In her dreams, the man has no face.
The dark, dirty room shifts and vibrates as if an earthquake is trying to open the ground under them. Only the man is clear and unmoving. Black lines and diagrams stand out on his body, centering around his navel and running to his feet, hands and head. Where his face should be is a blank expanse of skin, slightly bulging as if covering his real face. The man stands on the bare ground and thick, black smoke curls around his toes to waft lazily in the air. Even in her dream, the smell makes her gag. The earth around his feet is blackened.
His hands... she can't look at them. Her dream self keeps pulling her eyes to his hands but she can't see them, won't see them. Her stomach twists into knots at the thought of it and she falls to her knees, head nearly touching the shifting ground. But still, her eyes are drawn to his hands. She's crying and feels the tears steam from her face, as if a great fire is washing over her. She doesn't want to see his hands. Please, she tries to say, Please don't make me see them. But she can't stop and finally, she looks.
They look like hands and, for a moment, she's relieved. They're just hands, she tells herself. The fingernails are longer than a person would keep them but they're just hands. With black, sharp fingernails. As soon as she notices the fingernails, she feels them inside her stomach, twisting and pulling. She tries to beat at the hands but only feels her unmarked stomach. The pain is incredible as she feels him pull thick, ropy intestines from her. She prays she will black out but she doesn't.
She's on her back now, eyes closed and hands clutching her chest. Oh god, she thinks, he's taken my heart. Her hands scrabble over her sweaty chest, trying to find the hole he's made those hands. Her heartbeat hammers loudly in her ears. She blindly reaches out, trying to take it back but it's gone.
Now he's reaching in again - reaching into the empty shell of her body and filling her with pain and heat.
She tries to remember her childhood prayers but nothing comes to mind. Please, she repeats to herself. Please, please, please, please...
Elizabeth Mori woke in a cold sweat in an unfamiliar bed. In the moments following her dream, nothing made sense and everything was terrifying. She thought someone was holding her down until she realized she had twisted her hands into the sheets while she thrashed.
Slowly she remembered she was in a hotel room on a business trip. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness and shapes that moments ago appeared to be hunched over men turned into her clothes hanging on the back of a chair and other common objects. She breathed deeply in and out to calm herself - the dream was already fading and all that remained was the face, or, where the face should have been.
Elizabeth swung her legs over the bed to stand. All of the pillows were on the floor next to her and she stared at them while trying to make the burning sensation in the back of her throat go away. Rather than get better, it felt like the burning was creeping down her throat to her stomach. Outside, a lone car revved its engine and sped away.
She made her way to the bathroom sink and stood over it, waiting to see what her body would do. She stared at the faucet for the longest time before she finally started dry heaving - once, twice and then a third time. On the fourth time she spit up what felt like phlegm - it hit the side of the sink with a loud splat and stuck. It wasn't green or yellow like she expected. Rather, it was dark red and thick - almost black in the light. The sight of it turned her stomach and she broke out in a coughing fit before another reddish-black blob came out. Thankfully, she felt better. A little weak but at least it didn't feel like someone was scratching her throat with a burning piece of coal. When the water from the faucet couldn't dislodge (or even move) the phlegm, she used a wad a cheap hotel tissue paper to clean them up. They felt hard and fleshy under the tissues and she almost threw up in the toilet after flushing them away.
She grabbed the least lumpy pillow from the floor and crawled back into bed, tossing and turning. She hated hotel beds. Never in her life had she found a hotel bed she could be comfortable in. Most of the pillows were larger than she was.
The red light from the alarm clock told her it was nearly 1 am. Slept felt like an impossibility but her eyes ached from the lack of it. She lay in her hard bed, smelling the faint chemical smells used to clean the sheets and stared at the ceiling. Occasionally a car would drive past and once she thought she heard some woman yelling outside. The heater clicked on and off again several times, the humming sound annoying her rather than lulling her to sleep.
California, she thought. Everyone talks about how beautiful and warm California is but they forget to tell you that not all parts are equal. There were times she feared for her safety on the cab ride from the airport to the hotel. They would pass a nice section of the city and then the next block over were women standing out wearing barely anything and what she could only assume were drug dealers peddling their disgusting product. Men leered at her at stoplights and told her what they'd do to her and how she would like it, their teeth glittering gold in the too-bright sun. She had to fight the urge to get up and wash her hands just from the memory of it. Animals, she told herself.
She tried to remember exactly why she was here but it was hazy. She was supposed to meet a man about something... an investment. No, that wasn't right. She was supposed to meet an investor about managing some funds for her company. It was ridiculous, she was a sales person and this was grunt work - not something she should be assigned to do. It was always like that. She worked her ass off, made the sales and watched the men around her get fatter and richer and have more titles added to their names. She never received the recognition she deserved. Except... didn't she ask for this assignment? Didn't she suggest it? No, that couldn't be. Why would she? It was the middle of December and she should be planning a trip to her parents house to spend time with them over the holidays like she always did.
Her head hurt and she could still see the face from her dream. The shadowed, pebbled texture from the ceiling kept forming the same featureless face wherever she looked. She closed her eyes and tried counting backwards from one hundred. Around number seventy-three she heard a rustling. She paused to listen but started over again from the beginning when it didn't repeat. At eighty-five the noise was louder and her heart skipped a beat. It sounded like old dry leaves rubbing against each other. She waited even longer and then slowly started over yet again. This time, before she reached ninety she heard a single word as if spoken from someone dying of thirst in the desert.
She jerked upright in bed and pulled the covers up to her neck. "Who's there?" She called out, her voice shrill and too loud sounding to her own ears. The sound seemed to come from the desk near the windows. She waited and watched but there was nobody there and no space for anyone to hide. Was this someone's idea of a sick joke? Hiding a speaker somewhere and harassing her?
She stood again and walked to the desk. The streetlight close to the hotel gave her just enough light to look around and in her desk but she found nothing.
The voice came suddenly, loud and strong behind her. "Tainted!"
Elizabeth shrieked and turned, stumbling into the desk chair and knocking it over. The voice had seemed to be right at her shoulder, clear and distinct. Her heart was trying to climb out of her chest. There was no way that voice came from a speaker of any kind, she thought.
She reached for the window blinds but stopped short, watching her small hand tremble.
It's just a window, she told herself. There's nothing there. I'm on the third floor and there's no balcony or ledge. There can't be anyone there. I'll open the shades, get a nice view of the parking lot and then go back to bed. This is stupid.
It took her three tries to make herself grab the strings to open the blinds. There was no ghostly apparition hovering in front of the window. No Spiderman, no crazy window cleaner or other pervert. Just a half-full parking lot, part of the Interstate and a street lamp.
And then, she looked up.
The moon was huge and nearly full and it was the brightest thing she'd ever seen. It made her want to cry. It was too pure, too beautiful. She immediately looked away and couldn't find a reason why. She felt ashamed. Dirty. She knelt and hid her face between her knees, curled into a ball like she did when she was a child. She was crying now - sobbing into the thin carpet.
"Diseased." Came the whisper.
"Noooooo." she sobbed, between breaths. "No, no, no. I... I'm... not." She couldn't catch her breath properly. Her left hand felt like someone had driven an iron spike through the middle of it. She clutched it to her chest.
"Corrupted. Tainted. Diseased! UNCLEAN!" The words came, one after another repeated louder and faster until she couldn't understand them individually anymore.
"NOOOOOO!" She shouted. "Stop it! I'm.... I'm sorry! Oh god! I'm sorry!" Her hand felt like it was on fire now and her whole body was shaking. She felt sick. She wanted to find a hole and hide as far away as she could but the voice wasn't stopping.
She reached out with her left hand, blindly gripping the leg of the desk. A spasm caused her to clench her fist and the solid wood creaked under her grip. She was covered in sweat, could even feel it under her small breasts but she was still too hot.
She twisted her head up to look at the window. "Stop." She gasped. "I didn't..." Her whole body suddenly jerked in pain as she caught a glimpse of the moon. "I'm sorry." She whispered. It was impossible to think straight any more and the desk seemed to be falling.
This was no deranged person talking to her - no stalker trying to scare her. She knew. The beautiful silvery moon was looking down and her and talking to her. The voice whispered again, nearly devoid of any emotion or feelings but one - hatred.
"Outcast." It told her, as the pain knifed into her belly and she blacked out.
"Shoes. Cute shoes. Ugly shoes. Comfortable shoes." She ticked each off with a finger.
"Bicycling." She said. "That'll never happen. Maybe a treadmill if it was big enough. And how retarded would that look?"
The van hit a sudden bump and caused her to shift around a little bit. The man driving the truck immediately called out to her, "I'm so sorry! I couldn't avoid it without hitting the car in the other lane and I would've done that but we wouldn't have been able to get awa..."
"It's fine!" She yelled back to him. "I'm fine. Jesus. I'm not made of porcelain. Just... just keep driving. And if you hit anyone just to keep me from getting knocked around I will come up there and break your teeth!"
The voice hesitated a moment before answering. "It would be only what I deserved if I did. You have every ri..."
Victoria gnashed her teeth, almost biting her tongue in the process. "Just. Shut. Up. And. Drive." She closed her eyes and breathed in. "Jesus fucking Christ." She said, under her breath. She lay in a makeshift bed of sorts in the back of the cargo van. She was fine when it was just an empty space but Rob, or whatever he is now, started crying when she told him she didn't need a bed or anything else. Eventually she agreed just to have him shut up. She had to admit it was a little more comfortable but she wasn't about to tell him that or he'd insist on a water bed or something worse. At least the portable heaters kept her warm. She couldn't seem to stay as warm after the transformation and the January weather was wearing her down.
She stared at the back of the van doors for a while. Two more days of driving before they reached Rob's home near Altadena. She thought she could handle two more days of this without going insane from boredom. Whether Rob survived or not was another matter.
She continued her little road trip game. "Driving a car or anything else. Couldn't even get in the front without dangling out of it." She closed her eyes and leaned back. "I suppose I could have Rob make me a huge hamster wheel."
The white snake next to her moved and then settled again, its tongue flicking slowly in and out. She watched it for a moment and then stared at the back of the van again. "Swimming. Wait, wait. Am I the swimming kind of snake?" She flicked the end of her tail slightly. "How the hell do I tell?"
The snakes on her head shifted around. One of them started to speak in its gravelly old woman voice, "Sssoo..."
"What did I fucking tell you? When I want to talk to you, I'll fucking tell you I want to talk to you. Don't think I've forgiven you for that man in the garage. Go back to sleep!" They all moved slightly as they settled down again.
Her hands were clenching and unclenching in anger, the claws scratching against the bottom of her hands. If she wanted to, she could easily draw blood on her palms. She was grinding her teeth and could feel the sharper incisors working against her other teeth. She felt like part of what happened should be her fault but she never asked for this, never knew what could happen. They did it, not her. She closed her eyes again and let out the breath she was holding, trying to relax her muscles as she did. She needed to watch her temper and language. Before this happened she was polite and considerate. She had no problems being blunt if she had to but now the cussing seemed to roll off of her tongue. She rolled her shoulders and felt the cool skin of her hair-snakes rub against her naked flesh. Who could blame her after this, really?
But she needed to talk to them, needed answers from them if they had some to give. She'd rather eat her arm if she had to talk to them with their odd broken way of talking. It was impossible to understand them for more than a word or two. Although... she remembered this one time during her dreams she felt a presence that was familiar. She had the same dream every night with the fire and the shapes but the presence - almost a figure she could make out - was new. She suspected it was them or their representation.
"Rob!" She yelled out. "I'm going to try and catch some sleep. Don't wake me up unless it's important!"
Rob called back to her. "Yes, mist..."
"What is that Rob? I don't think I heard you right because I sure as hell know you weren't about to call me 'mistress'."
"Yes, m... Vi... Victoria." He answered. "Shall I sing to you to help you fall asleep?"
Victoria blinked several times as she digested this. "Sing? Sing to me? Am I twelve? Are you my mother? Rob, can you even carry a tune?"
"No, m... Victoria. But if I put my heart int..."
"Stop. Rob, stop right there before I hurt you. I'm going to close my eyes and go to sleep and you're going to stay up there, driving!, with your eyes on the road and your mouth closed. Except for breathing or whatever else you need to use it for. Jesus. I don't really have to tell you what to do with your mouth, do I?" Part of her was still worried that he'd take her too literally and kill himself one day.
She settled her upper body against the pile of arranged piles and tried to relax. Her lower body felt a little awkward but it was nearly impossible to try and make it better. If she focused on moving her tail too much, it didn't work and the tail would flail around like it was having a seizure. The trick was to not think about it too much and imagine what she was trying to do rather than forcing the tail to do what she wanted. That was fine for larger movements but more fine movements were still hard for her - like coiling her tail properly.
Her snakes fanned out behind her on a pillow, rubbing against and over each other. She'd come to recognize that as their way of saying hello and comforting each other all rolled into one. She still couldn't understand how they worked. They talked the same and all of them knew exactly what they were all going to say but they were still individual... things. Creatures. Whatever.
Victoria slowed her breathing and closed her eyes. She let her arms rest to her sides and took slow, deliberate breaths. Eventually, the rocking of the van and sound of the tires on the road helped her to fall asleep.
As ever, she sat in front of a huge fire, surrounded by blackness. The fire was fueled by an immense amount of coals, still visible even through the flames. She never felt in danger of being burned by the fire, even if she was close to it.
Around her, vague shapes formed in the dark - what looked like indistinct tentacles or faces or claws. Primordial imagery. She shivered and focused on the fire. Here she was human and sat with her legs tucked under her. She was naked but not bothered by it. If there was one thing the transformation taught her is that nakedness is not something to cry over. Suddenly losing your legs to a freakish tail and snakes for hair? Yes, that was something to cry about.
"I know you're there." She called out. "I've felt you before. Come out and sit by the fire with me."
A figure stepped around the fire before Victoria and she felt her own surprise. It was a young woman not that much different looking from herself. Perhaps she was slightly older but not by much. She had an olive skin complexion and reddish-brown hair. Her breasts were smaller but her hips looked wider. She approached Victoria cautiously.
"Are you the snakes?" Victoria asked.
"We are." The woman answered.
The other woman sat in front of Victoria, her movements fluid and graceful. She folded her legs on front of her and clasped her hands in her lap, watching Victoria with a serene expression.
"What do I call you?" Victoria asked. She was disappointed. She didn't know what she expected but a part of her wanted someone or something she could be angry with. Someone she could despise at first glance. This woman reminded her of her mother too much.
The woman made a small motion with her chin. "We have no name. Call us what you will. We're simply pleased that you're speaking with us. That man..." She paused and looked down at her hands. "It was a mistake and his life is no more. We are old and practiced but you are part of us. Your emotions, your desires, your dreams - all of it affects us as well. We were not prepared."
Victoria's could feel her lips compressed into a thin line. "That man is dead because of you. Don't try to put the blame on me! Look at what I am now! I didn't ask for any of this. You're lucky I didn't try killing myself or have a psychotic break."
"You couldn't..." The woman stopped. "We didn't do this to you. Whatever else you believe, you must believe that. You are unique in this world. The last of us died thousands of years ago and we've been dreaming since then. Only suddenly we were called back and found ourselves in the physical world again. Much has changed and we do not know why we've returned."
"Only one of me? Unique? Is that supposed to make me feel any better?" Victoria's laugh was short and bitter. She choked back the sudden ache in her throat. "I'm alone." She hid her face from the other woman, biting her bottom lip. She refused to let this creature see her cry. It took several minutes before she could face the woman again. She looked around the fire and darkness. "What is this place? Is this where you lived? Where you dreamed?"
"It is. Although it was not always like this. When we first came here it was beautiful and green with many growing things. Many years later we noticed small shadows where there were none before. They became more and worse and we feared for ourselves. Our powers here are small and we used what we had to hide. It was almost not enough but one day, this... pyre appeared. All of the shadows burned, leaving nothing but charred dead earth."