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She was 16 years old. Her mother had named her February, and she bore the name with a kind of petulant grace. She was a winter child, cold white skin and black hair, and she wore it like any other teenager.
Her friends called her Feb. She had friends, but since the big move, only a few of them. It was hard to set up life again in a new place, with hundreds of miles between you and happy families. Hard to start again at a high school where the rest of the kids had been together for years already.
That wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was Ray, or as she had come to think of him, I’m Not Trying To Replace Your Father. It was a Native American name. Her mother was She Who Sleeps Around. February almost wished her mother had not settled for Ray, had continued to sleep with as many men as she wanted to. Well, really, she wished her parents had never broken up in the first place, and that her Dad wasn’t hundreds of miles away back in their old town. But calling back the past was something that couldn’t be done.
She liked to walk around the block in black boots with a black coat pulled tightly over her thin shoulder blades, not for any reason other than to be walking. There wasn’t much in the way of green life here, no fields to crunch under her boots, so she settled for pavement instead.
The first time Ray came to her, her mother was out with friends from work. Had to stay in a hotel up in the centre of town, something about everyone else doing it and staying out late and not waking everyone up. It was some kind of function that she acted like she was forced to attend. February could read her mother well and knew she was looking forward to standing on some sticky dancefloor in a cocktail dress and five-inch heels, pretending she was still twenty years old and not a mother. Fine. February didn’t mind.
She minded Ray. He was old and stank of stale cigarette smoke, yellow fingernails snatching at her. He was old in the kind of way that her mother could never be. Spreading out at the middle with age and greying at the temples. He wore stubble on his face all week long, even right after he had shaved. It was black and rough, eliciting a red mark from her face where it rubbed. Each hair was like a tiny needle, poking out of his skin to inject her with poison.
He closed the door and left soon after, going back to bed with no fear of her mother returning that night. He had a certain swagger to him, a heavy-fisted heat that had you holding your breath and your tongue. Not many people could make February hold her tongue. She considered raising a fuss, a hue and cry. She considered her lifeless body down on the pavement if he carried out his threat of forcing her out the window. She didn’t know if she would mind.
Two days later, the black fairy came to sit on her windowsill. She knew it was there, but did not dare to open her eyes. Her mother was still at work, and Ray had brought her home from school, then sat on the edge of the bed and stared at her bare navel. February had not needed to get up and turn on the lights. She barely breathed, knowing the black fairy was biding its time, watching her navel too.
It flew and sat with the lightest of touches on her belly, and she cracked open her eyes just a little to watch it. It was small and hard to see, a wisp of darkness in the gathering gloom that hung shadows from its wings. It looked up to her face and met her eyes, and nodded once. Then with a sure and tiny finger it traced a small circle around her belly button, the barest tickle. It looked satisfied.
The door downstairs slammed shut as her mother came in from outside, and the fairy twitched its head. With a look as if to say well then, I’d better be off, it flew back to the windowsill and out of sight. February tried her fingers and found that they still worked. She drew the covers over herself and feigned sleep until the dawn.
The next morning was a cold one, clear and bright. The kind of morning where the dawn wakes you and sends you burrowing deeper into the covers. February was already awake. She walked over to the window and stood in the light, looking down.
There was a dark line around the edge of her belly button, a whirl that grew wider and spread further as it went. It was not quite a circle, one end overlapping above the other. She licked a finger and touched it. It did not come off.
The fairy had left her with this line, a special mark. She took that into account and dressed for school. There would be no point in staying home today.
On the third day, she touched the swirl that now extended a good two inches around the original point, black ink as heavy as a tattoo. When she disturbed the line, it swam like a fish to get away from her finger. It regrouped and curled, finding a new space to inhabit. She chased it around her stomach once, then let it rest. She held it inside like a secret that no one else could take. She touched it over her school shirt. No one knew it was there. She smiled in the corridors.
At the end of the first week, it writhed and bloomed across her torso, reaching her back for the first time. She took off her clothes and looked at it in a full-length mirror, admiring the living tattoo. It circled around her breasts, leaving them bare and white. She began to think of herself as an ancient tribal princess, getting her ritual markings to come of age. She touched her collarbone to make it shy away, out of sight. It would not do to be seen, not yet. Not yet.
It started on her left arm first. She plucked a small flower that was blooming from a neighbour’s window box and the petals withered and turned black. The black ink was growing restless, shifting every now and then on her body without any need for a prompt. It was growing stronger, more powerful, growing faster. She could feel it wrapped tightly around her back, holding her in place like a new ribcage. She started wearing long-sleeved jackets and jumpers every day. The higher the neckline, the better.
A cat hissed at her as she walked by on the way home from school. She turned to look at it, amused. It kept its ears flat back against its skull, teeth bared. It looked like it was yawning, only forever. She knelt down and held out a hand. The ink swirled over her finger towards it, and the cat ran away.
That night she raided her wardrobe for a pair of gloves. The ink stayed on her finger and would not budge, only running around the digit when she tried to move it. She gave up and checked her right arm. The ink was down to the elbow. Her thighs, too, were blackening every day.
It began to move around ceaselessly, roiling like a sea, waves flowing from one side to the other. It flowed down her legs to her knees, washing there and inching forward with each tide. The sand of her skin was left unmarked when it rolled back, but this was only a temporary thing. Always it returned.
It was her mother’s birthday. February gave her a box of fine chocolates, wrapped and sealed. But when she bit into one, she cried out and held it up to the light. It was full of ash. February gave her the receipt so she could take them back for a replacement. She smiled. Ray frowned and muttered something about industry standards. He asked pointedly about prank gifts, but February shook her head no. It was the ink.
The fairy didn’t come back, but February knew what to do all the same. She waited patiently. At last she woke up in the dead of night, wide awake and knowing right away. She switched on the light and left her nightdress behind on the floor, and stepped in front of the mirror.
It writhed over her whole body, covering her in a flowing mass of black from head to toe. She sat down in front of her reflection, crossing bony legs, admiring the ink and the patterns it made as it passed across her skin. Then she leaned her head down and pushed her fingers into her belly button, gently digging around for something to grab hold of.
Once she found the end of the thread, it was easy. She pulled it out to the full length of her arm, then let go. It hung in the air where she placed it, shining like oil. She pulled from her belly button again, hanging up another loop next to the first.
When she was done, she had a mass of black thread floating in the air. The last piece hurt when she pulled it out. It wrenched and shook her to her core, and she looked up to see that her hair was white. All of her blackness was gone into the cloud before her, ribbons shining like the old tape she had found in the attic at the old house and taken apart before realising what it was. She lifted it up in her hands and it was weightless.
She walked with quiet conviction to her mother’s room and eased open the door. Her mother would stay asleep. Ray was next to her, lying on his back with his mouth wide open. He snored loudly with each breath. He still stank of cigarettes.
February found the end of her thread and brought it close to his mouth, waiting for him to breathe in. Within just a moment it was pulled deep into his throat, following the oxygen on a race towards his lungs. She started to feed it forwards, little by shining little. She was no longer naked. She wore shadows around her, draped like finest silk, as she steadily fed the blackness into Ray’s mouth, letting the hours tick down as they would.
When it was done she went back to her bedroom, silent feet gliding across the floor, any noise absorbed into the stillness of the night. She wrapped herself up in the covers and lay awake, eyes staring open and glimmering blackly at the nothing on her ceiling.
Two hours after dawn, she heard her mother scream. Laying in the dimness of closed curtains and wrapped still in her own private shadows, harvested from the night, she smiled.