lip between her teeth and felt her heart beat between her legs.
She went on the contraceptive pill the next week and praised science every time his semen ran down her legs.
Her friends did not like him.
At the first flat party she took him to she watched as they glared in his direction.
She stood beside him the whole night, protecting him from them. She was off kilter with alcohol and giddy with pride despite it all. Her eyes struggled to focus on anything but his face. Besotted, she drank in the curve of his mouth, the way he drew his lips back when he smiled, the exaggerated gulp of his throat when he took a sip of beer.
He was eloquent and witty, made them all laugh despite themselves.
When he tried to kiss her in front of them, she hesitated. Knew they would judge her for a public display of affection. They had already given her long serious talks about how he was ‘changing’ her, how she had begun to ignore them, ignore her work. But she did it anyway, leaned into him and gave her self over.
She chose him, didn’t care what she was saying goodbye to.
Eventually they were living together.
Moved out of the city, to a new town where she knew no one, where they could start a life together.
They had a bed that was theirs, not hers or his but theirs and she loved it. Treated it with all the reverence expected of an altar, lay in it long after he left for work, inhaling the smell he left behind.
For the first few weeks she devoted her days to scrolling through jobsites and staring out the window.
The bedroom looked over a perpetually half empty car park with bright jagged graffiti on a red brick wall. She tried to decipher the meaning of the graffiti but never could, watched in hope that the artist would return and add something that would make it all click and solve the riddle, but they never did.
She always kept the windows propped open, so the cries of seagulls and the guttering of the trains kept her company.
As the weeks ran into months her days were spent wholly in bed, waiting for him. Waking up was less of an awakening more a move into a less heavy stupor, the fog stayed in her head until he came. Only then did she allow herself to untangle her limbs from the heavy duvet and move cautiously into the living room with him.
In the cavernous space of her days she began paying attention to her nails. Painted them with a dedication and care she had never known before. Every day she cloaked them in a different shade: dull gold, blood clot red, freckled pink, daffodil yellow, oil spill shimmer. In the bathroom mirror she would bring her hands up to delicately cup her face and admire her nails, shiny and glittery or matt and dull. She ordered a good file off the internet and sawed them to perfect little neat oval shapes, the nail dust fell and collected in the creases of their bed sheets.
She found that when they had sex she liked to position her hands so she could see her nails against his skin. She pressed them against his chest, nails dragging across the flesh above his heart, or curled them around his shoulders. That’s how she judged each varnish. She threw out her grey sky colour because it washed his skin out and then the fleshy pink because it made his eyes look mean. Bruised purple looked good against his chest and the bright fresh-wound pink thrilled her when she tangled her fingers through his hair.
She got the train to a job interview in the city.
It was late August and the days were mouldering in a final appearance of hot weather. The train had no air conditioning and too many people.
Her body betrayed her and sweated through her crisp white blouse, her upper lip dripped sweat into her lipstick, and strands of suddenly lank hair fell out of the bun she had agonized over.
She had always hated crowds, the pushing of strange bodies against hers, the inescapable current, the muffled ‘sorry, excuse me’ she never seemed to choke out loud enough. And all those prying eyes scratching over skin, trying to pull some shred of your identity or your history from your current appearance. She never listened to music in crowds anymore, always too worried that a stranger would hear a leaked snippet and judge her for her taste.
It was one of the reasons they had moved out of the city, she had grown sick of all those bodies and all those eyes.
Forced back into it, she felt the insidious grip of panic begin to close in around her.
She lost control of her breathing, it became laboured and shallow. She worried that other passengers could hear her.
Strips of blurred green countryside and smudged houses clung to the windows. Her eyes struggled to focus, the trees degenerating into dark swirls too insubstantial for her to understand.
She looked down at her hands in her lap. With a bitter contraction of her throat she noticed that the cream coloured varnish had chipped off the corner of her right middle fingernail.
She wanted to scream.
The chipped nail mocked her, told her that failure was inevitable.
She contemplated skipping the interview and just going home, but she knew he would be disappointed in her.
He so wanted her to get the job, so she stayed. Reached the office sweaty and nauseous.
A comfortably plump greying man and a blonde woman with smudged eyeliner interviewed her. She kept the hand with the offending nail in a tight, savage fist, nails biting into skin. When the time came to shake hands, she was shell shocked, aghast that the interview was apparently over; she awkwardly used her left hand so they wouldn’t see the chipped nail, elbow jutting out in defiance at the unfamiliar gesture.
When she left the office, her phone told her she had been interviewed for half an hour. She had no memory of what she had been asked or what she had said. All she remembered was the presence of her chipped nail throbbing within her fist.
Choking on her tears she ran to the station.
The train spat her and all the disgruntled commuters out into the late evening sun. He texted her to say he would pick her up on his way home, so she moved to the front of the station to wait.
She could hear a group of teenagers loitering on the train platform to her left. Their jeering and the indistinct music playing from one of their phones mingled with the whirring from the busy road.
She snuck a quick glance.
There were nine of them. All stood in a loose cluttered horde, shoulders stooped towards each other in a non-committal sort of camaraderie. A tall boy grabbed one of the girls and play-acted shoving her into the tracks. The girl’s shrieks slashed through the evening air.
She imagined a rougher than intended shove, an unexpected train, the blood splatter hitting the platform.
His car pulled up cautiously. She was happy when she saw him, glad to be in his familiar sphere, to shed the stiffness the world had imposed on her all day and to take on the warmth and comfort he provided.
As they pulled out of the car park, he turned the music off and asked about the interview in that excited, childish way he had.
She forced a smile, ‘alright’, then quickly, forcefully, ‘How was your day?’
He laughed, played along, told a quick story about someone stealing his special coffee from the break room.
‘But really, how did the interview go?’
‘I’ve already said it was fine.’
The finality was clear in her tone. But he pushed, asked again, squeezed her arm in an encouraging, comforting way. A coldness spiked in her throat and then she was screaming.
Screaming at him.
Words, hot and forceful, pushed themselves from her mouth. She balled her day up into a tight roiling mass and threw it at him. She hated herself but pushed on, annoyed when he would respond, incensed when he didn’t.
At a red light she noticed people in other cars staring in at her and she fell silent.
Her words lingered, ghosts begotten by her that repeated themselves in her ears. Regret seeped into her.
‘I think I fucked up the interview,’ she whispered.
When they got home, he drew her to him, held her for a while in an infuriatingly patient act of forgiveness.
‘It’s okay,’ he whispered into her hair. ‘I’m here now.’ She looked over his shoulder and watched the summer dying in the garden, warmth and light draining out of everything and leaving only grey.
She realised he was too good for her.
He led her to their bed, and she pulled him in with her, lay her face on his chest and cried onto him.
When she was done crying, she dragged her fingers through his chest hair and noticed her nails had grown long and pointed.
She froze, revolted.
That morning her nails had been the perfect length, not too long, not too short.
Now they looked like she had been growing them for months, so long they curved down. The varnish that she had carefully applied that morning was chipped and worn, barely visible on some nails.
They looked like the nails of someone who had been kidnapped and emerged years later, unwashed and half feral.
She sat up, unintentionally pulling the covers away from his body and waking him from the doze he had fallen into.
‘What’s up?’ His voice was thick, fogged with sleep.
He was already pulling her on top of him as she muttered ‘nothing’. His hands moved down her body and his mouth closed over hers.
She twisted her hands under the covers and when he began to touch her, she forgot about the nails. The change she had witnessed in herself wiped completely from her memory.
She loved him most of all when they made dinner together. Not to say that she wasn’t always aware of the inconceivable amount of love she carried for him, but when they cooked together, she choked on it.
He sang and danced and dragged her about the kitchen as if they were children at a birthday party. He would come up behind as she chopped vegetables, press her against the counter and kiss her neck. Once she turned to face him, he would bounce away tugging her by the hand and twirling her.
No one had ever made her so happy.
The day after her interview the woman called her and told her she had the job. She was starting in a week.
When she told him, he hooted like an excited child, barrelled through the door with a bottle of wine and an abundance of frivolity. Lifted her up and swung her round until she was dizzy and sick with love.
He said he would make her favourite dinner, shooed her away from cutting the vegetables.
Nursing a glass of wine, she watched him whirl through the kitchen.
She imagined what it would be like if they had a kid. It would sit on his shoulders and wave down at her. She would read to it and he would play it music. It would have his hair and his mouth. Maybe she would give it her eyes.
She knew he would be a good father. Wondered if he knew that she would struggle.
He came over just to kiss her.
She watched him walk back to the oven and felt a surge of warmth quiver through her. Emanating from her lower belly it roamed throughout her body, curled her toes, shivered along her arms and spread down to her finger tips. Her fingers tingled and then, as she squeezed her legs together, she felt her nails. Longer and sharper than they had been moments before. They bit into the flesh of her palms, the soft skin retreating from the spiked tips, blood waiting, wanting to well up.
With the new job she didn’t have time to paint her nails anymore, the carefully arranged bottles of varnish grew dusty in the corner of their bedroom. Her file fell down the side of the sofa and was forgotten.
With the cold weather and them both being out of the house all day the windows remained closed and mustiness creeped through the rooms. She did not notice when the graffiti in the car park got painted over. The curtains were always closed over that window now, no reason to open them in the morning, no reason to let the sunlight into an empty room.
They only had sex at night now, just before sleep and usually with the harsh glare of the bedroom light chasing the shadows from their bodies.
Amid the usual fumblings, she found that she liked to dig her nails deep into his flesh. Every time she felt his soft skin surrendering to the strength of her nails, a thrilling dose of pleasure coursed through her. She followed the blue threads of his forearm veins with her nails, would feel his pulse, and biting her lip, imagined what it would be like to slash one open.
Without fail he walked away from sex with long crimson ribbons painted down his back. In late October he asked her to stop, ‘the pain’s just distracting,’ he said.
She liked it too much though, even found herself doing it in public. Slashing at him in the aisles of supermarkets when he annoyed her. Or in bars and cinemas, curling them into the meat of his arm in arousal.
One Saturday morning he grabbed her by the wrists after she came close to piercing his thighs and pinned them above her head. She used to like when he did things like that, but it didn’t work this time. She struggled with genuine conviction to get her nails back into his flesh. Felt them aching with tension, a hardness clenched under her skin, stiffening her arms like stone.
He finished before she could reach him, rolled away from her.
Without meaning to she whined pathetically, like a dog that had just been kicked. She reached down to herself, frantic and aggressive, scratched, dug and tore at her flesh as if pain no longer registered.
After she came, she looked over at him, noticed the way he was looking at her and a wave of shame darkened her face.
It was only when she went to the toilet that she felt the sting, noticed the blood under her nails and mixing pink with his semen as it dripped down her legs.
He said, ‘We can’t keep going if you keep on like this.’
She didn’t know if it was a threat or a fact, but it sunk into her like teeth into icing.
He said it the morning after, when her tongue was fuzzy and her breath strong with the memory of wine.
The skin on both his forearms was torn in short tense lines, little dots of scabs had formed where she had really tried to hurt.
She found it hard to look at him.
She couldn’t remember much, like someone had scooped her brains out with a teaspoon. It was only meant to be one or two drinks, that was what the girl at work had said.
‘You never come out after work. How are we meant to get to know you?’
At the time she had forgotten about her lack of self-control when it came to drink. She could remember urging them to stay, buying them drinks, not wanting to go home, not wanting to go back to him.
Flickering memories of screaming and clawing blinked into her head, the aftertaste of unprovoked anger and unfound hatred acidic at the back of her throat. Shame forced her mouth open wide and slithered down her gullet, sent its tentacles out to every inch of her body.
It consumed her.
For the first time in years she wanted to go to confession, to go back to that life of devotion, of absolution. She wanted to go to one of those kind dignified men of her childhood, to spit out the writhing mass of her shame at his feet and watch him kill it with a prescription of ten Hail Mary’s.
But she didn’t believe anymore so she curled up, pulled the covers that smelled like him over her face and let deep rolling sobs heave her body until she felt like she was going to vomit again.
He said he forgave her, his head on her chest, calmly brushing away the night.
She spent the rest of the day on the sofa, intermittently crying and saying she was sorry, so, so sorry.
That night they lay like they did every night, close, breathing each other in through the ignorance of sleep, his arms tight and warm around her, their hands interlinked.
She woke up at four.
The room was dark, a conglomeration of pale nocturnal shapes; she focused on her desk and in the mirror saw them lying together.
She itched to remove the image of her from him, to scratch all trace of her away from his arms, imagined tearing strips of her until only absence existed. She would fill this with the body of someone better, someone he deserved.
When she looked away from the mirror and back to the bed a cold shiver danced through her flesh.
Her nails had grown even longer. They looked nightmarish; cruel, curved and yellow, the skin jagged and black where it met her nail beds. She realised with a sick churn of her stomach that she could feel through them as if they had as many nerve endings as the tips of her fingers. They throbbed and ached, felt each fibre of the bed sheet as she stroked them along it.
They reminded her of steak knives, and as she ripped long gashes into the pillow with an eager joy, she learnt that they were just as sharp.
She had started scratching herself in her sleep.
Woke to poppies blooming on the white bed sheets and the nudging presence of skin and scabs stuck under her nails.
Every morning she diligently stuck plasters on her scratches. Polka-dotted herself with them.
They didn’t sleep in the same bed anymore.
Before, she had woken each morning to find him covered in scratches. He told her that he had tried to hold her down several times, but she always fought back.
She could never remember doing it.
It was also why he wouldn’t have sex with her anymore.
One morning he woke her with a rough shove. A long gash wept bloody down his cheek. His eyes had changed. The morning sunlight glinted in through the window, harsh and watery, it fell on his face and she could see the toll she had taken on him. He looked old and tired, stubble crawled untended over his jaw, his eyes were sunken and his skin grey.
She hated herself. Mouthed apologies, tried to embrace him but he shoved her again, told her to shut up and grabbed a hand. He wielded a small pair of nail scissors like a weapon. Holding her with a strength she never expected from him, he squeezed so her fingers were splayed and immovable, clenched with pain.
But her nails looked like normal nails, short and neat, nails you would expect someone who worked with food to have.
They were not the nails that scratched and tore.
He faltered when he noticed, his face falling into a limp defeated kind of shock.
She wasn’t shocked. Already she had a vague half-notion of how they worked, knew they only came out sometimes, and always without her consent.
He hacked at them anyway, plunged the sharp little scissors deep into her nail beds and executed hard uneven cuts. Jagged bits of nails pinged around the room, spread themselves like seeds in the wind.
When he finished, her hands felt bruised and multiple nails were bleeding from where he had cut too deep.
After that he slept permanently on the sofa in the living room. It was her bed now; the sofa was his. In his absence her nails had turned on her and they were just as sharp as before.
He was barely in the flat anymore.
When she asked him where he was or what he was doing he had two replies: dinner at his mum’s and out with friends from work.
Neither fit with the times he was gone, the fact he never seemed to have been drinking, and his ravenous hunger when he did return.
In his absence she started watching porn.
The practice was unfamiliar to her. At first, she found it all cringey, never felt any attraction to the actors, was repulsed by all that unnecessary talking.
Yet her body responded to the basic facts of the actions displayed.
She got used to it.
She also got used to her nails. Learned when they came out and how long they stayed. She began to notice that when the usual familiar strains of pleasure began to emerge so too did the unusual. The tingling finger tips, the peculiar sense of release as her nails grew, the hardness pressing up from under her skin.
She experimented with watching them come out, rapt with a perverse fixation. Guilt laced through her life for days afterwards, like when she first masturbated. At work, memories would surface of what she had done the night before, she would blush and go quiet, deeply ashamed, paranoid her colleagues would somehow read her mind.
She contemplated going to church, not to confess but just to sit there, to find whatever it was that she used to find there, some sort of meaning, or some sort of peace. But she knew it held nothing for her anymore, she had replaced it.
Whenever he came back to the flat, she tried to speak to him, swallowed down the shame and approached him slowly. She sat in the kitchen quietly and watched him make himself dinner, usually microwave meals.
His answers were monosyllabic. He executed each movement with tension, slammed cupboards, stabbed microwave buttons with the spear of his finger. His shoulders were perpetually stiff, poised with a hunched declaration of anger and fear.
His anger would provoke physical responses from her. She felt each slam reverberate deliciously down her spine, her hands clawed the air desperate for purchase, her teeth ached to bite and tear. She found herself panting, chest heaving like a heroine in a romance novel. It wasn’t because of some dramatic forbidden love affair, but because of what she wanted to do to him. The fantasies that played out unbidden behind her eyes, terrified her. She usually ran from the room, filled with desire and a wracking sense of horror.
She also knew that when she left the room that he would relax, let his body loosen and go about his business without the coil of brute force ready and eager to spring.
In all their meagre encounters he could never meet her eyes.
She knew why.
Unlike the people at work he didn’t have to develop mind reading abilities, he already knew what she was, what she was turning into.
A seagull slammed itself against the bedroom window and slumped lifelessly on the pavement below.
It was the thud of the collision that woke her.
On cold feet she padded into the living room. He was a dark hill on the sofa. She didn’t know what time he had come back.
She gazed at him with eyes threatening tears. A good man, she thought to herself.
Throughout the course of their relationship she had always been shocked to find, what she could only describe as a maternal instinct, awakening whenever she watched him sleep.
It welled within her now, expanded her chest and tightened her eyes. She wanted to hold him, wanted to kiss his forehead and protect him.
With hands frozen with the winter chill she pulled the blanket off him and as he stirred, she slipped in, laid her body carefully next to his.
Without fully waking up he curled his arms around her and pulled her closer, mumbling something without form.
It was his instinct, she realised, or his habit, to love her.
She laid her hand on the warmth of the skin of his back. Pressed her lips gently to his, overlapped them like shingles on a roof and breathed.
He kissed her sleepily.
A slow, lazy choreography that she had missed. He grew against her thigh. She hesitated for a second, then traced him lightly with her fingertips. Knowing she should not continue, her touch was tentative, profound with want and need, stilted with the last vestiges of her better judgment.
He never opened his eyes, but his touch grew stronger, conscious and more aware. His hand pushed against the small of her back until her resistance weakened and she was on top.
Her body reacted against her will, she leant over him, bit his neck and let her hair fall in his face.
Panic sparked and flared, told her to get off him and run, but it was washed away by a horrible consuming need. It flooded her, ravenous and absolute, drowned her worries, her control, her love.
In the dark he was more touch than a real person, the intricacies of his face melted into shadow and he became nothing more than scratching stubble and searching tongue.
A shared intake of air when she took him inside of her, their breath filled the room, but she had lost all awareness of it, all awareness of him, and of herself.
The blanket fell off them and the cold stroked her flesh, worked its way into her throat and spiked.
She was far from herself when it happened.
The change was sudden and complete.
It immersed her as if she had calmly slipped into water that was fated to drown her. The nails came first, grey verging on black, thick and ragged, curved and unyielding. They ripped through the skin of her hands and left her flesh hanging sad and limp.
She raked them along his chest, sensed the frailty of his ribcage, he bucked his hips into her, trancelike and unaware.
She watched him closely, traced his lips with one of the razor-edged nails, leant over and licked the little threads of blood that formed.
Then, like old paint peeling off a wall, her skin sloughed off her body, she saw it curl and wither off into the darkness.
Her new body was hard and grey. The skin calcified and stone-like, blood oozing between dry cracks like arid land that has just received a sacrifice. A shuddering collection of cracks reverberated around the room as her spine ruptured and formed a new shape. Like some horrific crow; dark, naked and bent.
Her face was next. She felt it contort as if it was numbed by the dentist and instead of working on her teeth, they plunged their fingers into her cheeks and remoulded her face like playdough.
His eyes flickered, hazy strips of white peeping out from between eyelids, consciousness struggling and failing to reinstate itself. His body slack and heavy, tranquilized and limp with loss of control.
She spat a collection of teeth out onto the floor, blood and saliva hanging from her mouth in long strands as new ones, long and jagged, began to crowd her mouth.
They had both forgotten everything, who they were, apart and together, the sex, the flat. Everything was gone, darkness collected and surrounded them.
She poised over his chest and with an inhuman gasping release she reached and tore into his chest. Nails ripping through skin and viscera. She curled her fingers that were now all nails within his warmth, felt his heart beat its last.
It was the best sex she had ever had.