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A Heart, An Egg, A Lock of Hair

Kelly Sandoval's fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. She lives in Seattle, where the weather is always happy to make staying in and writing seem like a good idea. Her family includes a patient husband, a grumpy tortoise, and too many cats. You can find her online at kellysandovalfiction.com.

She used to keep track of things. Of dates. Of names. Of time spent in one city before drifting to the next, staying unnoticed and unremarked. Of schools she attended, hands shoved in pockets, head down, saying, "My name is Jennifer (or Susan, or Emma, or Faith) and it's nice to meet you."
She used to remember her name.
It doesn't matter. She has to tell herself this, over and over. All the leaving and forgetting and the years that burn up in her thoughts like kindling. They don't matter. She'll live forever. Young, wild, and unhurt.
"Eternity," her mother once said, "is dark. Dark and so very cold."
But what did she know? What could anyone that old know, about how it felt to be young and flush with power, and so very in love?
And then not so very in love. She'd done what any seventeen-year-old would do, with the world ending in every way that mattered. She made the pain stop. A trick she'd learned from her father. Cut down the center of your chest. Pull out your heart, feel it beating in your palms. Listen to the sound of it, the hollow thud of pain. Hide it, in the old way. An egg, a goose, a mountain, a cave.
Keep it secret. Try to forget.
She's forgotten the lover. Forgotten the music of her mother's voice. The chilly whisper of her father's. But still, sometimes, she feels her heartbeat.
She feels it as she introduces herself again. "My name is--Claire? Claire. Right. And it's nice to meet you." There's a giggle from the back of the class, and she looks up to see a girl, in pink and black and too much lipstick, her smile like a bruise.
Somewhere, Claire's pulse races. An eggshell shivers, a goose resettles, boulders tumble from a rocky cliff. A cave, long hidden, reveals itself.
In the sweaty, adolescent closeness of the classroom, Claire smells ice and pine. She stops breathing. It's not like she needs to.
She makes a point of sitting in the front, of not meeting the girl's eyes, not meeting anyone's eyes. She doesn't bother with friendships anymore. She just likes the sensation of nearby humanity, of routine and expectation. What else is there to do with eternity?
"What are you?" The girl asks, coming up behind her after class. She slips her arm through Claire's, like some trusted confidant. "I mean, no offense. Your eyes are just like, woah, infinity. No edge. You know what I mean?"
Claire does, in fact, know what she means. Another reason to keep her gaze fixed on her shoes.
"I'm Rita," says the girl. "But everyone calls me Ruin."
"Do they?" Claire asks.
"Nah. But it'd be cool if you did. I'll call you Nova."
"Call me whatever you want." Claire hears the grumble of shifting stone, a whole mountain throbbing to the urgent rhythm of her heart. She tries to remember the last time anyone touched her. She tries to remember her name. Ruin tugs her along, and she allows herself to be led.
There's a trick to this, too. There's a trick to everything. Ride the want, let the heart have its moment. Weave desire like a rope. Pull it taut when the time comes. Ruin is not the first to smile at her, not the first to lead her, shivering out into the day.
It's autumn, like a thousand other autumns. The leaves fall around them as they walk, and Ruin catches one, hands it to her. It's just a leaf, orange-brown, crumpled at the edges. Claire stuffs it in her purse without saying thank you.
The goose tries, and fails, to sing.
She follows Ruin home. Listens to her favorite bands, eats lukewarm pizza. Ruin sits on her bed, knees pulled to her chest, and monologues about her family.
"My mother's dead," Claire admits, after prompting. "A long time ago."
Ruin leans her head against Claire's shoulder, all wordless, unnecessary comfort. "Just you and your Dad, huh?"
"Something like that," Claire says. "We haven't spoken for a couple hundred years."
Truth, she's learned, is the easiest lie. Ruin laughs, just as she's meant to. But then her eyes meet Claire's and she swallows hard. "What are you?"
And Claire says, "A sorceress."
Ruin laughs, low as a whisper, "I wish I were magic."
Claire looks at Ruin, with her bright eyes and her bruised smile, and she wants to say, I know what to do. She wants to say, find an egg. Take out your heart. It only hurts the first few hundred years.
She learned centuries ago, about making friends. Foolish. Fruitless. But she is constantly forgetting things. Eternity is so very long. So very cold.
When Ruin hugs her goodbye, Claire grabs a few strands of her hair, tugging hard. She'll apologize. Pretend it's an accident. She'll knot the strands with her own. Tie pink to brown and brown to pink. A simple spell, a binding. Claire no longer allows her lovers to stray. It's easier that way, companionship without complication.
Stones settle. The goose sleeps.
Claire feels nothing.
Ruin catches her hands. Touches a strand of pink and grins.
"Witch," she says.
"Hold on." Ruin runs to her dresser, picks up something slender and sharp. Without comment or ceremony, she grabs a handful of hair and saws through it, as close to the scalp as she can.
"There," she says, pressing the mess of knotted strands into Claire's hands. Freely given. No tricks. There's power in that, too. It's so hard to turn a gift against itself. Claire tucks the hair in her purse, beside the leaf, unsure now what to do with either.
Somewhere, in a cave, on a mountain, under a goose, a shell cracks. Something begins to hatch.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 16th, 2017
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