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Home: The Toast

Part II of a two-part series. Part I can be found here.

Except sometimes, lately—like tonight, with Pearls squirming underneath you, tears streaming sideways down her face and into her flushing ears as she whimpers against the palm of your hand—the word creeps up the back of your throat, and you have to choke it back with something else, something to remind both of you who’s in charge here. So you backhand her hard across the face, so hard her teeth clack audibly, and say, “Bark like a dog.” She obliges with a shrill, terrier-like yap. You pull her up by her hair, fasten the collar around her neck and clip on the leash. Obediently, she crawls on all fours as you take her for a walk around the bedroom. Her eyes are glassy and huge, and you know that in this state she’d unhesitatingly do anything, anything you ask of her, if only you could come up with something.

You pause in front of Qristin’s altar to the Goddess, now scattered with cherry blossoms scavenged from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Pearls makes an inquisitive dog noise: “Arf?” And then—bless her subby little ass, you’re thinking, the girl commits—she cranes her neck forward and sniffs it.

Then she turns and looks up at you, and her gaze is so intense, so hungry and wild, that your arms fly up instinctively to cover yourself.

“This is what you believe in?” she says.

Caught off guard, you forget to reprimand her for breaking character. You even forget that you never agreed to believe. You nod.

“Okay,” she says. “Me too.”

4. Summer Solstice

They borrow the car from Qristin’s parents. Lex drives, since Qristin never learned, and Pearls sits in the back. “You okay back there, Pearls?” Qristin asks her continually throughout the three-hour ride. “Are you sure? Are you sure?

The beach house isn’t as big as Pearls pictured, though it’s not a “cottage,” either, despite what Qristin calls it. It’s weathered to a pigeony gray-brown, and the surrounding landscape is scrubbier, sparser than Pearls is used to, a watercolor where Greenwich is an oil painting. She steps out of the car and the ocean rolls out before her, shockingly blue and sparkling in the afternoon sunlight, the sand rocky and weedy on the steep little beach. Wind punches her in the mouth, whips her hair into flying ribbons, and she closes her eyes to give herself over to it.

A hand on her shoulder. She turns—just Lex, who knows her well enough not to ask if she’s okay.

“I’m nervous about the ceremony,” says Pearls, although nervous isn’t quite it. She looks out over the water, imagining the pure cold wind ripping off layers of her skin.

“You’ll be great,” says Lex. “You’ve been working so hard at this—you’re a better pagan than I am.”

Pearls reaches out to touch Lex’s hand, hoping for a corrective smack, or a bracing reprimand, or even—she dares to hope—the warmth of Lex’s skin against her own. But Lex just jerks away and runs off to join Qristin.

The three of them set up the bonfire on the beach, but it takes forever to get the fire going. The sky fades to a rather plain shade of dusty rose—it’s too cloudless, too clean for a really spectacular sunset. An enormous vermilion moon looms heavy at the horizon. “The Supermoon,” Qristin intones. “This is truly an auspicious night.”

The fire catches, and Qristin begins.

“O great Goddess,” she calls upward in a try-to-be-more-calm-and-assertive-with-your-disobedient-dog voice. “On this sacred night of Litha, we honor you and thank you for your gifts.”

“Thank you, Goddess,” Lex murmurs.

“O Great Lady,” Qristin sort of interrupts, waving around a bouquet of dried lavender. “In the light of the Solstice, we ask for your blessings. O mother Moon, we offer you—thee—this…uh…this lavender…”

There are no stars: the Supermoon is as bright as a mercury vapor lamp at a gas station, so bright it’s ugly. Pearls tries to stand still, but she’s squirmy, twitchy. The dandelion stems of her ceremonial wreath wilt and itch against her ears. She tries to catch Lex’s eye, but she thinks she might be turning invisible, her body blowing away with the smoke…

Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna,” Qristin chants, and after a few repetitions, Lex joins in. “Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna,” they cry, their voices rising as the flames crackle and billow. “Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna…”

Pearls is floating away from her body, just slightly, a few inches above her own head. It’s too late to stop this from happening, no way for Lex to beat it out of her.

Isis Astarte Diana Hecate Demeter Kali Inanna…”

The fire shoots up sparks that trail across her vision like gold snakes. Her body is empty now, a mute and lifeless doll.

Isis Astarte Diana Hecate Demeter Kali Inanna…”

Palms outstretched against the heat, she takes a step toward the fire, and then another—and then Lex’s hands are on her, and she collapses onto the sand, pulling Lex down with her. Her dandelion crown slides off and cold sand crusts her lips. The fire roars up above her.

“Pearls!” Lex is kneeling over her now, shaking her. “What’s the matter?”

Lex’s hands are wonderfully strong, tightening their grip on her with every second she goes without answering. Still she stares into the flames, letting her eyes go dry and hot and blurry-blind as something else takes over her and knows, somehow, exactly what Lex needs to hear.

 

You can swagger around all aggro and hard-assed, you can wrap yourself up flat and tight and call yourself stone, you can push people away and bullshit yourself that you don’t need a single one of them—but when you see Pearls walking toward the fire you don’t even have to think about it, you reach out and pull her to you and nothing can make you let her go. Qristin is panicking, going “Should I call 911? Should I go get my phone?” But you barely hear her, you’re not even sure when she runs off; it’s like Qristin was never here at all, like it’s always been just you and Pearls alone on the beach in the dark. Pearls is so limp in your arms, her skin so cold, or maybe your hands are just numb, and you need Pearls to be okay—you need this in a way you’ve tried never to need anything, ever—and please please please spools forth from you again, unbidden.

“Baby girl.” You cradle her in your lap, cup her cheek in your hand. “Speak to me.”

Please please please.

Her eyelashes twitch; her lips move. You lean down, your ear to her mouth.

Lex.

“I’m here.”

Lex,” she breathes. “You need…” She stops. Her eyes are half-open, though they don’t seem to see.

“What? What do you need?”

She shakes her head roughly against your hands. “YOU need…” Her voice is gaining strength, though it sounds harsh, clipped, unfamiliar. “Me.

Pearls is gone, and yet you are not alone. Ashy sand blows into your eyes, and the flames struggle to stay upright. The fire’s brightness makes everything beyond it impossibly black.

“Who are you?”

Pearls’s eyes snap wide open, glossy and blank. “You know me,” says the new hard voice coming out of Pearls’s mouth.“You belong to me.”

Then Qristin explodes back onto the beach, all “I FOUND MY PHONE! SHOULD I CALL 911?” and Pearls blinks and stirs and goes “What happened?” in her normal tearful voice, and something is ripped away from you, something you already know you’ll never stop needing again.

 

She doesn’t know what time it is. Dark, still. They’ve put her in the guest room, wrapped her in a leaky feather quilt, and urged her to get some rest; she is, in fact, exhausted, as if she’s been swimming in the ocean all day, but Lex keeps coming in to check on her and how can she even close her eyes when Lex is here to look at?

“You need anything?” Lex leans against the doorframe, a crooked silhouette.

“Eggs,” she says, just to see if Lex will do it. “Scrambled.”

Lex disappears and returns a few minutes later with a plate of dry, foam-rubbery eggs, which Pearls eats slowly, afraid that Lex will go Are you okay? Are you sure? as soon as she takes the last bite, and that she’ll then have to be okay, make everything okay for everyone, no goddesses, no magic, nothing but overexcitement and low blood sugar and whatever else can be okayed away.

Pearls slams the plate down on the bookshelf, a sudden movement that causes white quilt-feathers to burst forth and swirl around them like snow. She takes Lex’s hand.

Lex flinches and says “Pearls?”—uncertainly, like it might be someone else.

Pearls runs her fingers over Lex’s skin, up zir arm, finally cupping them around zir face, pulling it towards her own—and then, at last, Pearls is kissing Lex on the mouth, touching Lex’s dreadlocks (so that’s how they feel, like hard rope), twining them around her fingers and tugging them like she can pluck them off and keep them for herself. Thunder and lightning, a power surge, inside her but not of her, it must be coming from outside and who knows what it will make her do?

Feebly, Lex murmurs “Stop” against her mouth.

“No,” says Pearls, and kisses zir again.

 

5. Harvest

Pearls invites you to her house in Greenwich, and you forget to ask Qristin before saying yes. When you do remember to tell Qristin, her eyes narrow and her “Awesome!” sounds awfully forced. “What will you do?”

“I don’t know,” you say. You still haven’t told her exactly what went down on the beach, or afterward in the guest room; but then, she hasn’t asked. “Just hang out, I guess.”

“Do you need money for the train?” she asks. You can’t tell if there’s an accusatory get a job undertone to this question.

“I’m good,” you say, and that ends the conversation.

You’re not good. Or, if this is what it means to be good, you’ve never been good before, because you’ve never felt this way in your life: inside out, flipped over like an armadillo on its back, soft underbelly exposed so the least little thing could pierce it open. You’re certain everyone on the MetroNorth can tell just by looking at you. You stare out the window so no one can see your face; the train passes buildings with bars on broken windows, clotheslines sagging with baggy plus-size polyester, moldy tricycles abandoned in brown backyards. Every place looks like one of the places you lived in as a kid.

You pull out your phone to text Pearls: I don’t know if I can do this. But just before you hit Send, the scenery out the window changes to marshland, and you see a white bird wading in the water, a slender long-necked thing with golden feet. You’ve never seen anything like it, and everything feels significant these days, intended especially for you: words rearrange themselves before your eyes, spelling messages you can’t quite catch, and things drop out of your hands like something invisible is snatching them away—a forkful of quinoa (like it doesn’t want you to eat Qristin’s food); the keys to Qristin’s building (like it doesn’t want you to live there anymore); Qristin’s hand when you try to hold it…

You stay on the train.

Pearls picks you up at the station in her parents’ car and drives you to her house. Her parents aren’t home, but the house is big enough that you two would have privacy either way. She draws her bedroom curtains, and the two of you go around lighting candles—dainty little tea candles, hand-dipped beeswax candles from the farmer’s market, dusty old Hanukkah candles, long white candles in wine bottles, dozens of candles on every surface until the whole room smells like a happy birthday.

“I guess you should kneel,” she says.

You get on your knees; she closes her eyes and begins to sway back and forth above you. Her eyes flutter as the candle flames flicker. The room is warm, almost uncomfortably so, and you feel the itch of sweat on your forehead, but you don’t move.

At last she goes still, and then stiff. There’s a pause, and then: “Hello, little one.” The voice is crisp, snapping like a green branch.

“Hello.” Already your knees are numb from kneeling, but you’re not going to move now, and the discomfort is ecstatic in its way. “Thank you for speaking to me.” You had a million questions prepared, but right now they all feel beside the point.

Pearls’s body shimmers in the heat of the flames. “Why did you summon me?

The entire lower half of your body is going hot and cold from kneeling; you imagine it flashing like a firefly. “To give myself to you,” you say. “To serve you.” You bow your head and close your eyes, dizzy with the truth of what you’ve said.

Remove your clothes.

You freeze. No one has ever seen you naked, not since you were a kid. You don’t even look at yourself naked in the mirror. Sometimes you wake up in a flailing panic and won’t tell Qristin why—it’s because you were having a nightmare just like this.

The voice hardens. “Now.”

Your legs tingle as you rise to your feet, pull off your shirt, unzip your fly and let your pants fall to the floor. Down to binder and boxers, you say, “Is this enough?”

Pears is silent, and you’re ashamed to have asked, because you know the answer.

The boxers hit the carpet and you’re suddenly cold, the room newly breezy. Pearls’s eyes are still closed, her face serene. She could almost be sleeping. And yet—you can feel it all over—you are being seen.

Then Pearls shudders and begins to sway again, blinking, and you leap forward to catch her. You get there just in time, but you’re unprepared for the dead weight of her body, and you stumble backwards onto the bed. The two of you fall together, Pearls on top, her little hands squeezing your shoulders and pinning you down to the mattress; and one of you is crying, not you, it can’t be you, it has to be her, or else you don’t know the difference anymore.

 

So this is what power feels like. She used to imagine that one day she’d outgrow everything about herself that was fragile—that all the soft parts of her body would tighten into hard muscle and bone, that she’d hold herself tall and torpedo her way through crowds. Basically, she used to want to be Lex. But what good has Lex’s strength ever done zir? Lex is straight-backed and sinewy with gunfire eyes and a voice like a hunting horn, and yet Pearls—naked, vulnerable, tearful little Pearls—holds Lex in the palm of her hand.

“Show yourself, Goddess,” says Lex.

They do this every week now. She never shows herself right away; she likes how needy and agitated Lex gets as the silent minutes roll by.

“Please,” says Lex. “Speak to me, Goddess.”

If she waits long enough with her eyes closed in the candle-warm room, she finds her thoughts quickening, blurring into each other, as they do when she’s half in a dream but not quite asleep; and in this state, who knows what she might say?

“I’ll do anything for you,” says Lex. “Anything you want.”

Who knows what she might make Lex do?

At last she speaks. “All I want, my child, is your devotion.”

“You have it, Goddess. I devote myself to you.”

Do you devote your mind to me?

“Every moment, Goddess, I think of you.”

Do you devote your body to me?

“My body is yours.”

Do you devote your life to me?

When Lex hesitates at this, the spell breaks. Pearls collapses to the floor, and Lex has to catch her and hold her and soothe her until she comes back into herself. Afterward she lays a hand on Lex’s arm—she touches Lex every chance she gets now, Lex has stopped protesting—and asks, “What are you most afraid of?”

“Being homeless again.”

“You were homeless?”

Lex laughs bitterly. “You think I U-Hauled with Qristin because I was in love?

This makes Pearls so happy that she gives Lex’s face a little slap, the kind Lex used to give to her. It’s been a surprise to discover that slapping someone’s face takes practice—in the beginning she kept accidentally hitting Lex in the ear. “Did you sleep on the subway?”

“A few times on the C train.” (Pearls is surprised; she was kidding.) “But I kept waking up. You can get arrested for it, you know.” A moment later ze adds, “Prospect Park, too. Once I spent the night in a hollow tree.”

Pearls is so enchanted by this image, she almost hates it. “Don’t tell me anything more,” she says, and Lex obeys. She leans down and covers Lex’s mouth with her own, as if she can swallow up the story of the tree and make it her own.

She can make anyone do anything for her. That’s the secret. She sees it now: how her parents tiptoe past her bedroom, exchange nervous glances with each other every time she speaks, keep their voices soft and sweet and make no sudden movements around her. “Sweetie?” her mom says to her one morning, sticking her head anxiously into Pearls’s bedroom. It takes several repetitions to get Pearls’s attention. “Sweetie?”

“My name is Pearls now. How many times do I have to tell you?”

Her mom winces, takes up even less space in the doorway. “Are you hungry?”

“No.”

“Have you been up all night? When was the last time you slept?”

Her mom’s alarm is so dramatic, Pearls can’t help giggling. Who knew she could be so fearsome just by not going to bed? All these years, she’s had it backwards: when people ask her if she’s okay, it’s because they’re terrified of her not being okay. She could blow up the world with her not-okayness.

Pearls takes a moment to memorize her mom’s face this way—squinched into a rosebud of worry—so that when she remembers it later, she’ll hate it too much to miss it.

 

6. Autumn Equinox

You’re not in the mood for a sex party, but you can’t afford to piss off Qristin now: you’re on such thin ice with her, you haven’t even fucked her in weeks. Every time you try, you end up texting Pearls while Qristin is blindfolded, until Qristin figures it out and breaks character to demand, “Are you texting her?” Then you get mad at Qristin for not trusting you, and Qristin ends up sobbing and apologizing, using the words “boundaries” and “communication” a lot, until you agree to work on communicating boundaries or setting boundaries around communication or whatever and Qristin passes out from tearful exhaustion, at which point you continue texting Pearls, which just feels so good, like you’re swimming in a creek and going limp to let the current carry you—like you never even knew you could float.

Pearls is supposed to be at the party, but she isn’t here yet. Your need to check your phone is a physical itch, but there are dozens of eyes on you right now, including Qristin’s. She wants you to top her in front of everybody. “I’m feeling exhibitionistic,” she says. “It’ll be fun. Trust me.”

(“Don’t trust her,” the Goddess told you last week. “Trust no one.”)

You drag a dark spindly chair into the middle of the living room and order Qristin into it. “Make me,” she replies, smirking, because she’s the bratty type of sub, which you used to enjoy before you met Pearls. The crowd laughs, and you hear some white chick go “Ohhh SNAP!” in a way that makes you want to whip around and punch her in the mouth. You check yourself, but your hands shake as you wrestle Qristin into the chair. You take way too long to tie her to it, wondering if everyone can tell you’re stalling—tying the most elaborate knots, deliberating over which blindfold to use, making Qristin beg for it, no, really beg for it, like she means it—because you can’t get into dom headspace. When you finally hit her your blows are tentative, half-assed, and Qristin taunts you: “You can start anytime, you know!…Come on, you can do better than that!”

“You better watch your mouth, Little Miss Attitude,” you say, and it comes out all wrong, more mom than dom, in fact probably an actual thing your mom used to say to you.

(“My child,” the Goddess calls you. “My precious child.”)

Qristin squirms against her restraints and spits at you. Her spit doesn’t really hit you, it’s more for show, but the crowd oohs and ahs in anticipation of your reaction. There was a time when you’d have known exactly what to do—once, last year, Qristin cursed you out in the middle of a scene, and you made sure she couldn’t sit down for days afterward. You had fun back then, didn’t you? Or—you can’t remember—did you feel the way you do now, big and crude and on display, like you were just another one of her family’s tribal masks?

The crowd begins to chant: “Punish her! Punish her! PUNISH HER!”

And then you see Pearls. She’s standing in the doorway, apart from the crowd, watching you. How long has she been there?

You go over to her, leaving Qristin tied to the chair, which makes crowd laugh. “Pearls,” you say. “Did you get here okay?”

Pearls looks up at you all stony and heavy-lidded, and when she speaks, her voice could scratch diamonds. “Come with me.”

The crowd watches you curiously. Blindfolded, Qristin sits uncharacteristically still.

“Where?” you ask.

“Lex,” says Pearls, looking straight at you, and you can’t tell if she’s channeling the Goddess or if this is just her. “Will you follow me or not?”

The whole party is silent, waiting for your answer.

Qristin cries out, “Cilantro!”

Pearls turns to go, and Qristin shouts again: “Cilantro!” She struggles against the ropes, frantically safewording—“CILANTRO! CILANTRO! FUCKING CILANTRO!”—until the chair is screeching against the floor, threatening to topple over, but someone will catch her—Qristin is the kind of person someone will always catch, you think vaguely as you follow Pearls out the door and step into the cool pink evening, where Pearls claps her hands over your ears to drown out the continued howls of “CILANTRO!” and pulls your head down to her level and kisses you until you can’t breathe.

 

It’s late in the season, but there are still a few scattered fireflies twinkling about in Prospect Park. When Pearls lifts a hand into the air, a firefly alights on it, just as if she called it to her. She cups her palms around it and lets it crawl around illuminating the cavern of her hands. When she makes a fist and crushes it, it leaves a small phosphorescent streak, a smear of dead light on her skin. She holds her hands up to show Lex, who backs away. “Don’t be afraid,” says Pearls, and Lex reluctantly lifts zir own hand so Pearls can touch a glowing fingertip to it.

“Where are we going?” says Lex.

“To your tree.”

“I don’t remember where it is.”

“You will.” Pearls is confident. “Show me.”

They set off into the darkening woods. Her sandals keep getting snagged in brambles, and eventually she kicks them off and leaves them in the bushes. The damp earth feels good against her bare feet, and if she’s stepping on anything sharp, she feels nothing. Lex keeps slapping away mosquitoes, but they don’t bother Pearls: their whine is indistinguishable from the trilling in her ears, just as the fireflies mingle with the sparkles in her eyes—a kind of floating glitter, red and green and white points of light that disappear as soon as she looks straight at them. “Do you see them?” she asks Lex, but Lex doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

The sky is dark, tinted orange from distant streetlights, when Lex recognizes the tree. “This one,” ze says, circling it, touching the bark. “I can’t believe it’s still standing.”

Pearls uses the flashlight app on her phone to examine the inside of the hole. There’s some trash in it—plastic bags and forks, a torn coffee cup—and the smell of stale urine. She gets on her knees and reaches into the hole. “Come on.”

“What are you doing?”

She tosses a plastic fork over her shoulder. “You want to sleep in a pile of other people’s garbage?”

“Sleep?”

Pearls grins in the dark. “Maybe we won’t sleep.”

They clear out the hole and crawl inside, wrapping their legs around each other to fit. It’s filthy and stifling in there, the darkness alive with the flashing sparks in her eyes, her skin tickling all over from crawling bugs that may or may not be real.

“Now what?” says Lex. They’re both whispering, as if not to wake someone nearby, though they’ve never been more alone.

“This is it,” says Pearls. “We’re here. We did it.”

She sets her phone on the ground, a cold substitute for a candle. Lex is quiet, but in the soft blue glow of the screen Pearls can just make out zir eyes, wide and wary.

“Thank you for coming with me,” says Pearls. She fumbles for Lex’s hand, her grip slippery with sweat and dirt. “I knew you would.”

“Wait,” says Lex, zir voice tightening. “Hold up—”

“Shh.” Pearls strokes Lex’s hand. “This is where we’re supposed to be.”

“For how long?”

Pearls is tired of speaking aloud. She presses her forehead against Lex’s and lets her answer pass between them silently.

Do you have anywhere else to go?

The battery dies on her phone, and then it’s too dark to see at all.

“What are we doing,” Lex is trying to say, but zir voice is choked by the hand against zir throat, “what are we doing, what are we—” and yes, it’s true, it’s always been true what Lex said: Pearls is indestructible.

 

Your first thought is: you could get used to this. Being choked is surprisingly soothing, like being held—like sinking into the deepest not-aloneness. Pearls is taking your body away from you and, shit, she can have it. Wouldn’t it be cool to not have your body—to not have a body at all? Wouldn’t that fix everything? You had that fantasy even as a kid—cutting off all your hair, your tits, your arms and legs, your face, until there was none of you left. “They like the feel of it,” your mom used to reassure you when she cut up her houseplants, “they told me so”—you can see her now, working those cheap old kitchen scissors through a yellowed leaf, yeah, she loved those plants of hers (maybe still does?), she was always spritzing and clipping and joking (was she joking?) that they were your brothers and sisters—

In the very next moment you’re clawing, thrashing your way out, blindly disentangling your limbs from hers and then dragging yourself across the dirt—because you do have a body and whatever else it is it’s alive, every bit as alive as the surrounding trees, all of you reaching up together toward air and light. You scrabble out of the tree and into the open air, and then you run.

She comes after you. You hear her bare feet crashing through the underbrush, but you don’t turn back to look at her. Up ahead there’s a familiar rumble, a cop car on a nighttime prowl, but you can escape from that, too, if you stay close to the trees. You can outrun anything by now. You know how to disappear.

But where do you go—where does a person like you go, in this world—if you don’t want to disappear?

You keep to the pavement, following the sound of the car. Through the trees you spot its taillights, glinting red like the eyes of a wild animal, and you pick up speed. When you shout, your voice comes out in a strange throaty roar.

“Hey! HEY!”

Pearls catches up and runs alongside you like a little ghost.

“Yo! Slow down!”

The car slows down. You know exactly what you look like, what Pearls looks like—what this looks like. Let it look like that. Let them see you.

You holler again. “STOP!”

The car stops. The passenger door opens and a cop steps out and you keep running forward, you can’t stop, your feet are slamming against the earth and your arms are outstretched as wide as they’ll go and this time there’s no please please please coming from you, no way, not a single please to be found. No more begging for the not-aloneness to come to you. Time to call it down.

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Frankie Thomas is the author of "The Showrunner," which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and "Equinox," which appeared on The Toast. Her fiction has also been published in H.O.W. Journal, Pear Noir, and BLOOM; her nonfiction has appeared on The Hairpin. She lives in Manhattan with two parakeets and the best dog ever.

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