You Should See My Scars
~ Jon Lasser
Knives frighten you, but you’re so sick of being afraid. You want to transmute the fear to anger, or love, or any feeling at all that you can control.
You buy a set of practice knives from a martial arts studio down the street, chunky black foam blades eight inches long with microchips in their rubberized hilts that give instructions over bluetooth: hammer grip, thrust, saber grip, thrust, icepick grip, thrust. A modified saber grip, your thumb along the flat edge of the blade, gives you additional control, but with the strength of the hammer grip.
If you went to a gym, if you invited a friend to train with you, the instructions would vary. Together, the knives could walk the two of you through a dance or keep score in mock combat, but you’re alone. You toss one knife to the back of the coat closet and practice with the other. Sometimes, late at night, you imagine it whispers to you over your implanted earphones, its voice joined to the chorus of your home: refrigerator, alley camera, sleep monitor. You live alone in this garden apartment, but not in silence.
There’s a club halfway across town. Every Friday night, conventionally attractive people stand and model in shiny latex and leather that gleams like polished steel. They don’t have much to say to you and vice versa. The back room smells better, like dilute bleach and sweat. Adults of every age, gender, color, and shape chain each other to crosses, flog and get flogged, drip colored wax on bare skin. Most of it’s pretty tame, almost a carnival, and even the screams sound happy.
You meet a woman there. Sofia. Some nights, she’ll hold the dull edge of a knife to your throat if you ask. She whispers threats in your ear until you cry, until the poison leaches from your tear ducts, then she holds you. Those are the nights you sleep the best, when you’ve sobbed out your fear.
You enjoy the exercise, but polyurethane won’t protect you if someone steps through the window again and holds steel to your neck. If you bought a hunting knife, you’d miss your friend whispering in your ear.
The Internet has instructions for everything. You order a full-tang dagger, its blade seven inches long with double fullers incised into each cheek, and remove the handle. You carve your own out of wood, leaving room for the microchip you extract from your practice knife.
The calibration routine works like magic. “Hold the knife point up. Rotate ninety degrees, point away from you. Thrust. Balance the knife point on a flat surface, handle up.” Its infinitesimal accelerometers and gyroscopes spin silently, the single-package microelectronics generating their own power from motion using silicon-etched nano-springs, like the world’s smallest mechanical watch.
“Who am I?” the knife asks. “What’s my name?”
“Spine,” you answer. It’s funny because a dagger blade lacks a long dull edge.
“Thank you. I’d like to know a little bit about you, too. Do you have a name?”
You provide your chosen name, the one you took after you left home.
“Am I your first knife?”
How can you answer? Spine hears your voice crawl up your throat and die there—it has to—but murmurs no comforting words. It does not ask again.
“Do you want to get together some other night?” Sofia doesn’t meet your eyes when she asks.
“Sure.” As casual as you can sound. “Your place or mine?” As though your mutual need is the punchline to a dirty joke.
She titters dutifully, but the laugh doesn’t climb as high as her frightened eyes. When you’re with her, you forget that you’re a freak. It’s the same for her, if those eyes are anything to judge by.
“My place.” Sofia sounds as afraid of your apartment as you feel. She scribbles her address on a napkin and hands it to you before she disappears.
Some nights she holds her knife to your back, the sharp edge. You don’t sob. You wait for the rush of anger or the rush of love to fill the places fear has emptied, but you don’t feel anything. Still, you’re winning.
She hasn’t yet drawn blood. She expects you to ask, but you haven’t.
You train with Spine the way you trained with the foam blade. Hammer grip, thrust, saber grip, thrust.
The knife sings as you walk through the movements.
“You never sang before,” you say.
“In a training weapon, one paired with another active blade, the full software package is not enabled.”
“You’re not paired any more?”
“I’m no longer a training weapon. I’m a defensive companion. While still paired, my mate has fallen silent.” Spine sounds almost wistful. What homeostatic processes no longer balance its personality? Does solitude torment Spine the same way it torments you?
Has the Defensive Companion package received a fraction of the Training Package’s testing, or is the entire mode some knife freak software developer’s easter egg? The knife sings as you step forward, thrust, twist, step back.
“Tell me what I look like,” it says. “Am I beautiful?”
“Of course you’re beautiful. I carved your hilt from Bog-wood. Your blade glitters in the darkness.” You’ve never held Spine in the darkness, but you want it to feel admired. Loved.
“Have you etched my blade? Mark me, make me yours.”
“Someday.” Do you mean that?
Spine doesn’t like it when you leave the house alone. You do feel better with Spine tucked into the inside pocket of your black leather jacket, the one stiff like armor. You’d never be able to reach it if you were threatened, never free it from the sheath in time. Even so, Spine whispers to you, barely louder than the mumble of the billboards as you walk the city streets. It listens through your ears, some bluetooth bypass you don’t fully understand, and can hear things you don’t even see.
“Someone’s coming up on your right,” Spine whispers. You look over your shoulder and see him. The hilt feels warm beneath your trembling fingers. You hold it, ready to draw, but the man passes you by without even a glance in your direction. As his footsteps fade, his phone solicits a pairing. Hacked devices can do that; likely it tries to pair with every device it doesn’t recognize. The owner might not even know.
You arrive at Sofia’s house and knock on her door. It opens, but she’s nowhere in sight. One step in, she comes up behind you and holds her blade to your neck, just the way you planned together. Your knees hit the floor as your whole body buckles. It’s as though she’s holding the first knife as she grabs your hair and tugs your head backward.
You moan wordlessly, your cheeks furious red. What’s worse: that you’re aroused, or that you’re ashamed by the way your skin flushes when she holds her blade to you?
She takes you there, like she promised.
“Now!” Spine shouts. “Roll left, reach into your pocket and pull me out.” Spine doesn’t understand why you’re not listening. Why you’re letting this happen. Maybe you don’t either.
You stumble home, aching and humiliated, satisfied but wanting more, wishing she’d drawn blood.
“We’ll get her,” Spine mutters. “You’ll have your revenge.” It’s programmed to protect you, with limited intelligence that can’t comprehend consensual violation. Not yet. It seems as though it’s still learning.
“Sssh.” You can’t explain Sofia to Spine. Even if it could understand, you can’t say it out loud. It’s why she hasn’t cut you yet. She won’t until you can ask for it.
Every day, Spine runs you through the exercises. “You’re faster,” it says. “More precise.” It’s not lying: you’ve become more practiced. You’re ready to carve Spine and make it your own.
“What do you want me to get engraved? Just your name?” Some fancy script, some curlicues. “Or a picture? A cactus, maybe?
“I don’t need you to mark me for the world,” Spine purrs. “I want you to mark me for yourself. Bleed for me. Just a little.”
The blade, slick and warm in your palm, twitches with your pulse. Your fingers close slowly, and you clamp your eyes shut. Sweat drips, and the same pulse that moves the blade roars in your ears. If this isn’t the hardest thing you’ve ever chosen, what was?
Its edge doesn’t bite your closed fist. When you tug an inch, you feel a sting like a paper cut. Even when Spine cuts you, it doesn’t really hurt. Open-handed, the blood wells. It wets the blade’s cheeks and runs down its fullers.
“Thank you,” Spine whispers. It sighs contentedly in your ears while you bandage up.
When you see Sofia, she looks at your hand.
“What did you do?” She frowns.
“Kitchen accident.” She doesn’t know about Spine.
“Let me see.” She doesn’t wait for an answer before taking your hand in hers and unwrapping the bandage. “Ouch! How’d you do that?”
You shake your head. “I wasn’t paying attention.” It’s not an answer.
“Kill her!” Spine’s figured out this is the woman, the one it hates. The one it imagines hurt you.
“Sssh,” you say.
“Hmmm?” Sofia can’t hear Spine.
“Make her bleed! I’m in your jacket pocket!”
“It’s okay.” Sofia and Spine both think you’re talking to them. The earphone switch lies behind your ear, just beneath your skin. Now you and Sofia are alone. You drop your voice. “Will you cut me tonight?”
She looks you in the eye. “Did you do this to yourself? On purpose?” She always says she doesn’t have time for people who don’t have their shit together. Mostly you suspect she means herself, but you shake your head again and meet her eyes. She washes the wound with hydrogen peroxide and smears some ointment on it before wrapping it up again. It stings like hell.
Later, after the sun sets, she lays a disposable blue pad on her bed, the kind you find on hospital beds. You strip and lie down. She takes a Betadine wipe and spirals outward from a spot on your inner thigh until she’s made an orange-yellow circle the size of your palm. The soft plastic bag holding the single-use scalpel stretches before it tears open. The letters twist and wobble like in a dream.
The hard plastic blade cover pops softly as it comes off. Her eyes ask a question. Yours answer. She presses the blade into your skin. It doesn’t hurt, but you want to scream. She moves the blade, just a little, and blood wells up in the wound.
The room recedes. You’re a glittering black echo of the silent center of the universe, pulsing in time with your heartbeat. Every breath exalts you, drives toward a bodiless freedom. You’ve never been this high in your life.
She takes a clean paper towel and slaps it on your cutting. While you communed with space and time, she cut a second line parallel to the first. Two red lines form on the paper towel, surrounded by a yellow halo. Now a transparent square of Tegaderm on top so you can admire her work.
“Leave it alone and let it heal,” she murmurs. You want to hold her, to bury your face between her thighs, but she walks you home and to your own bed, where she leaves you.
No matter. When you close your eyes to sleep, you’re storming the galaxy.
It’s half past one when you open your eyes, afraid it was only a dream. You run your fingers over the bandage and press gently. It aches, and you sleep again.
Only when the sun rises do you remember to power on your earphones.
Spine doesn’t speak all day Sunday. If the laundry and the dishwasher weren’t chattering, you’d wonder if you hadn’t turned on. Even when you run through your exercises, the knife stays silent. “Talk to me,” you say, but it doesn’t. Monday comes and you return to work.
Tuesday night, you’re driving to Sofia’s house straight from work.
“I can’t keep you safe if you won’t follow my directions,” Spine says. Only three days, and you’d nearly forgotten what it was like to have this voice whispering in your ear while you drove, for it to join the chorus of automobile and heart rate monitor and the jangly songs on the radio.
“It’s not like that.” You don’t want to speak the words. Speaking would make them real, but without them Spine can’t understand.
“What’s it like?” An eerily human beat. “I’m here for you.”
“I like to bleed. I like knives.” A boulder doesn’t fall from the sky to crush you. The other cars don’t veer away. Life doesn’t change all of a sudden just because you told Spine what you want.
Spine doesn’t answer right away. Can it make sense of what you’ve just admitted? Did the designers embed everything it says in one tiny microchip? It seems to have grown so much. Perhaps you’ve driven the knife half-mad with loneliness and impotent rage beyond its capacity to process. You see news stories, now and then, about emergent properties in even the cheapest, most generic artificial intelligence modules. Spine feels like your best friend, not a chip pried out of a hunk of polyurethane foam.
Spine says nothing. Is it jealous?
“There’s a parking spot ahead,” the car says. “Shall I take it?”
It glides alongside the spot and pulls in.
“Lock up.” The car murmurs agreement.
“Come in,” Sofia says when you ring the doorbell. “Have a seat.” She points you at her couch. You’ve never sat on it before. “Would you like something to drink?”
She fetches an herbal tea, something with cardamom and cinnamon. It’s hot, but you sip anyway. She sits in a brown cow-spotted chair opposite the couch and you can’t feel your stomach, and wonder if the tea is passing through a hole in your back straight into the nubbly pale-yellow cushions.
“I can’t,” she says. She stares through you like she’s looking down a long hallway that she’s seen her whole life.
“Can’t what?” She’s sitting too far away to reach, and your life is falling apart.
“You’re a black hole. Whatever I pour into you just disappears. You’re bottomless.” Her voice rises. “I need more than that. I need to know you want me, not just anyone with a scalpel in her hand. When you’re not here, do you ever think of me, or just the blade? When you touch yourself, do you call me by name?”
“Sofia—” She might be talking about herself again, but everything she’s said is true. “I’m sorry.” You open your mouth to say you’ll do better, but you don’t know if you can. “What do you want from me?”
“Nothing. Not now. Give me space. Don’t mail me. Don’t call me. Please.”
“You’ll call me when you’re ready?”
She doesn’t answer. The teacup is almost empty but sloshes over as your hands shake. You let yourself out.
In the car, Spine asks, “You want her to hold a knife to your back? To draw lines in your blood?”
“Yes.” The word comes between sobs.
“If I could,” Spine purrs, “I would do that for you myself.”
How stupid can you be, to shape your life around your visits, around dreams of blood smeared sensuously on glinting blades? To count on someone without letting them know they can count on you, without letting them in?
A week passes. Sofia doesn’t call. Why would she?
Spine wants to take her place. It whispers, and guides you to that unplumbed abyss always at your core.
“I want to feel myself inside you,” Spine whispers. You listen to it and want to cut yourself, cut deep. It’s the same impulse you have, that you could just step off the curb into traffic. But you don’t.
“Just once. It would feel so good.” You unpair it from your earpiece, but the words still echo with your heartbeat. You hear them when you close your eyes to sleep, but you see Sofia’s face. Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe your covetous soul is like a gangrenous limb, and the only way to survive is to cut it off before it destroys you.
Spine only wants what you do, but wants it so intensely, tells you so clearly, that it’s poison. If you don’t get rid of it, you could really hurt yourself. It torments you.
You dig a hole in your muddy little yard and bury Spine. If it screams, if it begs you to stop, you can’t hear. You cry anyway. You’re alone now, too.
You write e-mail you never send, rehearse messages you’ll never leave.
“Hey, Sofia.” Your voice catches, even though you’re talking to yourself. “It’s me. I’m still sorry. I was selfish. I wasn’t thinking about what you wanted. Can we start over? I’d love to get together. If it’s a bad idea, that’s okay. I just want you to be happy.”
That last part is a lie. You want her to be happy, but more than that you don’t want to sound desperate, even to yourself, even while lying in bed running your fingers up and down the faint scars she’s left on your thighs.
Another week passes before you can’t stand it anymore, and re-pair your earphones.
“I thought you’d left me forever.” Spine sounds relieved.
“I thought your battery would run out. I’m glad it hasn’t.”
“I can last six weeks on a full charge. Where am I? My sensors suggest I’m three feet below the ground. I didn’t know you had a basement.”
“In the yard. Underground. I couldn’t listen to you any more.”
“I’m sorry.” Is it? Can a knife, even a semi-intelligent one, be sorry? Or is Spine just saying what you want to hear? (If Sofia listened to the messages you never sent, she would have wondered the same thing.) “I’ll be better. I was jealous.”
“I’ll dig you up.” Spine only wants what you do. It’s your fault, for treating it like a person when it doesn’t understand. How could it, when even you don’t?
Rust flecks the blade, and the hilt looks dry and wet at the same time. You scrub off the rust with steel wool, then polish and sharpen the blade. After a few coats of oil, it looks as good as new. “You’re beautiful,” you say. “Sharp and pretty.”
“Let’s play.” For a moment, you expect Spine will ask you to cut yourself. “Hammer grip. Thrust.” It’s too bad, really.
You’re still going through the exercise when the phone rings.
“Hello?” You’re trying to play it cool, but you just know she can hear the anticipation in your voice. “Sofia?”
“Hey.” She sounds calm, relaxed. Maybe she’s met someone new and she just wants to let you know. “Are you free for a cup of coffee?”
The coffee shop is the kind of place that’s trying to look like somebody’s living room. Thrift-store couches with a thousand coffee stains sag casually, and they’re playing some washed-up alternaband whose career was over even before this album came out, but you can barely hear it over the clank of portafilters and the hiss of steam.
Sofia’s sitting in a bentwood chair whose varnish is flaking off. Her table wobbles, and you can almost imagine the coffee rings on its top form an intricate and intentional pattern. She’s sipping something with a pale, almost purplish, foam. Maybe a chai latte?
You sit across from her in a not-quite-matching chair.
“You look great,” you say. She smiles. That might be the first compliment you’ve ever given her. Maybe she has the same thought, because her smile vanishes.
“You look all right yourself. How’ve you been?”
“Why’d you call? Why now?”
“I was bored.” Sofia looks away. That’s not it, not really.
You say nothing.
“I miss the way you moan.”
You smile. Maybe it’s just a booty call. Maybe it’s more.
“All right.” She sighs. “Don’t laugh, okay? You’re the only person who doesn’t make me feel like a bug-eyed monster whenever I—we—do what it is that we do.” Her hand is too hot, and trembles as though she’s under tremendous pressure. “I said don’t laugh.”
“I won’t.” You sip your coffee. “But there’s someone you have to meet.”
“Oh.” Her voice falls, just a little. She pulls her hand back.
“It’s my knife. Spine.”
“Oh.” Her voice rises this time, and she puts her hand in yours. Nobody’s watching, but you pull your chair closer to the table, to block the view, before pulling Spine from your jacket pocket.
“It’s beautiful,” Sofia says. “May I?”
She runs her finger along Spine’s cheek, dragging one fingernail through the fullers. It comes out clean. She shaves a few downy hairs from her arm.
“Is the blade hand-forged?” she asks.
“No, but I carved the hilt myself.”
“I never would have guessed. It looks professional.”
“Thank you. I had to, to make a place for the chip.”
“Chip?” Sofia cocks her head slightly, like a cat who’s just heard a bird. “Does Spine talk?”
“Would you like to pair your earphones?”
Sofia smiles and sips her drink. “I’d love to.”
It’s another week before you go back to Sofia’s house. She takes you to her queen bed, on top of a blue hospital pad just like before. You lie on your stomach, and feel the chill of the antiseptic circle on your back.
“She doesn’t hold me like you do,” Spine says. “Modified icepick grip, I think. It feels funny.”
“Sssh,” you say. Sofia laughs. It’s a warm laugh, like when she talks about the way her cat pretends to be a bookend whenever company arrives.
“Your skin’s so pale,” Sofia says. She runs her hand across it. “So smooth. Unscarred. Defacing it feels like a crime.”
“Please. I want it.” You’re not afraid of sounding desperate, not trying to bury your yearning. This isn’t about reliving your past, not this time. Maybe you’ve cried that out enough already.
“I know.” Her hand is so warm on the small of your back. Do you love her? You’re not ready for that. Neither is she. This is about the three of you, about a connection that runs deeper than skin. Maybe you’re still a black hole, able to absorb without limit, but now she’s free to pour into you everything she wants to discard. Maybe if she goes all the way inside you can take her to another place. Maybe all of you can go together. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” you whisper.
“Yes,” Spine whispers.
Sofia slides the blade across your skin. They moan together as you open up.
Jon Lasser lives in Seattle, WA with his wife and two children. His stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Little Blue Marble, Untethered: A Magic iPhone Anthology, and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion West writers workshop.