F.A.S. (Foetal Atomic Syndrome)


by Andrew Wilmot

i.

THE FIREMAN EXITED the decimated first-grade classroom. Ash and blood draped across his shoulders like he’d walked beneath a canopy of entrails. He held in his hands a pair of Coke bottle glasses and a charred swatch of tartan skirt. The principal, a short man, squat like a wine barrel, accepted the piecemeal remains.

“Margeurite Beaton died a hero,” the fireman said. “She saved those kids.”

The principal swallowed. “Will someone come and take her away?”

“Once we’ve got her off the walls.”

“Right . . . okay.”

*          *          *

Allegra Matise was passing by when she saw the explosion outside the kitchen window—a horrible sunrise from the wrong direction. She dropped to her knees, scrambled under the kitchen table, and clamped her hands over her ears. A dust tsunami shattered all the windows and set off every car alarm on her street.

When the chaos had passed she crawled out from under the table, grabbed her car keys off the hook above the microwave, and left.

Standing in the driveway, Allegra brushed shards of broken glass from the driver’s seat of her car. She noticed her neighbours exiting their homes to survey the damage. Many appeared to stumble out their front doors, wiggling fingers in their ears like they’d been at a heavy metal concert. Heads turned, terrified whispers aimed in her direction. She jumped in her car, sped off down the street before they could start throwing rocks.

Miraculously she arrived at the school ahead of the emergency response teams. The building was still standing—thank Christ—but the second-floor east wing was a burn victim: collages and finger-painted self-portraits hung from the remaining walls as cooked turkey skin would from a bone. Trees in the yard were stripped clean; every car in the teacher’s parking lot flattened.

Matthew sat on the sidewalk in front of the school, hugging his knees to his chest. He looked unfettered, save his patchy, windswept hair. Allegra pulled up to the curb and called his name. He didn’t respond; she put the car in park and went to her son. Knelt down and brushed the hair from his eyes.

“Kiddo, we have to go.” She glanced the destruction behind him. “We don’t have time for this. I need you to use your legs, okay?”

Matthew stroked the side of his mother’s face, drawing a line through the thick, sludge-like coating of soot and debris that was always there. Allegra led him by the hand to the car and buckled him safely inside. There were sirens approaching. She quickly pulled away from the curb, watching in the rear view mirror as disoriented survivors filed slowly out of the building.

ii.

Years ago, upon discovering that his sixteen-year-old daughter was pregnant, Allegra’s father:

  1. Put his fist through a wall
  2. Called her a whore
  3. Threw her out of the house

“In that order,” she confided later that night. “I thought he might kill me.”

Celina scoffed. “Fucking asshole. Want me to pull off his fingernails?”

“That’s sweet. But I’ll be okay.”

“Standing offer.”

Allegra blushed. Since their meeting in sixth grade, she’d long ago learned there was no limit to Celina’s desire to protect those closest to her.

“You’ll stay here,” Celina said—not asking.

Allegra looked away. “I’m pregnant, Cel. You don’t need that drama.”

“Alley-cat, shut up and say yes.”

“Your negotiation tactics leave something to be desired.”

“Negotiations are for offers. This is an edict. ’Sides, not like I don’t know what it’s like.”

Allegra’s eyes widened. “You mean—”

“Get comfy, roomie. You’re not going anywhere.”

Allegra plopped down on the couch as her friend slipped into a harlot-red, skin-tight dress and finished putting on makeup. She was about to lie down and take a nap when Celina came up to her and frowned. She put her thumb to the side of Allegra’s face, smudged it around like she was cleaning dirt from a child’s cheek.

“There,” Celina said. “That’s better.” She held up a dirty grey thumbprint. “Had a bit of schmutz on you. Now come on, let’s go.”

*          *          *

They went to the Riot Act and Celina found them a table near the back—a quiet enough spot where they could talk without having to shout. She got them each a beer, which Allegra stared at reluctantly.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Celina said. “Little fuckers are resilient. You’ll be fine.”

Allegra nodded, though she didn’t feel fine. She hadn’t felt fine in six weeks, since Todd had taken her back to his place. He said his name was Todd anyway; she asked around for a couple days and no one seemed to know any “Todd”—tall and blond with a gunmetal glint in his eyes. She’d woken up alone the morning after, realizing, as her head cleared, that “Todd’s place” was a shit-stain of a motel off the interstate. All traces of Todd had vanished in the night, except for a single unused condom on the nightstand.

“And now I’m stuck with this.” Allegra pointed the neck of her beer bottle to her still-flat stomach.

“Fucking pig.”

“Yeah, well it’s my problem now.”

“Only if you let it be.”

Allegra leaned forward. “What was it like for you?”

“Which time?”

“Seriously?” Celina held up three fingers. “How?”

Celina snorted. “How the fuck do you think?”

“No, how come I never noticed?”

“Because nothing changed! Think, did you ever see me sitting around and moping? I don’t stop for nothing, Alley-cat.”

It seemed unfair: under the hard lights of the Riot Act, Celina actually appeared younger than she ever had; Allegra simply felt old, as if her body had already begun to settle and shape itself into something new. She scratched the side of her face; when she looked, her finger was a stick of charcoal.

“It’s cake,” Celina continued. “Find some down-on-their-luck wannabe parents who can’t have a kid of their own. They pay you, and then they turn it into a doctor or an astronaut or a rock star, and you get on with your life.”

As Celina spoke, Allegra thought she saw something she hadn’t before: a dark seam—a vertical incision down the side of Celina’s face. Then the moment passed, and the mark vanished.

*          *          *

Two weeks had passed when Celina shook Allegra awake in the middle of the night. She rolled over on the couch and smoke billowed out from under her wool blanket.

“The fuck, Alley-cat? You fall asleep with a lit cigarette?”

Allegra tossed the blanket aside. A crescent-shaped burn had been scorched into the fabric. Her slightly larger midsection emitted an orange, alien glow.

Celina stepped back. “What the fuck is going on?”

Allegra was shaking. “I think—maybe I should see a doctor.”

*          *          *

She lied through her teeth at every “Have you ever” the doctor asked. He lifted her shirt, inspected the soft bulge. He swept a gloved finger through a light coating of ash, walked a line across her belly like footprints in the snow. Allegra’s face reddened. He gripped her sides and leaned in, closely inspecting the tiny pulsating orange beacon in her belly button. His finger sizzled when he touched it, like steak on a hot grill. The doctor cursed loudly and peeled the latex glove off his hand. He went over to the sink and immediately ran cold water over the singed digit.

“Fuck, I-I’m sorry.” Allegra grabbed her jacket, headed for the door.

The doctor blocked her exit. “Miss, I can’t just let you leave, not without discussing your options.”

“Options?”

“How to deal with—” he looked down “—this. Whatever it is it’s serious. It’s going to require immediate action.”

“This,” Allegra said, pointing to her still-radiating stomach, “isn’t a ‘this’ or an ‘it.’ It’s a—it’s my baby.”

“I’m aware, but—”

She pushed him aside and fled the observation room.

*          *          *

Allegra stared for thirty minutes into a mirror in the Riot Act’s washroom. The sink in front of her was stained black and light beige—blotches of soot mixed with excessive amounts of concealer. Defeat welled up inside her, knotting her insides. Gradually her face changed colour from sandy pale to orange; she looked to her stomach, four months along, blinking like a caution traffic light. She sighed and buttoned her jacket.

She found Celina at a table facing two men. She came up behind them, shouted over the thrum of the music. “I’m not feeling great. I think I’m going to go.” But Celina couldn’t hear. Allegra repeated herself and one of the two men turned and stared and everything. Just. Stopped.

Todd.

The same motherfucker who swore up and down that of course he’d put that condom on, couldn’t she feel it, couldn’t she feel the difference?

That Todd.

He bolted up, the panic in his eyes disappearing as quickly as it came, and offered to buy her a drink—least he could do after sticking her with the bill for the motel room. But no hard feelings, right?

Right, Allegra thought, it was the least he could do.

“You wanna go outside?” he shouted in her ear, so close she felt flecks of spit on her cheek. “My truck’s out front.” He led Allegra through the crowd, exiting into the brisk winter night.

He unlocked the passenger door and quickly ran around to the driver’s side. “I was hoping I’d see you again,” he said as he climbed inside. “You were wild in the sack.”

You should’ve stuck around then.

You should’ve called.

You shouldn’t have been such a dick.

He leaned across the cab and kissed her. Allegra let out a muffled cry but Todd persisted. When finally he pulled away, she took a deep breath, looked him in his drink-tinged eyes.

“We need to talk.”

But Todd was too busy spitting gobs of charcoal phlegm out the window. “What the hell?”

Allegra was about to explain when he dove in for a second taste. He put one arm around her backside, placed the other on her belly, slowly moving down, moving toward—

“MotherFUCK!” He pulled back—his palm was smoking.

Allegra glanced down. Her stomach was bright red—she’d burned right through her clothes.

“The fuck is that?”

“Your deposit,” Allegra spat as she attempted, uselessly, to pull what remained of her jacket over her exposed midsection.

He shook his head. “Nuh-uh, no fucking way. That thing ain’t mine, you goddamn whore.”

“What did you call me?”

“Get out.”

“What did you fucking call me?”

Todd reached over and opened her door. Cringed as the heat from her midsection burned the underside of his arm. “Out or I push you out.”

Allegra spat grey in his face and climbed out of the truck, eyeing him as he held one hand over the spreading scorch marks on his skin, trying to pretend like he wasn’t in agony. She had just put both feet on the ground when he started the engine and sped away, nearly clipping her heels. He swerved and she imagined the embers spreading, devouring him before he could make it home.

*          *          *

Despite continued protests, Celina dragged Allegra to clubs two or three times a week. Celina woke each morning a little younger, a little more vibrant than the day before. Allegra, meanwhile, was becoming ashen and frail; her skin flaked behind her as she walked, like autumn leaves in a breeze. By month seven it took three hours of deep, agonizing exfoliation each day before she was ready to get dressed. She started declining Celina’s invitations. “I can’t. It’s too much.”

“God, get a grip. You’re acting like you’re seventy-fucking-five or something. It’s exhausting.”

In an effort to regain some of her lost energy, Allegra started taking walks through the neighbourhood. Those, too, did not last; during her second excursion she noticed small lights hovering around her like tiny suns popping in and out of existence—flies bursting into flame as they flew within five feet of her fully weaponized midsection.

Celina arrived home one night to find Allegra seated on the floor in the centre of a beach ball-sized circle of blackened carpet. She’d had enough.

“Where am I supposed to go?” Allegra said.

“Away. Home. Look, I really don’t care. But you’ve lost me my damage deposit.”

“Celina—”

“You can’t handle your shit, Alley-cat. I don’t have time for people who can’t handle their shit. You and baby Nagasaki need to go.” She handed Allegra her jacket, twenty dollars, and a half-finished bottle of Jack Daniels from atop the fridge, and pushed her out the door.

*          *          *

Allegra tried going home, but her mother wouldn’t let her past the front door. “If he sees you, I don’t know what he’ll do,” she said, frightened.

She tried going to a shelter, but was thrown out when she set fire to her cot.

She spent a week in an alley huddled beneath a small, corrugated tin roof, scrounging scraps of food from dumpsters behind fast food outlets. When it rained, the water evaporated before it could make contact, encircling her in a soft, iridescent mist.

Her contractions started on the eighth day of her homelessness, a full month and a half before she was due. She ran inside a café and begged them to call an ambulance.

She gave birth to Matthew at 11:40 that night. His first cries levelled the maternity ward.

iii.

Allegra showed up on her parents’ doorstep again a month later. She was cold and hungry, and hadn’t slept in weeks. The baby bundled in her arms was pale and malnourished, though somehow still radiating heat.

Upon opening the door, Allegra’s mother gasped and shielded her face with her hands. She slowly lowered them while little Matthew remained silent. Carefully, she leaned forward and gently moved aside the soft cotton blanket covering the infant’s face.

“Allegra, sweetheart, what have you—” She stopped—a thick foam sponge was fastened over the infant’s mouth with layers of duct tape encircling his head. In the centre of the makeshift muzzle, a small hole no wider than a drinking straw. Though tight, the muzzle could not prevent the odd moan or cough from escaping, sending sparks and small plumes of fire through the tiny hole.

Allegra wiped a streak of what looked like ink from her forehead, revealing a second even thicker layer of grime beneath. “Mom, please.” She held Matthew out as if he were a Fabergé egg. “I tried, but I can’t do this.”

“But dear, the incident at the hospital—”

Before she could finish, Allegra hoisted the baby into her mother’s arms and immediately backed away. Her tattered sneakers left black heel marks on the walkway.

“Tell Dad—” She trailed off, turned, and ran away.

Allegra’s mother called after her, but she did not return. When Matthew let fly a Bunsen-flame burp, she pulled from her pocket a thin white handkerchief and placed it pointlessly over the small hole in the muzzle.

*          *          *

Allegra spent two days trying to rinse off the dense coating of ash and soot that covered her entire body. First she tried the shower at the women’s shelter, but when that didn’t work—ash clogged the drain, turning the shower into a muddy, calf-high pool—she went to Celina and begged to be let inside, swearing on her life that Matthew was gone.

Both wore expressions of surprise upon seeing one another. While Allegra appeared to have leaped into middle age, Celina’s skin was as bright and blemish free as a pre-teen’s.

“He’s gone,” Allegra reiterated. “He’s Mom and Dad’s problem now.”

Celina glared, noting wisps of dirt and debris floating behind Allegra. “He’s gone, but not for long,” she said.

“For good, I promise. Can I please come in? I really need to use your shower.”

Celina poked the dirt on Allegra’s arm as if looking for a tag to grab hold of, to peel away her shell. “It won’t do you any good.”

“Celina—”

Celina smiled brightly. She stepped forward, forcing Allegra back out into the hall, and shut the door.

*          *          *

For two weeks Allegra attempted to regain her life, but everywhere she went her ashen spectre followed close behind. Stores refused her entry as she stained and destroyed every article of clothing she touched. Restaurant owners asked her to leave when her condition caused those around her to cough and wheeze. She returned one night to the Riot Act, convinced she could hide among the bodies and noise. But in the dark blue lights of the club, her skin resembled modelling clay. She took a beer from the hand of the first single, too-inebriated-to-care guy she could find and open-mouth kissed him before he could even ask her name. She broke away when he started vomiting a lumpy sewage of wet ash all over the front of his shirt.

The music stopped. The lights came on and every head turned in her direction.

*          *          *

Allegra returned to her parents’ house the next morning to beg money and a place to stay. Upon arrival, she discovered blotches of scorched earth where once there had been a lush lawn. The living room bay window was blown out, shards of glass reaching all the way to the end of the property.

Her mother opened the door and forced Allegra inside. She slapped her daughter hard across the face and then proceeded to break down, draping her tired body across Allegra and sobbing loudly into her neck.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done to this family?” she asked. “Your father is a decorated man, Allegra! He can’t—we can’t help you.”

Allegra reluctantly followed her mother to the den. Her father sat in a plush, high back leather chair, his hands white-knuckling the armrests. His eyes were full and wide and his hair had gone, in just a few short days, from grey with strands of brown threaded throughout, to snow white, thin and fluttering like stuffing pulled from the inside of a teddy bear.

Her mother grabbed Allegra’s arm, hissed in her ear. “He went to war so that you could have a future and this is how you repay him?”

A cry like a shell detonating came from the basement. The foundation shook; dust and bits of plaster rained from the ceiling. Allegra’s mother stood bracing both sides of the doorjamb. Her husband rocked back and forth in his chair, mumbling aloud about bombs screaming overhead.

“You stuck him in the basement?” Allegra snapped. She hurried downstairs, found Matthew wrapped in the very same blanket she’d left him in, on his back inside the smoking remains of a cardboard box. His blanket was covered in applesauce stains; it looked as if they’d tried to feed him from a distance. The duct tape around his mouth was dirty and peeling, the hole in the centre burned three times its original size. She gingerly picked up her child. He released a nitroglycerin gurgle as she placed him over her shoulder. She could no longer feel his heat through her protective second skin.

She made her way back upstairs, Matthew quietly cooing a candle in her ear. She noticed two large suitcases, stuffed to overflowing, propped against the wall of the kitchen. Her mother entered, leading Allegra’s shell-shocked father by the arm.

“What’s going on?”

Allegra’s mother pulled out her set of house keys and tossed them on the kitchen table. She picked up the suitcases and guided her husband out the door to their car. They drove off without another word.

*          *          *

Allegra remained in her parents’ home. She never heard from them again—not directly. Every two weeks an envelope arrived filled with cash, with no return address. Gradually the amount inside dwindled, until one day it stopped altogether. Soon after Allegra received a phone call informing her that her mother was in the hospital suffering from acute radiation sickness. Her father, she learned, had died a month earlier.

The last of the money ran out when Matthew turned three. Allegra spent weeks knocking on doors and showing up at businesses and stores with help-wanted newspaper clippings in hand, placed in a Ziploc bag so as not to be smudged. She always arrived, no matter the position, in her best and only suit, which she bought on sale with the last of her parents’ support. It was light grey, which she hoped would hide whatever ash flaked off her hair and scalp. By the end of each day, however, the suit would be a darker pewter, with serrated reptile scales of flesh adorning every available inch of fabric.

It was bizarrely good fortune when she received a call from a Gregory Bryce, her parents’ attorney. It was his sad duty to inform Allegra that her mother had indeed passed, but that she had left her remaining funds to her one and only daughter.

Allegra’s hard, volcanic face cracked at the horizon. As soon as she got off the phone with Bryce, she opened up the Yellow Pages and called for a contractor, and arranged an appointment for the following week.

“And bring protection,” she said. “My place is a bit of a disaster.”

As she finished the call, someone started pounding frantically on her front door. Allegra cursed under her breath. She listened intently, worried the noise would wake Matthew. He remained quiet, asleep in the steel-reinforced crib in the dining room that Allegra had cobbled together from car parts salvaged from the city junkyard.

She was surprised upon opening the door to find Celina standing on the other side. Only something was different. Celina appeared inexplicably aged; her once pearlescent skin had dulled and hung from her bones like wet clothes on a line. Her hair had lost its vibrant wave; it had thinned so much that Allegra could see clear through to her scalp.

She grabbed Celina by the arm, and yanked her inside.

“Christ, Alley-cat, you’re gonna tear my arm off.”

Allegra put a finger to her lips. Silently, she guided Celina to the kitchen where they could talk.

“What are you doing here?” she asked once they were seated across from one another at the kitchen table.

“I need a place to stay.”

“You have a place. I seem to recall it being a nice place. Four walls, a ceiling, the works.” Allegra was getting angry, ash piling on the table as she shook.

“It isn’t safe there. I can’t go back. One of them found me. He wants—he wants to get to know me.” As Celina spoke, wide crevasses opened along her forehead and down the side of her face, carving deeper and more obvious recesses beneath her eyes. “I can’t do it. This wasn’t supposed to happen—they were never supposed to come back!” Her shout startled Matthew, who released an eighth-note torch. Celina turned in her seat, alarmed by the sudden increase in the room’s temperature.

Allegra stood. She spoke coolly, succinctly: “I need you to leave right now.”

“But Alley-cat—”

Allegra smashed her palm down on the table. Matthew gave a low cry—enough to send out a shockwave that knocked Celina off her chair. When she looked up again, Allegra was staring down at her, shadow face illuminated by a small fire in the next room—the curtains next to Matthew’s crib having ignited. Celina crawled on her hands and knees, keeping below the growing cloud of smoke until she reached the front door. She stood and searched for Allegra, but couldn’t see through the billowing darkness that separated them. She left, never to return.

iv.

Allegra spent much of her inheritance retrofitting the basement of her parents’ house as a second living area, complete with a kitchenette, washroom, and a single foldout couch bed. She started living below the surface with Matthew in what she called their basement suite, where the damage he caused was mitigated by metres of concrete and earth. There was no television, no radio, no books or games or anything that might inspire. She bought instruction manuals in sign language and tried her best to teach him how to communicate without speaking.

She noticed her second skin no longer flaked, that it had become firm—a solid, seamless shell. When she did venture outside—for food, clothing, or simply to get some air—she no longer felt the warmth of the sun penetrating her exterior. On rare occasions she took Matthew with her. She taught him games like “Don’t Say Anything” and “Pretend No One Else Exists,” and rewarded him when he remained silent. She didn’t much care for the looks her neighbours gave her when they stepped outside together. Their children didn’t play with Matthew—neither side would allow it. Allegra watched from ground-level basement windows whenever someone new moved onto their street, as her neighbours descended upon them, offering a cautionary head’s-up about the accident waiting to happen—chained, many assumed, like a caged animal in the basement of the house with the front yard of salted earth.

Their fears were confirmed only once.

Allegra had stepped out for the afternoon. She left without remembering to lock the basement door. She’d only been gone a few hours when Matthew crept out of the basement and headed upstairs. Outside, he saw a young boy his age playing on the sidewalk with a soccer ball. He smiled and waved politely at the boy. The boy returned the gesture, and made the mistake of asking Matthew if he wanted to play.

Then he kicked the ball toward Matthew.

The ball hit a heavy stone at the edge of the yard and jumped, smacking Matthew in the chin.

Allegra had just turned onto her street when she saw the eruption. She shielded her eyes from the flash, stopping in the middle of the road, waiting until the blinding light dissipated. She blinked several times to clear the spots from her eyes.

The sidewalk in front of their home was a crater. Matthew stood in the centre of the depression with his hands cupped over his mouth. Tears evaporating from his eyes. Allegra saw a second child ten feet away, on his side lying next to what remained of a soccer ball. She ran over to the boy—a new boy, she recognized, whose parents had only just moved into the house across the street. His fingernails were black and his eyebrows had been burned clean off. Only faint, willowy strands of hair remained on his head. But the boy was still breathing. She pulled out her phone and dialed for an ambulance, then went over to Matthew and swept him into her arms. And hurried inside where he could do no further damage.

Fifteen minutes later, with Matthew safe and out of sight, Allegra answered the pounding at her front door. The other boy’s distraught parents and two uniformed police officers were waiting on the other side.

They told her she was not fit to be a parent.

They told her this was the one and only warning she would receive: either she enrolled her son in a school where he could be properly monitored, or he would be placed in foster care. She tried to protest, warning them of his condition, but the officers would not listen.

*          *          *

The following Monday, Allegra took Matthew to Ray Shepherd Elementary, carrying with her a host of instructions and restrictions: he was not to be called on, played with, or addressed in any way, shape, or form.

The principal assured Allegra her son would be handled with the utmost respect to his condition. “We’ll take care of your son as we would any student,” he said, pride swelling his chest.

“You’ll do better than that,” Allegra said. “You’ll leave him alone.”

The principal shook her hand. Upon contact, small pieces of her shell inexplicably cracked and fell away. Allegra wordlessly brushed them off his desk and onto the floor.

Matthew sat outside in a chair, head down and his fingers laced together. Allegra kissed him once on the forehead. She tried to sign the words “You’ll be okay,” but got only as far as the third letter before giving up.

He watched as she walked away.

v.

The principal pulled Miss Beaton aside, gave her the skinny on Matthew. She nodded and pushed up her glasses. “Of course. I understand completely.” She thanked the principal and led Matthew inside her classroom with one arm across his shoulders. She stood next to him at the front of the room.

She addressed her twenty-odd five- and six-year-olds. “Class, this is Matthew. He’s new to school. I’d like you all to show him a great big Ray Shepherd welcome!”

“Hi, Matthew!” they cheered.

He grinned enthusiastically and opened his mouth.

Before a single syllable was uttered, Miss Beaton saw the change in Matthew’s aura, the mushroom cloud rising from the back of his throat, and she realized then the gravity of her mistake. She didn’t have time to tell the other students to drop to the ground and prop up their desks; she had only time to swing herself in front of the three-foot-eight weapon of mass destruction. She took the full heat of Matthew’s outburst and was painted across the walls and ceiling like she’d been fired from a cannon.

vi.

Matthew sat with his head down the entire way home. Their street was still a disaster—many of Allegra’s neighbours were busy sweeping debris off their cars and placing canvas tarps over shattered windows. They looked away when they saw Matthew riding shotgun in the car. Allegra dead-eyed each and every one of them as she parked in the driveway, went around to the passenger side, and lifted Matthew into her arms.

She carried him inside and set him down on the sofa bed in the basement. He still wouldn’t make eye contact with her, and she knelt down in front of him, exhausted, not knowing what to do.

“It’ll be okay. You’ll see, Matthew. Everything will work out.” She tried to smile but could only sigh. “You . . . you can talk to me. I promise you won’t hurt me. I can take it.” She watched as he dropped to his side and flopped over so his back was facing her. And then, said “I’m sorry.” Only garbled, as if spoken through water boiling on a stovetop.

Allegra gasped. She felt her second skin tighten, constricting her limbs and torso like a vice. Matthew spoke again, the same words, and she experienced another turn of the crank. Her chest was so tight she thought she might burst at the neck like the bulb of a cartoon thermometer. Then: “Mom?”

Another wave collided with her; her shell collapsing so tight she could see the shape of the bones in her arm. She got up slowly and slipped quickly and quietly away. She shut the door to the basement suite and locked it behind her, hesitating only a moment before hurrying upstairs. She broke into a sprint as she hit the kitchen, sped her way across the living room, and leaped through the shattered bay window. Stalagmites of broken glass sliced her legs as she passed.

As her adrenaline waned, Allegra staggered over to the side of the house. She leaned up against the wall, heaving. As she stood there, her chassis gradually relaxed its stranglehold on her lungs and stomach. She was able, for the first time in a long time, to take deeper and deeper breaths. Soon, her carapace began to crack.

With both hands she pulled apart her second skin, frantically tearing at herself and chucking eggshell pieces of hardened grey-black slag to the ground. Then she reached up and dug her fingers into the top of her scalp and shucked herself in two long strips. Every hair pulled free along her arms and legs—as if she’d been encased in a full-body cast—set her nerve endings screaming. But she never uttered a sound.

When she finished, Allegra stepped out of her ashen crust and stretched. She raised her hands to the sky and arched her spine as far back as it would go. She felt younger than she had in years; no second skin to weigh her down.

She looked back at the house her parents had abandoned for her. She caught a glimpse of herself in one of the few remaining shards of glass along the curved side of the bay window. A face she’d not seen since she was a teenager stared back at her—fresh-looking skin, younger than it had any right to be. Clear, pale, and almost unbearably light.

She looked down and saw their future in the graveyard of decay between her feet and the house. She knew then what to do.

And she knew what it would cost.

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