“The human body is capable of taking a lot more than the mind will let it attempt.”
I looked at Johanna, so self-assured, and then back to the stovetop in her downtown apartment. I let my palm linger over the gas burner. The flames licked the metal rings; the heat caressed my skin. Like empty promises. Like worthless hope.
“How old were you when you did this, again?” I asked her softly.
Johanna’s face hardened. “Seventeen.”
“It was a necessity.”
Her tone was always the most terrifying part of her character. I had seen her swipe money from men’s pockets, sneak food from starving women, take down would-be muggers in alleyways with an assassin’s precision. But nothing was ever as unnerving as the way she talked (or, rather, didn’t) about her past. I looked away from her and lowered my palm, centimeters closer, to the flame. I could almost feel the metal under my hand.
“You can’t be leaving evidence behind you,” Johanna reminded me firmly. Something in her voice told me she was this close to grabbing my wrist and forcing my fingers into the flames.
I hesitated, lifting my hand away from the burner, then lowering it again. “Does it…hurt?”
Her voice was soft when she laid a hand on my shoulder and replied, “Yes.” She cleared her throat. “But only for a moment. Then the worst is over.”
I swallowed hard and brought my hand away from the flames, cradling it against my chest. Like a long goodbye. “Turn it up higher.”
I felt her eyes on my face, appraising even as she approved, and then she leaned into my line of sight to turn the ancient knob to ten. She took a small step away and settled into her stance. And waited.
There could be no more thinking. I swallowed a deep breath into my lungs and strangled a sob. My hand came crashing down on the stovetop, the delicate skin of my unique fingertips pressed into the scalding metal and licked by the delicate tendrils of flame. Like Hell, like the Devil. I howled, the indescribable pain of the burn running through my blood and down my spine, coursing towards my brain and signaling more bells and alarms than I had ever felt possible. My skin was both on fire and numb, hot as the burner and icy cold. I stumbled backwards, away from the stove, flailing my hand in the air and tripping over my own feet in the process. I found myself on the cold tiled floor of Johanna’s downtown kitchen, whimpering and pressed against the wall.
I tried to scurry further backwards using my feet and good hand, but there was nowhere else to go. I felt the pale blue flowers that made up the peeling wallpaper pattern through my thin shirt. There were tears on my cheeks, continuing to flow, and something running down my chin. I held my ruined fingertips up to my face, watching the raw red skin stretch and bubble, shiny and glorious.
Johanna watched with her usual calm, then strolled across the room and knelt at my side. She took my hand gently in both of her own, turning it palm up to examine my handiwork. Goodbye, fingerprints. I was better off without them.
She blinked. Johanna ran a thin finger soothingly up my wrist, careful to avoid my ravaged palm as a shiver shoot down my spine. “Good,” she pronounced. Like an antiques dealer. Like a jeweler bent over an engagement ring. She was quiet for a time afterward, admiring my fingers until the pain began to recede and all that was left was the heat rising off my skin.
“Good,” Johanna said again, at last. I was still crying. She raised her head to meet my eyes and I saw her beautiful smile through my tears. She reached out a hand towards me and gently patted my cheek, running her fingers over my cheekbone. I felt nothing from her, her smooth skin unique in what it had lost, as her unmarked fingertips brushed over my imperfect flesh. I offered a tiny smile and she grinned in reply. “Ready to do the other hand?”