A Thing of Beauty

Content warning: sexual assault (implied), bullying, gore
Originally published in Screaming in the Night by Sinister Smile Press

The body hanging from the ceiling began to writhe, straining against the inside of the translucent, teardrop-shaped sac in which it was encased. The sac stretched and distended, pressing outwards in all directions as the figure inside struggled to break free. A soft white glow emanated from within.

Anastasia Dao entered the room through a doorway covered by a heavy black curtain. She was a tall, slim Asian woman in her early thirties. A knee-length rubber apron covered her faded jeans and her gray v-neck shirt. Matching rubber gloves stretched up to her elbows. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. A clear plastic shield protected her face.

She drew a utility knife from the front pocket of the apron, found an area of the sac that wasn’t too close to the body inside, then carefully slit it open. Grayish-white fluid spilled out, sloshing into the tiled drain on the floor underneath. Slowly, the gash widened and tore, revealing a curve of dark flesh underneath.

Anastasia knelt and cradled her gloved arms under the body as it slipped soundlessly from the membrane. She lowered it gently to the floor.

As it unfolded, the body revealed itself to be a woman, long and lean, with skin the color of roasted chestnuts. The woman gasped, drawing in a sharp breath as if surfacing from a near-drowning. Her eyes opened. They were unfocused at first: scared, confused, searching. She groped blindly at Anastasia, clutching at her shirt, a panicked sound rising in her throat. Finally, her gaze settled on Anastasia’s face. The woman relaxed. The sound tapered off. She touched Anastasia’s cheek. Anastasia smiled.

“Hi, Juliet,” she said. “Welcome back.”

It was all a game to them.

They came into the grocery store every day after baseball practice, sweat soaking through their grass-stained jerseys, their cleats dropping clumps of dirt on the floor as they stampeded to the coolers to grab bottles of Gatorade. Whenever Melanie heard them coming, she would fade silently into the recessed doorway that led into the stockroom, hoping desperately that they would come and go without noticing her. Usually, she escaped their attention. But this day was different. This was the day that Sam Kelly spoke to her.

“Hey,” he said as he passed by the doorway where she stood in the shadows. “You’re Melanie, right?”

Melanie kept her eyes downcast, studiously examining her shoes. She nodded. “Yeah.”

“I thought so. You’re in my Communications class. I’m Sam.”

“I know,” she said quietly. Her heart galloped in her chest. Of course, she knew him. She sat right behind him in the lecture hall, positioned at the perfect angle to stare at him for the whole hour without being noticed. She had practically memorized the laugh lines in the corners of his eyes, the sharp angle of his jaw, the soft fade of his haircut. They had never spoken, but she knew him intimately.

“Sam!” an obnoxious voice called from across the store. “Stop hitting on that poor girl and let’s go!”

“I’m being nice!” he shouted back. He lowered his voice as he turned back to Melanie. “I’m not hitting on you.”

“I know.”

“Did you get her number?” another voice taunted.

“Guys, what the fuck?” He shook his head. “So rude.”

His friends laughed, then filed out of the store, their purchases already paid for.

“Sorry,” he said to Melanie. “I better go.”


“Nice meeting you.”

“You too.”

He began to walk away, paused, then turned back to Melanie.

“Hey,” he said.


“I lied.”


“I am hitting on you.”

Melanie’s breath tapered off to nothing. She kept her eyes glued to the floor. She couldn’t bring herself to look up at him. He was making fun of her. He had to be. Guys like him always did.

“Sorry, I’m really bad at this,” he continued. “But … maybe I could text you sometime?”

Melanie raised her head. Her brow was furrowed in confusion. Was he serious? How could she even tell? She had no frame of reference. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before.

“You look … concerned.” He started to back away. “You know what, never mind. It was a stupid—

“Yes,” she said quickly.

“Yes, it was stupid, or yes, I can text you?”


Sam belted out a surprised laugh. “Holy shit.” He laughed again. “Holy shit, you’re funny. I never knew you were funny.”

Melanie’s face flushed. She shrugged. “I’m not.”

“No, you are. You totally are.” Sam dug into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “All right. We’re doing this. What’s your number?”

Anastasia leaned against the door frame, watching Juliet get used to her new form. The black apron and gloves were gone. She sipped a glass of red wine.

Juliet stared at her naked body in the mirror as if seeing herself for the first time. In fact, she was.

She was extraordinarily beautiful, tall and lean, with an exquisite face that seemed torn from the pages of a fashion magazine: full lips, high cheekbones, and light brown eyes that seemed almost golden in contrast to her dark brown skin.

“Good?” Anastasia asked.

Juliet laughed. Tears spilled down her face. “Sorry,” she said, wiping them away. “I just— She trailed off. “My skin.” She turned around, looking over her shoulder at the mirror. She laughed again, in disbelief. “My ass.”

Anastasia smiled. “It is a great ass.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Juliet replied. “Thank you.”

Anastasia acknowledged the thanks with a toast and a sip of her wine. Her heart swelled. Although she didn’t have any kids of her own, she felt a sort of maternal love—equal parts pride and protectiveness—for the people she helped transform. They were her children. All of them.

Melanie stood in front of the full-length bedroom mirror in a pair of plain cotton panties and a simple white bra. She hated the way she looked. She hated her thin, limp hair. Her mud-brown eyes. Her weak chin. She hated her dimpled thighs and her pigeon toes. She hated her rolls.

Most of all, she hated the wine-colored birthmark that stained the right side of her face. It was an inescapable daily reminder that she would always be different. That she would never fit in.

She glanced down at the phone in her hand and re-read the last text message from Sam.

just one pic

She held the phone in both hands and typed with her thumbs.


cause ur beautiful

Melanie looked at herself in the mirror again. She poked at the soft bulge of fat around her midsection, running her fingers over the rows of thin pink scars she had carved into her flesh. She didn’t feel beautiful. She felt disgusting.

She lifted the phone and typed a response.

i cant

As her finger hovered over the Send button, another message came in from Sam.

i wont show anyone. i promise

Then another.


Melanie stared at the screen. She chewed her lip for a moment, then deleted the message she was about to send. Instead, she sent a different response.


Before she could second-guess herself, she quickly tapped the phone’s camera icon. Then she reached behind her back and began to unbuckle her bra.

“You cost me fifty bucks.”

Melanie looked up from her salad. She was sitting alone in the crowded university food court, studying for her Comparative Biology class. One of Sam’s baseball teammates—Tyler? Taylor?—was emptying his lunch tray into the trash can next to her table.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“Nothing.” He added his dirty tray to a stack of others. As he exited, he called back to her, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Nice tits though!” Then he joined his teammates outside, exchanging laughter and high fives as they headed off across campus.

Melanie glanced around the food court. It seemed like everyone had stopped what they were doing to gawk at her. She looked blankly at the book in front of her, trying to ignore the stares. The full weight of the guy’s words hit her. Her stomach rolled. She felt sick.

Sam said he wouldn’t show anyone the photos. He promised.

He lied.

Melanie buried her face in her hands. Her skin felt hot. Her eyes burned. She wanted to disappear.

“Is anyone sitting here?” a female voice asked.

“No,” Melanie said, her voice muffled behind her hands. “You can take it.”

The chair scraped on the tile floor. It squeaked as someone’s weight settled into it. A hand touched her arm.

“You okay?”

Melanie raised her face to see who had touched her. Sitting in the chair beside her was a beautiful black girl in her early twenties, with flawless dark skin framed by tight, caramel-colored ringlets. Her citrine eyes sparkled in the sunlight.

“Yeah,” Melanie said. She wiped her cheeks self-consciously. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. Here.” The girl handed Melanie a clean napkin.

Melanie took the napkin. “Thanks.”

“I’m Juliet.”

“Melanie,” she said, as she blotted the tears from her eyes.

Juliet looked at her sympathetically. “They got you too, huh?”


Juliet snorted a short laugh. “Girl, fifty bucks is nothing. I cost him twice that.”

“I don’t understand. What was he talking about?”

“The team takes bets on who can get the most homely girl to send them nudes. They call it ‘dog catching.’ Apparently, I was quite the catch.”

“Oh God.” Melanie clutched handfuls of hair on the sides of her head. “I’m so stupid.”

Juliet put her hand on Melanie’s arm and spoke gently. “No, you’re not. You’re human. And they’re monsters. They took advantage of you. Which one was it? Was it Sam?”

“How’d you know?”

“Because he got me too.”

“But you’re not … You’re gorgeous.”

“Ha. Yeah, no …”

Juliet dug her iPhone out of her back pocket, tapped and swiped a few times, then handed the phone to Melanie.

Melanie furrowed her brow, puzzled. On the screen was a photo of a morbidly obese black girl with raging acne and crooked teeth.

“Who’s this?”

“That’s me.”

Melanie looked up at Juliet. Her skin was unblemished, without a trace of discoloration. Her teeth were perfect. She was two hundred pounds lighter. There was no way she was the same girl as in the photo. It was impossible.

“Come on,” Melanie said.

“Swear to God.”

“When was this taken?”

“August, I think?”

Melanie looked down at the photo then up at Juliet again. August was two months ago. Nobody could change so much in such a short time. It wasn’t just an extreme makeover—the girl in the photo was a completely different person.

“How is that possible?”

A small smile curled the corners of Juliet’s mouth. “Can you blow off class for the rest of the day?”

“I don’t know … Why?”

“There’s someone you should meet.”

Melanie’s shoes crunched on the gravel as Juliet led her along the side of a cinderblock warehouse in an industrial part of town. A freight train loaded with coal rumbled past on the other side of the dirt parking lot. Its horn let out a deafening blast as it approached an intersection.

“Where are we?” Melanie shouted over the din.

They arrived at a wooden door with a frosted window. Painted on the glass was a stylized logo resembling a chrysalis hanging from a leaf, under the words Imaginal Studios. Juliet opened the door.

“After you,” she said as she ushered Melanie through.

Melanie entered the warehouse. Juliet followed her in, closing the door behind her. It was dark inside, especially in contrast to the brightness of the clear October sky.

“Anastasia,” Juliet called. “You here?”

Anastasia’s voice shouted from somewhere. “Be out in a sec!”

As Melanie’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, some of the details of the warehouse began to emerge. It was a huge space with high, beamed ceilings and a polished concrete floor. Near the center, several life-sized sculptures stood on solid-looking bases. Each was a human form, exquisitely crafted from what looked like marble. A wide black curtain spanned the warehouse from front to back, concealing the other half of the room from view.

Melanie approached one of the sculptures, gazing at it in awe. Every muscle and tendon of the figure was perfectly detailed. The artistry was extraordinary.

“Wow,” Melanie whispered.

“Amazing, right? Anastasia’s great.” Juliet motioned Melanie over towards a small kitchenette in the corner of the warehouse. “Come on. We can wait over here.”

The kitchenette had a battered refrigerator and an electric stove, along with a table and chairs that looked like they were stolen from the 1970s. The yellowed Formica countertop was cluttered with a variety of glass canisters and earthenware jars. Each was labeled with black wax pencil on what looked like medical tape.

Melanie browsed the labels as she passed. One jar was labeled TURTLE BEAKS. Another read PEREGRINE TALONS. There was a wicker basket of what looked like desiccated mice, their eye sockets empty and sunken. A small brown bottle with a rubber eyedropper was simply labeled VENOM.

“You want something to drink?” Juliet asked. Glass bottles clinked together on the refrigerator door as she opened it.

Inside the fridge, Melanie glimpsed a jar labeled with the word UMBILICAL. A tangle of purple-white tubules sagged wetly against the slime-streaked glass.

“No, thanks,” Melanie managed to say. She began to back out of the kitchenette. “You know what? I should probably go,” she said.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine. It’s just … I just remembered I’ve got this big test—

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” a voice said from behind her. “You must be Melanie.”

Melanie turned. Walking into the kitchenette was a tall, slim Asian woman. Stylish cat-eye glasses with dark-rimmed frames complemented her high cheekbones. Her ink-black hair was pulled up in a messy bun. She wore torn jeans and a simple white t-shirt loosely tucked in on one side. An unusual pendant on a thin black cord hung around her neck. It looked like some kind of sigil or rune.

“So,” Anastasia said, as she took a seat at the kitchenette’s table. “How can I help?”

Anastasia watched Melanie closely as the girl talked about her life. An abusive stepfather. A mother who labeled her defective. Merciless bullying, from kids and teachers alike. The callousness of Sam Kelly and his enablers. Depression. Bulimia. Self-mutilation.

Anastasia’s heart ached for the girl. She had heard similar stories so many times before.

Every year, a fresh crop of students poured into town from around the country to attend the local university. Many of them were away from home for the first time. They were alone, scared, depressed. College was supposed to be a new beginning, but for some of them, it was just a continuation of the cruelty, the stares, and the insults they had experienced their whole lives. Those were the ones Anastasia sought to help. College couldn’t give them a new beginning. But she could.

As a fleshcrafter, she had the unique ability to remake individuals into their best selves, from the outside in. It wasn’t just about how they looked; it was about how the way they looked affected the way they felt. She knew some might say she was just reinforcing the worst tendencies of a society that prized superficial appearance above all else, but she was a realist. She had to play by the rules of the game she was in. If the game was rigged in favor of the young and beautiful—and it was—then she wanted to give her clients every advantage that she could. Besides, her work wasn’t just about physical beauty. It was about freeing the beauty trapped within.

That’s what she liked to tell herself, anyway.

The reality was that, for some, the ugliness was more than skin deep. Some had been injured so profoundly by others’ cruelty that the psychological wounds had festered, poisoning them with resentment, hatred, and rage. Anastasia did her best to heal their spirits as well as their bodies, but it wasn’t always possible. Some were just too far gone. They would choose to use their newfound beauty as a weapon to exact revenge on their tormentors, to inflict the same sort of pain on others that had once been inflicted upon them. It wasn’t an ideal outcome, but Anastasia felt like it was worth the risk. If the worst that happened was some bullies got their comeuppance, she wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.

Once Melanie finished her story, Anastasia carefully explained who she was and what she did. Melanie was understandably skeptical. They always were.

“This can’t be real,” Melanie said. She looked back and forth between Anastasia and Juliet, searching for a sign that they were messing with her. “It’s crazy.”

“It’s real,” Juliet insisted. “You see what she did for me.”

“But how?” Melanie said to Anastasia. “You’re not a doctor.”

“No, not quite,” Anastasia gestured at the sculptured figures in her workshop. “I’m more of an artist.”

“So, you’re, like … magic?”

Anastasia laughed. “It’s a little more complicated than that. But the details aren’t important. Let’s just say, I have a gift.”

“And you really think you can help me? Like you helped her?” Melanie looked at Juliet.

“If that’s what you want.”

Melanie was quiet for a moment. She stood up and walked over to the kitchen window. The glass was covered with dark paint on the outside, making the window dimly reflective on the inside, like a large black mirror. Melanie looked at her reflection. She touched the birthmark on her face. Her hand fell away. “Will it hurt?” she asked.

“Not at all,” Anastasia answered. “It’s just like falling asleep.”

“And then what?”

Anastasia looked to Juliet for her reply.

“And then you wake up,” Juliet said.

“And I’ll be … pretty?”

Anastasia smiled. “You’ll be stunning.”

“Okay.” Melanie exhaled a deep breath. “Let’s do it.”

A few days later, Sam and four of his friends were seated in a corner booth in the back of Shooters, the campus sports bar. A football game played on the widescreen TV mounted on the wall. The crowd let out a collective groan as the Eagles intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown. A waitress approached the table. She placed a fresh bottle of beer in front of Sam.

“From the ladies,” she said, nodding her chin over her shoulder towards the bar.

Sam looked past the waitress. At the bar, a stunning brunette with crystal blue eyes was looking in his direction. She cocked an eyebrow, then sipped her drink. Sam toasted the beer in her direction. She smiled, then whispered something in the ear of the equally stunning black girl sitting next to her. The black girl peeked over her shoulder at Sam, then whispered something back to the brunette.

Sam slid out of the booth and made his way over to the girls. In their new forms, Melanie and Juliet were unrecognizable to him. But they recognized him.

“Usually I’m the one buying the drinks around here,” he shouted over the din.

“What can I say?” Melanie shouted back. “When I see something I want, I like to jump on it.” Her eyes dipped toward his belt for a second. She sipped her drink. Juliet elbowed her and laughed, embarrassed.

“I’m Sam.” He extended his hand to Melanie.

“Alexis.” She squeezed his hand. Their eyes locked.

“Good grip,” he said.


Juliet cleared her throat. “I’m Sasha.”

Sam ignored her. He seemed transfixed by Melanie’s gaze. “Do I know you?”

“Not yet,” Melanie replied.

Melanie led Sam by the hand down a short hallway at the back of the bar, then pulled him through a door marked Employees Only. The small break room was empty except for a table and chairs in the middle and a ratty old couch along one wall. A neon Budweiser sign flickered on the wall, bathing the room in an eerie red glow. Melanie locked the door, then turned and kissed Sam passionately. Their tongues intertwined. She walked him backward to the couch. He sat down hard.

“Take off your pants,” she breathed.


“You heard me,” Melanie said as she straddled him. “I said take …” She grabbed his belt and began unbuckling it. She licked at his lips. “Off.” She unbuttoned his jeans and unzipped the fly. “Your pants.” She kissed him deeply as he raised his butt off the couch and tugged his jeans past his hips to his knees. They slipped down around his ankles.

Melanie’s hands dug into his boxer shorts. He moaned.

Then, suddenly, she began to laugh. She pulled her hands from his boxers, backed off his lap, and stood, still laughing.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, confused. “What happened?”

She laughed even harder when she saw the look on his face. “I’m sorry,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It’s just … I knew it. I could tell just by looking at you.”


“You do have a pencil dick.”

Sam’s face turned red. “Fuck you.”

“I was telling my girl out there, ‘He’s just got that tiny-dick energy, you know?'”

“And you’re a cunt.”

“That’s a big word from a guy who’s hung like a toddler.”

Sam growled and lunged at her. Unfortunately, his jeans were still down around his ankles. He stumbled and crashed into the table, tumbling awkwardly to the floor. That caused Melanie to break into fresh peals of laughter.

“No, don’t get up,” she said. “I’ll see myself out.”

As she turned and unlocked the door, a folding chair flew through the air and crashed into the back of her skull. Stunned, Melanie slumped against the door and slid to the ground. Her head felt heavy, full of sand. The ceiling lights doubled in front of her eyes.

Sam loomed over her. He buttoned his jeans, then slipped off his belt and wrapped it around his fist, leaving the buckle end dangling.

He locked the door.

The door to Anastasia’s studio burst open. Juliet stumbled in, supporting Melanie’s limp body. Melanie’s shoes dragged on the floor. Her chin hung down to her chest, her hair obscuring her face. Her dress was torn down one side. Blood trickled down the inside of her thighs. Ugly purple bruises bloomed across her ribs, her shoulders, her arms, her neck. Everywhere.

“Anastasia!” Juliet yelled. Her voice was strained.

Anastasia rushed from the back room. “Oh my god!” she gasped. She ran to help Juliet, positioning herself under Melanie’s other arm. “What happened?”

“He beat the shit out of her!”

“Over here.” Anastasia steered Juliet towards the kitchenette. They dragged Melanie to the table, then tipped her backward and laid her down. Her head lolled limply to the side.

Anastasia wiped the hair away from Melanie’s face. She was almost unrecognizable: eyes swollen shut, lips mashed, teeth broken. Blood poured from her hairline and trickled from her ears.

“Oh no,” Anastasia whispered. She leaned down and tapped her fingertips against Melanie’s cheek. “Melanie? Sweetie? Can you hear me?” She peeled back one of Melanie’s eyelids with her thumb. “Melanie?” Melanie’s pupil was dilated. Unseeing. Anastasia pressed her fingers into the girl’s neck, feeling for a pulse. Nothing. She lowered her ear to Melanie’s chest and listened. Still nothing.

“Is she gonna be okay?” Juliet asked.

“I don’t know.”

Anastasia stepped away from Melanie’s body and began to move quickly around the kitchenette. She removed a black ceramic bowl from a cabinet, then began scooping ingredients from various canisters into it.

“What are you going to do?” Juliet asked. “Can you help her?”

“I’m going to try.”

Juliet watched as Anastasia removed the jar labeled UMBILICAL from the refrigerator and opened it. She plucked out a thick purple umbilical cord, sliced it open lengthwise with a scalpel, then scraped a spoonful of black blood from the inside and dropped it in the bowl. Next, she reached into a canister and pulled out a handful of squirming caterpillars. She squeezed them in her fist, crushing them. Greenish liquid dripped from her hand into the bowl. She flung the remains of the caterpillars into the trash, then wiped her hand on a towel.

“You should go,” Anastasia said. “In case …” She didn’t finish her sentence.

“In case what?”

Anastasia didn’t know how to answer. There were so many things that could go wrong. She had never worked on anyone who had died before. Physically, she might be able to repair the girl. But she didn’t know what would happen to Melanie’s soul. Was it even still in there? Was there anything left? Or was she just an empty vessel? If it was still intact, would it remember what had happened? Would it remember the violence? The terror? The pain? Could that kind of psychic damage be repaired? Or would the scars be indelible, etched forever in the girl’s memory? Anastasia didn’t have any answers. But she knew she had to try.

Finally, she said, “Just go.”

Juliet headed for the door. As she opened it, Anastasia called out to her.

“Juliet! One more thing.”

Juliet stopped. Anastasia looked down at Melanie’s destroyed face, then back at Juliet. Her eyes were ablaze with anger.

“Who did this?”

“Can I help you?” Sam asked.

Anastasia stood in the aisle at Home Depot, looking up at a display of interior doors for sale. She glanced at the associate’s name tag. It read Sam Kelly.

“I sure hope so,” Anastasia said. She indicated the doors. “Are these things heavy?”

“Depends who’s lifting them.”

“Just me, unfortunately.”

“You’re gonna try to install one yourself?”

“Is that a bad idea?” Anastasia put on her best I’m-just-a-dumb-girl-in-a-man’s-world face.

Sam sucked air through his teeth. “Yeesh. I wouldn’t, if I were you. It can be tricky.”

“Hmm. That’s a problem.”

“You don’t have anyone to help you out? A boyfriend or something?”

It took every ounce of strength for Anastasia not to roll her eyes. The guy thought he was being so smooth. “Nope.” She patted her biceps. “Guess I gotta put these bad boys to work.”

Sam laughed. “Tell you what …” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “We’re not supposed to, but … I can probably stop by after work to help you out if you want.”

“Really?” Anastasia said, beaming. “You’d do that?”

“For that smile?” Sam replied. “Anything.”

Anastasia entered the warehouse. Sam followed her in.

“Can I get you something to drink?” she offered. “Beer?”

“Can’t. Gotta head to baseball practice after this.”

“How about a Coke?”

“That’ll work.”

“Coming right up.”

As Anastasia headed to the kitchenette, Sam wandered over to admire her sculptures.

“These are yours?”


Sam whistled, impressed. Anastasia opened the fridge, retrieved a bottle of Coke, and pried off the lid with a bottle opener. She glanced over her shoulder at Sam. He was facing away from her, inspecting one of the marble figures. Turning back to the counter, she slipped her fingers into the pocket of her jeans and removed a small square of folded paper. She deftly opened it, revealing a fine orange powder inside. With the paper creased into a V, she dumped the powder into the mouth of the bottle, then swirled the soda to mix it in.

She turned and held the bottle up for Sam to see. “As requested.” She sat down at the kitchen table and pushed a chair out with her bare foot. “Have a seat.”

Sam walked over and sat down. Anastasia slid the drink across the table to him. He grabbed it and took a long swig in one smooth motion, then wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “Thanks.” He looked around the warehouse. “So, you’ve got this whole big place to yourself?” He took another sip of Coke.

“Just me and my thoughts,” Anastasia replied.

“Wow. Kinda lonely, no?”


“You should stop by one of our games some night. We usually head over to Shooters after. I’ll buy you a drink.”

Anastasia smiled. “I’d like that.”

Sam took another swallow of his Coke, then offered the bottle to Anastasia. “Sip?”

“I’m good.”

Sam yawned. “Sorry. Long day.” He rubbed his eyes with his fingers then slapped his cheek as if to wake himself up. “Didn’t realize I was so tired.”

“I’ll bet,” Anastasia said, watching him closely. “What time did you start this morning?”

Sam’s eyelids sagged. “Around ssss …” His head bobbed. He blinked his eyes, then rubbed them again. “Ssseven …” His voice trailed off. His eyes closed. His chin slumped to his chest.

Anastasia was impressed. The drugs had worked even faster than she had expected. She took the bottle out of his limp hand. “Sweet dreams, asshole,” she whispered.

Anastasia walked quietly over to the counter and drew open one of the drawers. Inside was a black folded cloth. She took it out, put it on the counter, then unfolded it to reveal an exquisite yanagi sushi knife. The white carbon steel blade was honed to a razored edge, as sharp as a scalpel. It would slice through Sam’s throat with surgical precision. He wouldn’t feel a thing.

Anastasia turned and opened another drawer, pulling out a folded plastic tablecloth. She would spread it on the floor under Sam’s chair—it would be easier to clean up the mess when she was done with him.

“What’s that for?” Sam’s voice said.

Anastasia gasped in surprise. She spun around. Sam was right behind her, fully conscious. Before she realized what was happening, he picked up the knife off the counter and weighed it in his hand.

“Ooh, nice. This is solid.” He pressed his thumb against the tip. “Sharp, too.” He looked her in the eyes. “Someone could really get hurt with this.” His words dripped with menace.

“How— Anastasia started to ask. Sam cut her off.

“What, did you think I was gonna drink that Coke after what you slipped into it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, trying to remain calm.

“Come on, now. I practically invented that move. What did you use? Roofies? GHB?”

Anastasia started to back away. “Look, let’s just forget it, okay? I can find someone else to hang the door.”

Sam laughed. “Oh, right! The door! That was good, how you got me out here.” He laughed again. “Do you think I’m stupid? You think I don’t know what you are?” With the tip of the knife, he pointed at the sigil pendant hanging around Anastasia’s neck. “Sorry, but that’s a dead giveaway. You might as well be wearing a black pointy hat and riding a broom.”

Anastasia’s eyes darted to the counter, trying to think of some way to free herself from the situation. She spotted a canister with the words GHOST PEPPER on the label.

“So, what was your plan, exactly?” Sam took a menacing step forward. “Were you gonna knock me out? Cut me up?” He slashed the knife through the air. “Use me in one of your twisted rituals?”

Anastasia grabbed the canister of ghost pepper and flung an arc of the fiery red powder towards Sam’s face. Sam ducked. The powder sailed over his head and sprayed across the floor behind him. Although he had avoided the brunt of the attack, a fine dust of searing chili powder still ended up in his lungs when he inhaled. He began to cough and heave.

With Sam momentarily incapacitated, Anastasia sprinted across the warehouse and through a curtained doorway in the back.

“Hey!” Sam choked. “Bitch! Get back here!” Still gasping for air, he ran after her, the knife clutched in his hand. He pushed through the curtain, then came to a sudden stop. The sight was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

Hanging from the rafters was a circle of huge, white, teardrop-shaped sacs, six of them in all. Each one glowed with soft white luminescence. Shadowy figures of different sizes and shapes seemed to float inside. Some were in the fetal position. Others drifted weightlessly, their limbs seemingly suspended in mid-air. A Polaroid photo was taped to the side of each sac, each with a name written on the bottom in thick black marker.

“What the hell?” Sam approached the nearest sac, with a Polaroid labeled Nora. The girl in the photo had a gaunt face with hollow cheeks and a beak-like nose. She looked vaguely familiar. He was pretty sure his buddy Tyler had nailed her at some point. She was the one Tyler had called Icky-Bod, partly because of her resemblance to Ichabod Crane from the Sleepy Hollow story, and partly because of the cystic acne that dotted her skeletal frame.

The shadow inside the sac shifted, twisting in Sam’s direction as if aware of his presence. Sam lifted the knife and poked it into the side of the sac, creating a fingernail-sized slit. A grayish-white liquid leaked from the hole and dribbled down the outside. Curious, Sam dabbed a finger into the effluence, then rubbed it between his fingertips. It had a slimy texture, almost like an egg white.

He lifted his fingers toward his face, examining them more closely. The flesh itself seemed gummy, as if his fingertips were made from soft wax. As if they were … melting. Disgusted, Sam tried to wipe his hand on his jacket. The skin sloughed off bloodlessly, degloving his fingertips to the bone. The flesh fell to the floor and into a puddle of fluid, where it rapidly disintegrated into colorless goo.

Sam stared at his hand in numb horror. Steam began to rise from the bones protruding from his mutilated fingers. Pits and divots appeared in the bones as they liquified like melting ice. A terrified groan escaped from Sam’s lips.

Suddenly, a gush of the viscous fluid spewed from the sac and splattered on the floor. Sam jumped backward. The tiny slit he had made in the sac had widened into a foot-long gash. An arm poked through the breach in the membrane. The limb was grossly deformed. It was bone-thin and far too long, more like the arm of a primate than a human—a gibbon, or some sort of sloth. Two bony, elongated fingers protruded from the end like pincers. The arm grabbed for Sam, clutching at his jacket.

“Gah! What the fuck?” Repulsed, he reflexively batted the appendage away. The knife flew from his hand and clattered to the floor, out of reach. “Shit!” He dropped to his hands and knees and bent down close to the floor, searching for the weapon. Instead, he saw a pair of feet.

Anastasia’s feet.

Before Sam could react, Anastasia lashed out and kicked him in the face. He shouted in pain and surprise. Blood erupted from his nose.

“Oh, you’re so fucked,” he growled as he climbed to his feet. He wiped his arm across his face, then spat a wad of gore onto the ground. The blood smeared on his teeth made him look like a crazed animal. “Come here.”

He lunged for Anastasia. She tried to dodge away, but he managed to snag a handful of her shirt as she moved. Wrapping his arms around her torso, he lifted her off the ground and body-slammed her to the cold concrete floor, his full weight crushing down on her as he took her down. The wind whooshed from her lungs. Temporarily stunned, she stopped struggling and rolled onto her back, gasping for air.

She looked to the side. The knife was on the floor, just out of reach. She extended her arm to reach for it. Sam saw what she was trying to do. He grabbed her wrist and smashed it against the ground, causing Anastasia to cry out in pain.

An inhuman wail echoed through the room, merging with Anastasia’s anguished scream. Sam turned his head toward the sound. Behind him, the sac he had violated moments earlier split fully open, dumping its lifeform onto the floor in a torrent of milky white fluid. The thing flopped onto its belly. It raised its head and glared at Sam through bluish, cataract-covered eyes.

It was an abomination.

It had human-like limbs and a human-like form, but it was far from human. It was as if a human body had been liquified, then had re-congealed into something comprised of the same parts, but in all the wrong places. The head was a misshapen, oversized mass. The eyes were too far apart, with one at least two inches higher than the other. The mouth was in the middle of the face, between the eyes. It had no lips, just an irregular black hole with an obscene tongue rooting around inside.

The oversized head tottered on a thin neck connected to a pair of narrow shoulders. The rib cage was flared wide open, with only a thin layer of pale flesh holding its organs inside its body. Intestines swelled and pulsed just under the skin. There were no legs to speak of, just boneless protrusions of flesh that looked more like flippers than anything you’d see on a human.

“Jesus!” Sam exclaimed. “What the fuck is that?”

With a gurgling moan, the monstrosity began to haul itself upright, reaching up with its claw-like hand and grabbing the sac next to it for leverage. As the creature dug its fingers into the membrane and pulled, the second sac began to tear. The Polaroid, a photo of a round-faced girl labeled Elaine, fluttered to the ground. More grayish-white fluid sloshed to the floor, partially coating the thing’s limbs. Steam began to rise from its mottled flesh.

The second sac ruptured, spilling another mutant form onto the floor in a flood of liquid. It sprawled on top of the first creature, knocking it to the ground. Fluid from the torn sac rained down on the pair.

The second creature was as equally deformed as the first, but in entirely different ways. It had no face at all, save for a wide, Cheshire Cat mouth full of tiny, sharp teeth that spanned the entire width of its skull. Doughy rolls of soft fat pooled on the floor around its corpulent torso.

As the two creatures struggled and squirmed, their flesh began to bond together. Translucent webs of skin formed between their limbs. One of the first creature’s arms was subsumed between rolls of fat on the second creature’s belly. Their heads fused at the temples like a pair of conjoined twins. It was as if they were two plastic figures, melting together under a blowtorch.

Anastasia watched with a mixture of disgust and awe. As incomprehensible as it appeared, she knew exactly why it was happening.

As a fleshcrafter, she was able to reduce a human to its most basic elements, the functional equivalent of stem cells. Once disintegrated, the cells could be manipulated to regrow anew into a new, more ideal form. However, like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, the process took time. In the interim, the smallest disturbance could cause the transmutation to go horribly wrong. That’s why Anastasia protected her progeny, keeping each in separate cocoons until their transformation was complete.

But now, the cells had been commingled. They were amalgamating into a single organism, a nightmare chimera fueled by its most elemental animal instincts. Fear. Rage. Hunger.

And it was coming for them.

The creature began to propel itself towards where Sam had pinned Anastasia, dragging itself along the floor with its elongated arms, its fleshy, legless body oozing behind it on a slug-like trail of slime. A shriek resonated from its dual mouths as it churned in their direction.

“No! Get away!” Sam yelled. He fell sideways off of Anastasia and backed away from the thing, his face twisted with revulsion.

Free from Sam’s grasp, Anastasia scrambled in the direction of the fallen knife, snatched up the weapon, and climbed to her feet. She looked at the remaining cocoons hanging from the ceiling, then down at the blade in her hand. A painful realization hit her. She knew what she needed to do.

As the creature continued to advance in Sam’s direction, Anastasia moved along the circle of cocoons and sliced the blade down the side of each sac. One after another, the membranes burst, dumping their inchoate lifeforms onto the floor.

Rebecca … Laura … Christine …


The figures squirmed in a vile stew of liquefying flesh and imaginal fluid, climbing over and across one another like newborn puppies in a litter. Steam erupted violently into the air. The fog came alive with the shadows of flailing limbs and twisting bodies. Anastasia lost sight of Sam as visibility in the room dropped to zero. The air began to reverberate with ear-splitting shrieks and gut-churning moans. Noises like soaking bath towels sloshing and slapping in a tub of water issued from the writhing mounds of agglutinating flesh hidden in the steam. Bones cracked. Tissues fused. Organs spilled.

Suddenly, a scream ripped through the air. A man’s scream.

The fog began to dissipate. What remained was a monstrosity that defied imagination. It was a behemoth of flesh and bone, of hair and teeth, of eyes and mouths. In some places, its flesh was stretched tightly over protrusions of muscle and bone. In others, its skin was flaccid and blubbery. Easily ten feet tall, it towered over Anastasia on a crab-like arrangement of legs. Pairs of multi-jointed arms protruded from its distended torso. A tight cluster of eyes was pressed into a singular, malformed face. Rows of teeth erupted through bleeding gums inside a seething, drooling maw.

The creature had Sam. It held him aloft above the warehouse floor.

“Let … me … go!” he yelled, his body bucking and twisting as he tried to break away from the hands that gripped him. In desperation, he swung his one free arm, pounding the thing repeatedly in the face. His fist squelched into one of the creature’s eyes. The monster wailed in pain.

Then, it tore Sam to pieces.

His body came apart in the middle, ripping in half just under his rib cage. Blood burst out in a hot rush and pattered to the floor. Gore spilled down the front of the creature, slicking its skin with a crimson sheen.

The thing flung Sam’s remains into the shadows, then turned toward Anastasia. She stared at the monster in mute horror. She could feel it glowering at her, evaluating her. It began to move in her direction. She remained motionless, closing her eyes as the creature drew within inches of her face. She could feel the moist heat radiating off its skin. Its odor was revolting, like rancid oatmeal made with spoiled milk, burnt and left to rot.

One of the creature’s hands reached for her … and touched her cheek. It was gentle, almost a caress. Anastasia held her breath and prepared to die.

Instead, there was a massive crash, followed by a cold rush of wind. Anastasia slowly opened her eyes. The giant roll-top door in the back of the warehouse was destroyed, its metal bent outward in great jagged tears. The creature was gone.

Trees rattled and branches snapped as the thing fled into the forest behind the warehouse and back in the direction of the university campus. A flock of birds erupted from the trees to escape the stampeding beast. Still numb with shock, Anastasia watched the birds soar through the night sky, silhouetted across the orange-hued light of the autumn moon. Her gaze drifted downward, moving past the university bell tower to the blazing lights overlooking the college’s sports field. On the baseball diamond, Sam’s teammates were warming up for their evening practice.

Anastasia wasn’t sure if the monster was headed in that direction. But part of her hoped it was.

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