They were stronger than me. My arms were splayed uselessly across the ground, held down by two of them on both sides of me. Another one was kneeling behind me, holding my head between their knees, keeping me from turning my head.
I looked up. It was a girl, barely older than me, with a nose ring and violet eye shadow. She was wearing my denim jacket, the one I wanted to show off to Taylor when she came back from camp.
Dad was still shouting. He couldn't have been more than several feet away, but he might as well as have been in a different state. I could barely focus on it through the white noise that had done a number on my mind, preventing me from putting my thoughts in order.
It was odd how calm I felt. My heart was rapidly beating against my chest and I was starved for air, but it almost as if it was happening to someone else, I a stranger in my own body. Would I wake up in my bed in a few minutes, all this just a bad nightmare?
I watched curiously as the thug with the bandanna approached. He straddled me, his weight pressing hard against my stomach and I ached from where they had kicked me earlier. He pushed his left hand down against my hair, keeping me still. His other hand held the knife, long and thin, and he pressed the flat of the blade against my nose.
The metal felt cool to the touch, even as hot sweat dripped down my brow, mixing with the tears I hadn't realized had begun to flow. Was that me who was crying?
"Nose," he whispered. He raised the knife and slowly moved it upwards. I closed my eyes, feeling the steel rest against my twitching eyelid.
I re-opened my eyes as he moved the blade down, the flat tapping against my lips.
The knife looped around, brushing away the hair from my face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him catch one of my earrings with the blade's point, lightly tugging at it.
"Well, you can hide the ears with the hair," he murmured. He pulled harder with the knife and my ear grew hot with pain. "So maybe I'll take both. Which will it be?"
I didn't understand what he was asking. I heard the words, but I didn't perceive the connection between them.
"Unh?" someone said.
He gently re-traced his path across my face with the knife. "One eye, the nose, the mouth, or both ears. Yan here thinks she has what it takes to be a member, instead of a common whore, so you choose one of the above, and she goes to town on the part in question, proves her worth."
"Holy shit, Lao," the girl above me chortled. "That's fucked up."
I still felt detached. I couldn't process what was going on, I couldn't rationalize it. It was like there was a glass screen separating me from my vision, a filter for my sensations, like a badly edited scene from a movie. There was no way this was real. I was still in the car, listening to Taylor talk about nature camp.
Things like this didn't happen to people like me. This wasn't me—it was someone else on the ground that was trapped, someone else whose dad was screaming their name, someone else that was crying as a knife was pressed against their face, someone else—
The thug pressed the flat of the knife hard against my cheek, the edges prickling against my skin. "Pick."
My thoughts skidded to a halt. I suddenly became painfully aware of the pressure of the blade and my vision cleared as I saw the face of the thug in the bandanna. I realized that I was hyperventilating, tears obscuring my vision as my heart felt as though it would burst out of my chest from how fast it was beating. I blinked away the tears as I searched fruitlessly for an answer, a way to make sense of the nightmare that was happening.
I found it in front of me. There was a shadow on top of the car, behind the thugs. It wore a metal hockey mask and was dressed in a black costume that hugged against a feminine figure. She wore a hooded cape that fluttered lightly from the sea breeze. She said nothing, remaining perfectly still as she calmly observed things unfold.
Her eyes were locked with mine. Why wasn't she doing anything? Why was she just sitting there?
Lao, the man with the bandanna, handed the knife to the girl holding my head between her knees. "Don't worry, ginger, just a little cut and we'll let you go."
The girl tossed the knife from hand to hand before she lowered the point down just above my eyebrow, gently tugging down at my eyelid. I stopped breathing, a horrible anticipation bubbling up inside me.
"Pick," the girl said. "No, wait…"
She took the hair she had cut off from me earlier. She shoved it against my open mouth. "Eat it, then pick."
The shadow still hadn't done anything. She kept staring at me, as though she were looking through me. Judging me, weighing my worth. I wanted to shout out, to tell her to do something, but my breath was caught in my throat. I was unable to do anything besides blubbering softly.
The girl began to tap the flat of the blade against my forehead. "Pick already or I'll pick for you. Maybe I'll cut them all off if you don't choose; then you won't be such a pretty ginger bitch anymore."
The cape continued staring at me, saying nothing, doing nothing. Why? Why did she continue just sitting there? Was she waiting on me to do something, to start a fight trapped like I was?
The tapping grew more insistent now. "Are you deaf or something? Choose already."
Go forward? Go backward? I was trapped, stuck between the cruel faces of the monsters that held me down and the gaze of the silent cape that did nothing but watch me. I felt something desperate bubbling out from my chest and my entire body began badly shaking.
"Fuck it," the girl spat. "I'll start with your mouth—"
"N-n-no," I stammered, somehow managing to speak. "I'll— I'll pick."
"Then eat," the girl insisted, pressing the hair against my mouth. "Now."
I looked helplessly at the cape, willing her to do something, anything. Why wasn't she doing anything? What kind of hero just watched this happen?
"Eat!" the girl demanded again, the knife coming to rest against my cheek again. I opened my mouth and let the hair fall inside my mouth. I tried to swallow but I almost spat it out instead.
"Swallow," the girl with the eye shadow said insistently. I gulped, resisting my gag reflex as the hair went down my throat, the awful taste making me want to vomit it back out.
She waved the knife again. "Pick now. I'm done waiting."
I stared once last time at the cape, as I tried to communicate my intent to her with my eyes. Just do something, save me, help me!
The girl twirled the knife, growing more impatient by the moment. Still the cape did nothing but continue to stare at me.
The defeat washed over me. I cringed and made my decision.
Light glinted off the blade as the girl lowered the knife, her face contorted into a cruel smile. She grabbed roughly at my hair, tugging my head off the ground as she braced her knees against my shoulders for leverage. My neck was badly strained, but I could see the cape more clearly now, just as still and silent since she had first arrived.
I was about to lose a part of myself forever, literally cut off my face. I couldn't be a model anymore— who would want a nose-less girl to pose for them? Every time I would stare in the mirror from now on, I would always have a reminder of this nightmare.
I felt a part of me withering then, something I would never recover, a wound that I knew would hurt more deeply than what this girl was about to do. My mind drifted to Taylor, of all people. Taylor had, in her way, been put to the knife, had had an irreplaceable part of herself carved away. Not a nose, but a mother. A light within her had gone forever and she was no longer the same person.
I remembered when she had gotten the news. She had been so upset that she had cried herself to sleep for an entire week, not once getting out of bed. I remembered sitting with her and talking with her then, how she had retreated into herself, a pale shadow of the person she had been before. Was that going to happen to me? Was I going to become like Taylor?
I wasn't even strong enough to fight back here. And I wouldn't be strong enough to ever move past this.
The knife rested just under my nose, the flat pressed against my lips. I began trembling violently, but the girl bore her weight down on my shoulders.
"Stay still, this won't take long."
I kept staring at the cape, hoping, praying for her to finally start doing something. The knife just laid against beneath my nose. The girl hadn't done anything yet, nothing had happened yet.
This was the moment I would wake up, right? Like those nightmares that wake you up in the middle of the night. Things like this didn't happen in the real world. In the real world, girls my age didn't go around mutilating people just to enter a gang. In the real world, a cape wouldn't just sit there and watch this happen. In the real world, Emma Barnes wasn't so pathetic so as to not even fight back. Any moment now I would wake up in my bed and forget all about this dream. I would just go back to wondering when my best friend was coming back from nature camp and what we would do for our first year in high school together. Any moment now I would—
That's when she started cutting.
I had never experienced much pain in my life. The worst time was when I had badly skinned my knee a few years ago when Taylor and I had been bicycling around the neighborhood. I had cried like a baby when Taylor's mom had put rubbing alcohol on the wound and bandaged me up. Some isolated scrapes and bruises, but that was it. Nothing truly serious, never the kind of pain that could threaten to drive you mad with panic and fright, the kind you would give anything to stop.
The girl cut.
The cape watched.
I was thrashing about, uselessly trying to free my arms from under the thugs, to try to grab the knife and rip it away from the girl's grasp. I felt blood streaming down, past my mouth, past my chin. I could taste copper and salt on my tongue. The girl was cursing, pressing down more on my shoulders, pulling harder against my hair. The knife wasn't as sharp as it looked and she had to apply more pressure.
The girl cut.
The cape watched.
Flesh, sinew, and cartilage parted as the knife sawed away, proceeding slowly yet surely. The cape continued staring at me all the while, even as my nose was sawed off. Her eyes crinkled, her expression changing for the first time. Even through my agony, I recognized what they conveyed.
Disgust. Contempt. Disappointment.
Her form became insubstantial, transforming into living smoke and shadow. She blended into the darkness of the alley, slipping away as if she had never been there. And as the pain grew in intensity, the agony smashing my thoughts into a thousand splinters and leaving me more than half-mad, maybe she never had. She could have been a figment of my imagination, just another useless way of trying to come to grips with this horror.
After an agonizing eternity, the blade hit empty air and something wet and fleshy tumbled off my face and onto my shirt. The hand holding my hair let go and my head tumbled backwards, striking forcefully against the ground. I barely noticed it, my vision blurred and the center of my face hot with excruciating pain. I blinked rapidly, trying to clear away the tears as I whimpered.
I noticed that they were no longer holding me down. The thugs were standing up and the man with the bandanna gingerly held something small and misshapen between his fingers.
"Fuck," the girl laughed. "That's disgusting, Lao. Are you really going to keep it?"
"I could make a necklace out of it. Like a trophy. Get some use out of this bitch. Add some others to it later."
Weakly, I propped myself up by my hands, scrabbling backwards until I braced my back against the wall of the alley. Blood down flowed in steady rivulets from the ruin that used to be my nose. My movement got their attention.
"Where you going, ginger?" said the girl standing by Dad, the bottom half of her face hidden behind a kerchief. I tried to open my mouth to say something, but nothing came out, a lump stuck in my throat. All I could manage was a soft, rasping cough.
The girl with the eye shadow, Yan, turned back to Lao. "So, I passed, right? You'll take me to the rest of the group?"
Lao pocketed my amputated nose. "You did a decent job, but you were a little soft on her. Let her have too many chances. You can't be soft in this business." He eyed me. "Might be best if we had an encore. Really ensure your worth. Your choice this time."
I stopped breathing.
"Holy shit, you're a real freak, Lao," said one of the other thugs, chuckling.
Lao advanced on me, Yan flanking him with knife in hand. Lao grabbed me by my shirt, roughly hauling me to my feet.
I found myself suddenly capable of speech again, in short, halting bursts. "Y-y-you promised. You s-s-said that – that you would let me go after – after she was done."
Lao paused. Then he shrugged. "Guess I lied, ginger."
Something broke inside me, the last vestiges of any way of making sense of all this washing away.
I couldn't let him do that again. I couldn't just lie there and let her put the knife to me again—to just watch her cut off pieces of me one at a time. Even if they let me live past this, I wouldn't have really survived. I couldn't let that happen again; I would rather kill myself. I wouldn't be like Taylor—I would be worse than Taylor.
All this time, I had tried desperately to hang onto some sort of anchor, some way of grasping my sanity, so I didn't go utterly mad, to find some way to make sense of all this. But his words had taken the last remnants of my brittle stability and shattered them to pieces.
Yan grabbed my arm then.
A switch was suddenly flipped inside me. Something primal and inarticulate tore its way out of my throat, a sound I could have never imagined that I could make. Yan and Lao recoiled and I hooked my arm beneath Yan's, whirling around and smashing her head against the wall. She cried out, dropping the knife as she collapsed.
Lao was on me then, shouting, trying to press me up against the wall. I thrashed and bucked, before slashing out with my hand, my nails catching him beneath the eye, hooking underneath and digging into the meat even as I tore it out. Blood spurted and he shrieked in agony, lashing out with his fist and clipping me across my cheek. He collapsed, clawing at his face and screaming in pain.
I stumbled and the other thugs began moving as well, shouting in shock and surprise. I scrambled for the knife Yan had dropped and barely got my hands around it before one of the other gang members spun me around, making me drop the knife.
He braced my shoulder against the wall and thrust his knife deeply into my abdomen. I felt a sharp, shooting pain lancing inside my stomach, but I ignored it. I violently jerked my head forward, butting my head against his nose and he recoiled. Then I gripped his face, the knife still stuck inside me. I clamped my jaws around on his nose and bit down as hard as I possibly could.
I twisted my face, flesh and cartilage crunching between my teeth, and I felt something tear free. I spat out hot blood and meat as the thug howled in pain, stumbling backwards, trying to get away from me. The other girl and man were frozen, trembling with shock.
"Holy shit, she's gone crazy!"
I roared, pulling the knife out of my stomach, and jumped on top of the girl. I rode her hard down to the ground. Shrieking with fright, she didn't even raise her weapon to defend herself as I drove the blade into her neck. I ripped it out, her life blood arcing in a geyser as she gurgled feebly.
The other thug tackled me then, throwing me off the dying girl. He raised his knife to bear down on my face, but I raised my arm, the blade slicing against my forearm. He tried to find another angle, but I kept trying to attack his face, blocking his own attacks at mine. He switched tactics, bringing the blade low beneath my guard and began ramming the blade over and over into my stomach.
That was his mistake. He was fighting me as if I was another human being, as if I was fighting with logic and self-preservation guiding me. I was more of a beast than a person right now. I was fighting without pride or dignity, without restraint or reason. His knife was poking holes in me, but it wasn't preventing me from moving and it wasn't preventing me from hurting him. I ignored his stabs and pressed my fingers against his cheeks, bringing my thumbs beneath his eyes.
His eyes widened in fear as I pressed down as hard as I could. He shrieked with agony as I gouged out his eyeballs, the soft organs crushed easily against my thumbs. He let go of the knife, rolling off me and screaming with pain. I removed the knife from my stomach, my shirt now drenched with blood, and slammed the knife up through the underside of his chin. He stopped screaming, blood rapidly pouring out from the wound.
I grabbed the dead girl's knife and got back to my feet. The thug whose nose I bit off was gone and he had probably ran away. Yan was still by the wall, insensate as she moaned and clutched her head. Lao was by the wall across her, whimpering with pain, the fight completely out of him. He didn't resist as I knelt down and lifted his head. I slit his throat mechanically, as if it were an everyday occurrence. I watched the blood flow for a moment before I rose.
I turned my gaze to the girl, Yan. The one who had cut off my nose. I staggered towards her, the pain starting to come back as the adrenaline began to wear off. I grasped her hair and pulled her roughly down onto the ground. She yelped in surprise, her eyes fluttering open. I straddled her, the knife in my hand.
At the sight of me, she shrieked with fright. I must have looked like a nightmare out of hell right now, nose-less and soaked with blood on my face and shirt.
"You said something about an encore?" I rasped. My vision was starting to blur and I was beginning to feel dizziness set in.
Yan stammered incoherently, her face contorted with panic. "Please – please, don't! Not my face! I'll do anything, please just let me go!"
I stared at her, hatred welling in me as she virtually repeated what I had said earlier. She continued pleading in great, blubbering gasps. I didn't want to hear her talk. I just needed to do this one last thing.
I smashed my fist against her cheek, driving the back of her head against the ground. Her cries were abruptly cut off and she groaned, the impact dizzying her. I pressed my hand down hard against her forehead. I needed the leverage.
I put the flat of the blade just underneath her nose and in a single, rough motion, I jerked the knife up.
I accomplished in a few moments what had taken her several seconds earlier. The remnants of her nose slipped off her face, blood gushing in a fountain and running down her cheeks, down her chin, staining her shirt. She kept screaming so I gripped her throat, crushing it within my hand, her screams turning into choking gasps.
I jabbed the tip of the knife just below her left eye and pulled up and out. There was a horrible squelching sound as the eyeball popped free from its socket, even as the blade ripped into the flesh underneath. Blood welled and flowed from the ruined eye and Yan's muted screams grew more frantic.
My eyes felt wet and I realized that I had started crying. I smashed the butt of the knife against the side of her head, keeping her disoriented and off-balance. I grabbed her lips between my fingers, pursing them and raising them up. I rested the flat of the blade against the side of her mouth and I cut without preamble, the soft flesh easily parting before the steel. Blood welled and flowed into her mouth and she moaned wetly, incoherent phrases streaming out between her mangled lips.
I was sobbing without restraint now, my vision blurring as my hands shook. Still, I gripped one of her ears.
The cartilage easily fell away, leaving a small bleeding stump where it had been previously attached. I repeated the procedure on her other ear, deafening her. She was thrashing to no avail beneath me, her hands futilely reaching for her face. She kept screaming weakly, her strength draining out of her.
I stared down at the nightmare vision before me. She had a hole where there should have been a nose, one of her eyes was a caved in ruin, her lips had been torn away, and both of her ears were gone. That would have been me. The face staring up at me is what she would have done to me.
I beat her chest with my fists, still tasting blood in mouth. I sobbed, tears streaming down my face. "You bitch! Why did you people have to do this? How could you do this to me?"
I bowed my head, blubbering and crying uselessly for a few moments. Then I shrieked and raised the knife before I slammed it home into her chest. Bone creaked and cracked, as the knife pierced through her sternum. Yan convulsed, drawing a gasping breath as her back arched from the blow. I pulled out the knife, a spray of blood following it, and I stabbed down again. I was still crying, cursing her as I stabbed her again, and again, and again, each blow weaker than the last. Her chest stopped rising after the fourth blow.
I dropped the knife. I felt my strength fading, my muscles seizing up and I felt really, really tired all of a sudden. I slumped off of Yan's corpse, rolling over to lie on my back. I saw the sky above me, clouds lazily moving past the sun.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dad by my side, gripping my arm. He was shouting something into a phone, his face raw and streaked with tears. He turned to me and was saying something, his mouth moving rapidly, but I didn't understand what he was trying to tell me. I couldn't hear anything. Why was he crying? What was so sad?
My vision was fading faster now, the clouds blinking out of my sight. I felt cold spreading across my body, starting from fingers and toes and working its way towards my center. Sleep seemed like a really good idea right now. I would just take a nap... yes... just a short rest. When I woke up, we could go see Taylor. Everything was always better with Taylor around...
As the clouds faded out of view, I saw something else growing in my sight. Something vast and out of place.
There were two of them, two massive creatures that dwarfed comprehension, each the size of a small planet. They weren't vast in the same way that the ocean or the Earth was large—although it was that as well. Its extent was deeper than the surface level, like a million million mirror images superimposed upon each other, moving harmoniously yet distinctly.
As enormous as they were, they contracted, expanded, writhed, and twisted without somehow altering their size, extruding extra mass and movement into their mirrors. Each of these images was somehow part of a greater whole, connected to them as my hands and feet would have been a part of me. I knew somehow that they were living entities, two parts to a whole, a part of a dance that transcended human memory and time. They swam through nothingness in vast helical movements, shedding off enormous portions of themselves in their wake.
They communicated with each other, speaking with a force that could shatter mountains and sunder continents, each individual thought more expressive than I could have imagined possible.
Destination. Agreement. Trajectory. Agreement.
Everything started to grow dim again. The last thing I saw before my vision faded was a stray fragment from one of the pair, approaching me.
And then darkness.
Portions adapted from Interlude 19 of Worm. The description of the trigger vision is drawn from Miss Militia's interlude in 7.x as well as the description in 11.6.