Samantha remembers when the factory was a school.
Not much has changed. Long work tables have replaced long desks in the vast, cold room, and a supervisor paces with watchful eyes instead of a teacher.
High windows let in light the color of dirty water. Samantha’s fingers ache with the cold; the work cramps her bones. For just a moment she wishes she could climb up and up to stand beneath the sky, stretch her chilled fingers to ripple its surface, dive in and swim away. But before she can think more about the dirty-water sky, or when the factory was a school, another dead man comes down the line.
His body is wrapped in the tattered remains of his uniform. The patchwork cloth is thick and stiff with blood where it isn’t torn to let skin and bone show through. He is young, or he was young. There is no helmet protecting him, and half his face is missing, half his skull caved in.
Like a flock of falling birds, Samantha and the other skinny skin girls dive in. Their fingers are nimble-quick, and they vulture-pick the cold flesh. Scissors flash, cutting the tattered, blood-soaked cloth away. The rags go into the bins under the table; they will be washed tonight and stitched back together tomorrow. How many times, in how many forms, has this cloth passed through her hands?
After the man is stripped bare, knives will flash instead of scissors, and skin will be peeled from bone. Muscle, sinew, and fat will be ripped away, bone picked from bone, hip separated from thigh, knee from shin—from skull down to toes. The soldier’s bones will be cracked and the marrow sucked clean. Everything about the man who, Samantha assumes, once had a face and a name, will be torn down and repurposed to serve the cause of the war.
Samantha looks at the young man’s face, the half that isn’t ruined. She knows she shouldn’t; he is only raw material, only meat smelling of blood and burnt powder, but she can’t help herself. His hair was once dirty blond—now it is matted with fragments of skin and skull and blood. Behind the chill clouding of death, there is an eye that was once blue.
Her hands move automatically, slick and quick, searching for metal—bullets or coins—anything that can be melted down. Instead her fingers close on a scrap of paper. She draws it out, hunching over the table and sheltering it with thin-bone shoulders so no one will see.
It is a fragment of a letter, addressed to someone named Marietta. Samantha has seen dozens of dead letters like this—written to lovers and mothers and brothers and sons. She almost tosses the scrap into the bin, destined to become pulp again by nightfall, but something catches her eye. As two of the other skinny skin girls peel back the soldier’s sleeve, she sees ink on his arm.
In the dim, watery light, Samantha leans close. Marietta. She catches her breath at the doubled name, written on the dead soldier’s flesh and the scrap in her hand. Her head swims, and her mouth goes dry. The world spins on its axis and all at once she is infected; hope burns fever-bright beneath her skin.
Marietta. The name sings in her bones. This, she thinks, is love—a name written on flesh, blood carrying it to the heart with every beat. But the dead soldier’s heart doesn’t beat anymore—only its ghost, tucked inside Samantha’s skin.
It seems impossible, but in the gray of the factory, among the powder-scorched stench of the dead, she needs this one thing to be true. Quick-flash, her knife comes out and Samantha peels the name from the dead man’s skin. Her chilled fingers slip the skin and the letter into her pocket.
“What are you doing?” snaps Elee. “We haven’t even got his clothes off yet, and you’re already at his skin?”
She slaps the knife out of Samantha’s hand, and it clatters to the floor. The factory has made Elee’s eyes hard. Samantha’s raw skin smarts; it is already chapped and bruised, and the mark of Elee’s hand lingers too long. When Samantha doesn’t answer, Elee slaps her again.
“Bin’s full. Go wash the rags.”
Elee turns away, and Samantha obeys. The bin stinks with the sour tang of old blood, and its weight makes her thin arms tremble.
Down in the laundry, the air is heavy with the harsh scent of soap—fat rendered from beneath human skin—and steam from the scalding tubs. Samantha fetches a metal vat full of water the same thin gray as the light falling through the factory windows, and empties the bloody rags into it. She kneels, plunging her chapped and stinging hands in up to her elbows, and begins to scrub. Slowly, the water turns from gray to rust.
As she works, she dreams of Marietta, and Samantha finds she can ignore the ache. She tries to picture the girl. What would she look like, how would she sound, how did she and the dead solider boy fit together when they stood side by side? Samantha dreams of love that can outlast the repurposing of skin and bones. She dreams of a steady beat and blood carrying ink to a dead soldier’s heart.
The hours that follow are a meaningless blur of repetition—cloth stripped from skin, skin stripped from bone, bone shattered and marrow sucked clean till nothing remains. In the brief hours before the next shift begins, Samantha huddles on her narrow cot and pulls the letter from her pocket. The rough blanket, which might once have been a dead man’s uniform, is scarcely enough to keep her warm.
By the scrap of cold light falling from a high window, Samantha reads. As she reads, she writes the words on her heart, absorbing them through her fingertips. She traces each line until the paper is soft and worn.
Marietta, I will come back to you. No matter what, just wait for me, and I’ll find you. I dream of Wentwood Gardens…
The scrap trails off in a torn and ragged edge. Wentwood Gardens—the name conjures fantastic images of serene trees over rolling, green lawns and flowers breathing gentle scent into the air. Samantha wonders if such a place could ever possibly exist.
With only an hour left before the next shift, Samantha pulls the thin blanket over her thinner shoulders and lies down. When she sleeps, she dreams of soldiers drifting slowly from the sky beneath parachutes stitched of human skin.
Samantha has done the impossible; she has slipped away from Elee’s watchful eyes. Now Samantha is a rat in the maze of the factory’s bowels and there is a narrow window, just big enough for a skinny skin girl to slip through.
She punch-shatters the glass, a shirt wrapped around her hand to protect her from the shards. They cut her anyway and Samantha sucks in a sharp breath, but there is no time to waste. She shimmies through, and then she is outside—running.
The sky is the same dirty-water color as the light spilling through the factory windows. It’s cold outside, but unlike the slow chill of the factory, here the wind cuts through the thinness of her clothes and there are no walls to protect her.
The stretching buildings and the open spaces are just as claustrophobic as the factory walls. Panic rises like a trapped bird, beating its wings against the aching curve of Samantha’s bones. She darts into the street—a rat in the maze of the big, wide world. A bus screeches its brakes and swerves to avoid her.
Behind glass spattered with years of dust and rain, the driver swears. Samantha’s heart hammers in her throat. She chokes on a sob, ready to slink away home, but the words burning bright above the bus window catch her eye—Wentwood Gardens.
Her heart hammers a different rhythm now.
She has no coin, but she beseeches the driver with her eyes. The man is hard, she can see it in every line of his face, but there is a flicker deep in his eyes. Somehow she knows, instinctively, that she reminds him of someone—a daughter, a sister, a lost friend. Samantha stretches out work-chapped hands and mouths a single word.
The bus doors fold inward angrily, and the driver glares. There is hate in his eyes for the way she has cut his heart to the quick, for the way she has infected him with the light leaking from beneath her skin. As she climbs onboard, Samantha dares a smile. The driver turns away, but not before she sees him swipe roughly at the corner of his eye.
In the back of the bus she curls up in a corner that smells of piss and stale beer. The bus is almost warm, and its jolting motion rocks her to sleep.
“End of the line.”
The gravel-growled words pull her up from dreams, and Samantha jerks awake. The bus driver glares at her in the rearview mirror, his eyes red-rimmed and hard. She stumbles forward on legs gone pins-and-needles numb. The door is cocked open and waiting, but the world on the other side is wrong.
Instead of gentle trees and rolling green, there is cracked asphalt scarred harshly with white and yellow lines. Beyond the lot, the mall sprawls—squatting buildings, more spawned than built, with soft edges just starting to decay.
Samantha stares, gape-jawed. The buildings tug at some faint memory. When the factory was a school, the mall was a real mall, but even then it was soft at its core, rotting slowly from the inside out. Samantha remembers brief glimpses of too-bright lights, scents of salty-sweet food, and the mall girls, lacquered and painted into shellacked shells—the Mall Squall.
Her heart jumps into her throat, painful-sharp, like a fragment of glass, and lodges there. She spins around, eyes wild.
“There must be some mistake,” she pleads, but there is no mercy in the driver’s eyes.
He points. Over the mall door high letters spell out the words Wentwood Gardens.
“But…” Samantha begins.
He shoves her. The doors snap shut, unforgiving, and she coughs exhaust as she hits the ground.
The bus pulls away and she is alone on the rolling, buckled asphalt, under straggly sodium lights that stand in for trees. A scatter of car-carcasses, rusted through and set on blocks, mocks her. For one terrible moment she sees the mall through skin girl eyes. It is a salvager’s dream.
Under a bruise-colored light by the door, a knot of figures huddles, girls with their heads together, fingers nicotine-stained as they share a single cigarette for warmth. Their legs are netted beneath too-short skirts over too-spiked heels. Their eyes are painted garish-bright—turquoise, purple and pink. Their hair is lacquered and shellacked, just like their nails.
They remind Samantha of candy—a taste she can almost remember—too easily cracked to reveal a mess of brittle shards inside. Their clothes are ragged and patched, their fingers too thin; their skin is sallow in the yellow light and too ready to bruise. But that doesn’t stop their lips shaping cruel sneers as they knot closer together and call out to her where she is stranded outside their circle of warmth.
“Hey, skinny skin girl! What do you want? Flash cash, or go home!”
The hostility in the hooded gazes watching her is as hard as nails. But Samantha sees them. She sees them the way she saw the bus driver. She sees the ghosts beneath their skin.
Her eyes fix on a girl hanging back behind the others. Her eyes are turquoise shell over storm gray, narrowed and wary, watching Samantha. The girl smokes a shield, breathing it thicker with each exhaled breath.
Samantha pulls the worn-soft letter out of her pocket.
She steps forward, but the squalid girls with pink and purple eyes block her way.
“What do you want, hey? Get out of here, skin trash!”
A mall doll flicks a cigarette butt. Samantha catches the sharp tar scent and then burning ash dusts her arm. She flinches back, but she doesn’t turn away. Marietta’s name is honey-thick on her tongue.
Samantha tries to force her way forward. The letter flutters in her hands like it wants to grow wings. Marietta doesn’t move. Her eyes flicker like the thrown cigarette—ember turns to ash and ever so slightly, Marietta turns her face away.
Cold sickness turns in Samantha’s gut. She freezes. The world tilts on its axis again and she smells crushed cigarettes, old exhaust and cooled sweat and sex grown sour. Samantha sees through broken skin girl eyes—Marietta is only a mall girl; the love written on the dead soldier’s skin was bought by the hour.
The buckled, broken asphalt threatens to pitch her off the edge of the world. With tears standing in her eyes, Samantha pulls the dead soldier’s skin from her pocket. She wraps it around the letter, and with her last scrap of strength she hurls it at Marietta’s feet and turns away.
Samantha slinks home. She crawls back to the factory, and slips through the window and into her narrow bed where she shivers under a rough, scratchy blanket made from dead men’s clothes. This time, when Samantha sleeps, she doesn’t dream at all.
Marietta picks up the worn scrap for the thousandth time. She has thrown it in the bin and plucked it out again, over and over again. She draws in an absent breath of heat and nicotine, and then leaves the cigarette to burn. She breathes out and blue-gray wisps curl around her head. The words blur and she tells herself it is the smoke in her eyes. She picks a bitter fleck of ash from her painted lips and then crushes out the flame.
Around her, the mall is empty. She looks over the rail to the cracked and dry fountain below, stained rust-yellow where water and coins used to be. She doesn’t know where the other mall girls are, and for once she doesn’t care. For once she doesn’t crave their heat, the sweat-warmth and musk-scent of other bodies, even bodies as sharp and angular as hers.
She wants to be alone with the dirty floors and the broken tiles and the blind windows, smashed long ago for the treasures within. Marietta feels thin—not the beautiful-thin from before the war, but a hungry-thin, a cold-thin. The grisly scrap of skin, the dead soldier’s last offering to her, is spread across the railing in front of her, taunting her with her name.
He was just another silly soldier boy. But he came back—again and again. He paid extra to lie tangled in her arms, to stroke her hair and tell her stories about a place at the end of the world where the sea glittered like broken glass and no one was at war.
Now the silly soldier with his head full of dreams won’t come back anymore. She grips the rail, old wood splintering beneath her nails. Then Marietta isn’t thinking about the silly, dead soldier boy anymore, she is thinking about the skinny skin girl.
She knows about the factories where they recycle cloth and skin and bone. They are cold places—cramped and hurting and stinking of blood and rendered flesh. Then Marietta is crying—among the food court ghosts, among the lingering salt and sticky sweet—alone with the memory of what might have been.
She weeps for the skinny skin girl and the silly, dead soldier boy. She weeps for all the impossible places he told her about. And she weeps for herself —shellacked and lacquered, bruised and battered. Marietta begins to run.
Tears blind her as she stumbles through the ruins of the mall. Shattered glass crunches underfoot like hollow bones as she flees past empty stores and fountains strip-mined of their lucky coins. Her gasping breath brings the smell of old copper and chlorine.
Marietta bursts through the broken doors into the parking lot. Outside it stinks of exhaust. Boys circle, cruising for broken dolls. They hoot and holler, leaning out of their car like wolves. The engine is a slow growl as they prowl, and as they swing close and one of the boys tries to grab her. Marietta hisses at him, lashing out with her claws and raking his skin.
“Bitch!” He screams, and the engine guns to run her down.
She stumbles in her spiked heels. The boys cackle in their car, and she twists around to see their jackal grins. The headlights pin her, light dragging across her skin, weighing her down.
For a moment, everything blurs. The world tilts on its axis and just like that, she knows she won’t lie down. She pulls herself up, glaring. She feels in her pocket for the ragged, sticky edges of the dead soldier’s skin and the worn-soft edges of his letter. The resolve in her eyes glitters like broken glass, like the shining sea.
At the last minute, the car swerves and the boys whoop as they screech away. Shoes abandoned, Marietta crosses to the bus shelter on tender, netted feet.
It smells of spilt beer and worse things, but as the bus lets her off at the end of the world, Marietta smiles. She looks up at the factory, dark with tar-thick shadows—a fortress made of impenetrable walls. There are windows high up in the walls and she can tell—their glass is shellacked-shell thin and easily broken.
Marietta begins to climb. There’s no security, no alarms; no one wants to get in. She finds a window, already half broken, and slips inside, slithering and twisting and falling. She lands cat-light and graceful on a narrow walk above a room filled with machines and damp-steam heat and the clangor of noise.
Marietta tries to pick out one skinny skin girl among the dozens, but she can barely see through the billowing tallow-heat. The smell is just as she imagined—a slaughter house scent of old meat. She struggles not to gag.
Shadow-slick Marietta slinks along the catwalk. The people below her are like ghosts, gray fading into gray and disappearing. For just a moment she wishes she could shed her too-bright shell and be just like them.
Night and day don’t exist between these walls and Marietta finds the rows of narrow beds full even as the factory’s gruesome work grinds on and on. Among the sleeping figures, one stirs. A skinny skin girl turns to show restless, dreaming eyes. Dust-gray hair falls across an ashen cheek, and skin-thin lids flicker with the pressure of those dreams. Marietta runs down the aisle, and kneels by the skinny skin girl’s bed.
Marietta presses her hand to the girl’s mouth, and looks deep into her eyes. There is light in those eyes, ember buried under ash.
“Come on,” Marietta whispers. “Come with me.”
She tugs on the stick-thin arm, feeling hollow bones beneath fever-dry skin.
“Where are we going?” the skin girl whispers.
“Out,” Marietta replies. There is a pause and Marietta’s heart catches in her throat. She is afraid to turn, afraid to look at the skin girl and see the light fading in her eyes.
Marietta forces herself to look back. After a moment, the skin girl smiles.
“It’s this way.”
Twig fingers tug at Marietta’s hand. The hollow-bone grip tightens, and Marietta smiles too. The fire is no longer guttering, but burning strong inside the skin girl’s skin.
“What’s your name?”
“Samantha. Why did you come back for me?”
Marietta turns to face eyes that are lantern-bright. She can barely breathe and she wraps her arms around the thin blades of Samantha’s bones and her dust-cool skin and hugs her as hard as she can. She almost says, to save you, but she knows that it’s the other way around, or that they have each been saving each other all along.
“I wanted to tell you a story,” she says at last, in a voice thick with salt-tasting tears.
“I wanted to tell you about a place at the end of the world where the sea shines like a thousand pieces of broken glass and everything can be like it used to.”
“Is it real?” Samantha asks. Her voice is all hushed wonder. Marietta only nods.
“Come on,” she murmurs, her voice hoarse and sweet. “Let’s go.”
They run silent until they’re up and out on the roof of the factory, standing side by side. Tar paper scratches rough under their feet. The ragged scent of old smoke drifts away on a tattered breeze.
Up here it doesn’t look like a factory, or a school. It looks like a city made of metal towers, reaching out to touch the sky. Their bodies fit together as they stand under the charcoal-smudged sky, under the curved ceiling of the world.
“Do you think there are stars on the other side?” Samantha asks and Marietta nods. She can finally see.
“Look over there.” She points.
It might be the glow of firebombs or the world coming to an end, but as she links her fingers through the knotted twig bones bound in skin that make up Samantha’s hand, Marietta can believe it’s the sunrise.
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal, and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her work has previously appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications such as Fantasy Magazine, ChiZine and Strange Horizons. For more information visit her website.
The story began with the image of the factory where the dead are repurposed tumbling into my head, more or less fully formed. From there, it developed its own rhythm. Certain words latched on to each other and formed images that defined the shape and feel of the world. Despite the bleak setting, I wanted it to be a story about hope, but hope that felt authentic to the character’s lives—desperate hope or reluctant hope.