by Stephanie Stephan
Emma slid a pomegranate-colored business card across the bar, then quickly hid her gloved hands in the crooks of her arms. “Are you sure you want this?” Her voice was sincere, but her mouth was hard, as though she regretted giving me the opportunity to change my mind.
I told her my decision was made. This was sort of a last-ditch effort. If it worked, it worked. If it didn’t, no big deal. Frankly, I didn’t expect it to work, though in secret, I still held on to a desperate hope that it would.
Emma’s right leg began to jiggle. She eyed her untouched glass of wine. She said nothing. I picked up the card. The word Cuckoos flowed across it in metallic orange. It was magma in the low light.
“Did it work for you?” I asked.
She bit her lip.
“It worked well enough…are we done here?” She slid off the bar stool and grabbed her purse.
“Wait. No, not yet. How do I contact them?”
Emma looked over her shoulder. “You don’t. They’ll come to you.”
“How will they know where I am?”
“They’ll come to you,” she repeated, and the conversation was closed.
Later on, I discovered Emma’s name on the back of the card, written in that same magma script. Beneath it, a single word: Fingernails.
I didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed best not to ask.
Every morning before work I slid the card between my breasts. The Cuckoos could show up at any moment, so I wanted to keep it close. But as the days dragged on, my vigilance waned.
Three weeks passed. Ordinary. Uninterrupted. I lost interest in the card. I became annoyed with myself for having believed in it at all, but by then, it was like a second set of house keys. I carried it out of habit.
The lab where I work has no smell. Its amniotic shades of gray empty me of myself. There is comfort in that emptiness, but not everyone can handle it. I spend most of my time there alone, nurturing my research.
So when the sweet-rot smell of moss and marshmallows hit my nose one afternoon in late October, I turned to stone.
I looked up from my Petri dish. A girl stood before me, dark eyes unblinking. Near the incubator on the far counter was a second girl. A third stood beside the emergency shower, fiddling with the chain. Though they appeared to be teenagers, their matching briar patch hair was already gray. Their fingers were stacked with pewter rings, some bearing a green and gray speckled stone. A human tooth hung on a cord around each of their necks. It was like looking at three artists’ renditions of the same person.
The girl in front of me leaned across the table. She tilted her head and I noticed the other two tilt their heads at the same angle, as though the three of them were connected.
“There must be balance,” said the girl, “When something is destroyed, something else is created.
They are the same thing really…creation and destruction. Of course, this is nothing new. Everybody knows everything these days.”
“I—what?” I asked.
She sighed. “Your request. We can do it. The question is, can you pay for it?”
I didn’t hesitate. “Name your price.”
“The price is up to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s about trust,” she said. “We need to see your level of dedication…your level of desire. These things don’t come cheap. You’ll only get back what you put into it. Pay us what you think it’s worth. We will know if your sacrifice is genuine.”
“Okay. What do I have to do?”
“There is an abandoned church about a mile up the river. Are you familiar with it?”
I’d heard of it.
She explained how to get there and what to do once I arrived. Not once did she blink. When she was finished, she looked at my breasts, seeming to see through my lab coat to the card nestled between them.
“Don’t lose that,” she said. “You might use it for inspiration.” Then she walked to the door, duplicates in tow. She paused in the doorway.“She’s right, you know. You have such beautiful hair.”
The half-moon above was the heavy-lidded eye of the woman I longed to be. There was just enough light to see the sheen of water on my oars as they appeared and disappeared in the river. The card seemed to pulse in time with my heart. Bundled beneath my jacket was my sacrifice. The cold air stung my newly exposed ears. I hardened myself to the season and focused on the rhythm of the oars.
On my 31st birthday my mother-in-law gave me a pair of tiny socks that she had crocheted herself. It was her way of reminding me that, like everyone else, there is a clock hanging over my head. Then she gave me a compliment I have never forgotten.
“You have such beautiful hair. It would be a shame to keep it all to yourself.”
It was the closest she’d ever come to voicing her disappointment. I’d always been so proud of my hair. It only took a few seconds for her to make me resent my body for growing it.
That night in bed, David apologized for his mother. She could be tactless. Pushy. She just wanted her son to be happy. Her version of happy.
“But why does she think that?” I asked. “Why does she think that would make you happy? Sometimes I worry that you want more than this—that I’m not giving you enough. Am I giving you enough?”
He hesitated. For only a moment. But that splinter of silence wedged itself between us. I rolled over onto my side. He apologized. He tried to explain. But he didn’t have to. I understood.
My research has always taken priority. Every day I come closer to a breakthrough. Progress is slow, but it’s real. I can’t give David a child. I don’t want to. And I can’t help but think… if instead, I was the mother of some great scientific discovery…well, maybe that would be enough to fill those tiny socks.
For that, I would pay anything.
I dragged the boat onto the riverbank. The empty church before me was choked with vines. I stumbled to the farthest corner of the graveyard, over smashed tombstones with blurred epitaphs.
The well was nothing more than an old hole in the ground. Beside it was a bucket with a rope tied to the handle. I unzipped my coat and pulled out a towel. Wrapped inside was a mass of tight, dark curls. The sight of it made my stomach churn. Instinctively, I touched my numb ears. I had chopped most of it off, out of fear that my sacrifice might not be enough. The hair that was left was shaggy and uneven. I took a deep breath and got on my hands and knees.
I placed the hunk of hair in the bucket and slowly lowered it into the hole. The well slurped up the rope, linguine-like. Soon the bucket was far away. If this worked, I could finally be at ease. But if it didn’t…
I felt a flash of shame.
What a pathetic thing to resort to. My face grew hot. With a yank, I reeled the bucket back towards the surface. It didn’t matter what anyone thought. I had no reason to feel guilty about my priorities. The choice was mine.
Suddenly the rope snapped taut. The weight at the end pulled me flat against the ground. My heart pounded against the frozen earth. The rope relaxed again. Hands shaking, I pulled the bucket out of the well. I looked inside. My hair was gone. The cold night pressed down on me. Though I didn’t want to, I peered into the long, deep darkness.
Then, from out of the darkness came a hand.
Small and shriveled like a pickled plum, it gripped my jacket with astonishing strength. I screamed. Fingernail shards stuck out of its raw nail beds like fresh pins in a cushion. Tangled around its infantile fingers were my curls.
Again, I screamed. I thrust my hand into the darkness and felt something slimy. I shoved it away. There was a loud crack, and the hand let go. I scrambled back to the boat. I pushed it out onto the river and climbed in. A burning fire erupted in my chest. I reached into my shirt and pulled out the card. It seared the tips of my fingers raw, then cooled instantly. The word on the front winked. I turned the card over. There, scrawled in glowing magma script was my name. Beneath it, a single word:
Bio: Stephanie Stephan has not made a sacrifice to the well yet. But she will need to act soon. The clock is ticking. Visit her at stephanie-stephan.com or on Instagram @stephanielstephan.