In this story, an intriguing character named Alice has a disturbingly peculiar talent. I always thought she might make an appearance in another story. If she does, remember, you saw her here first. Originally published by Danse Macabre.
Webs of Flesh
by DL Shirey
The low winter sun burned a dull spot in the cloudy gray crust, the barest halo in search of an angel. She won’t be found by day, only at night below Kendall Bridge.
At noon I strolled above the same river as the night before. The water was high and muddy from runoff following heavy rains, the surface so thick with silt it didn’t reflect the city skyline to my left. To the right, warehouses stacked on end like fallen dominos. I retraced my steps down a narrow walkway of the train bridge to a stairwell caged in chicken wire.
The steep, rickety stairs switched back twice before reaching the riverbank where three small trailers were parked. Under the bridge, under the overcast was perpetual dusk where bulbs from automatic lighting were always on, casting a sickly yellow on the dirty gray dwellings. Impossible to tell how long the trailers been here, with their flat tires and strips of aluminum siding tacked down by crosshatched duct tape.
Not another soul around.
Though I wore it for the threat of rain, I felt ridiculous standing there in a trench coat, like a bad noir movie; a character minus the hard-boiled resolve, only shadows standing beside me. My hands pushed deep in the pockets of my coat, not for warmth, but to rub the good luck charm: her wedding ring barely crowned the tip of my thumb.
Billie Holiday sang, a hollow voice inside one trailer. It was a shell game trying to figure which of the three held music. There was beauty in one, but the other two were empty and lifeless, like the days before I met my wife and those after she was gone. I didn’t think my sigh was audible, but a louvered window on the center trailer flicked open.
“Go away. She’s not here,” the pimp grumbled, “Come back tonight.”
The fire in a metal drum burned two-by-fours, a line of three men ahead of me waited. I entered the circle glow, nodding but not speaking. I warmed my hands.
“You again, huh?” the pimp said to me and to another man, “Trailer on the right. Alice is ready.”
Alice. I’d almost fooled myself that she was mine alone. Like there was some kind of magic between us last night that blotted out her other men. It had been months since I’d seen my wife, even longer since I’d held her. Last night’s interlude conjured hundreds more from memory, from a happy life too long ago.
“Coming back costs more.” The pimp turned to me. “Last night fifty, tonight a hundred.”
I counted out the bills and waited some more. The two men before me were ushered to other trailers while I waited for Alice. Finally, the door on the right opened and the man blew a kiss back inside. He had a pendant on a chain, which he slipped around his neck.
The pimp called out of darkness, “Whatcha waiting for? G’won.”
She looked much older than I remembered, hair gone weak and gray. Her hands were crepey and arthritic, and her fists hit hips when she recognized me. Alice shrugged off a tatty robe and held out her left hand as if inviting me to dance. When I reached to grip it, her hand retracted. Deep lines compounded her forehead; scorn, I guessed, or impatience or tiredness. She snapped her fingers and flapped the hand.
I fished the ring from my pocket and slid it into place. As the band encircled her crusty fingernail, a French manicure appeared. As it passed the second knuckle, the transformation progressed, even after the ring stopped at webs of flesh. The moving wave of skin continued up Alice’s arm, turning it lithe and slender. An eddy circled her breasts, leaving them unsagged and sanded smooth. Then the tide washed upward and the sweet, sweet face of my beloved sculpted before my eyes. From her shining bobbed hair down to her dainty feet, it was as if my wife stood before me.
Caroline. In the flesh as if alive, for as long as her ring stayed in place. Everything as it was before: her arms conformed to my back and shoulders, hips fitting like a puzzle piece beneath me, all the same, except the darling voice.
“Time to go,” she rasped in singsong, “Wave goodbye and blow me a kiss.”
I removed the ring and did as she asked, eyes clenched, holding on to the mirage. As I fumbled for clothes, I prayed this woman would not speak again but leave me with her enchantment. The damp night air freed me to relive my Caroline.
“Hundred and fifty next time,” said the pimp as I headed up the stairs.