As Aurora waited for the first customer to approach the boutique, she felt her heart shoot into her throat. Although she’d lost count of how many times she’d been used as a de-facto canvas, there was still a relentless pinch in her stomach at the thought of yet another scar—another round of torture.
Aurora looked around, amazed. The vast emptiness of the display hall, which was quickly filling with a bustling crowd, appeared to shrink in size each time another person entered from the large marble entryway. When she’d arrived earlier, there hadn’t been a soul in sight; now, she couldn’t stretch her arms out without accidentally smacking someone.
It’s starting to smell in here, too, she thought.
She took in each of the boutiques, sizing up the competition. Today was the annual body art exhibition: tattoo artists, body piercers, hairdressers, and a host of the industry’s up-and-coming ink artists had set up shop at every available space in this rented warehouse; Aurora spotted at least a hundred different logos. To her right, she could see a whole row of tattoo artists, and to her left, there were several permanent beauty solutions, ranging from make-up to volume in the hair.
She took her attention away from the competition. She had more than enough to handle, working for one of the only three boutiques that specialized in scarification. Not as popular as the ink, but a great deal more permanent—and noticeable…
“Aurora, get ready,” Zachary whispered. “Customers might be coming soon.”
She gulped—partly from fear—and shut her eyes. This was going to hurt; it always did. She glared at her boss. It was the only sign of defiance she allowed herself. Aurora knew better than to talk back to him. Zachary had a bit of a temper, and she still remembered the last time she’d spoken out of turn.
Why do I always have to be the guinea pig?
To those who didn’t know him, Zachary was outwardly a slick, charming, and energetic artist who took an almost religious pride in his work, so even through the insufferable amount of pain, Aurora could at least take comfort in the fact that she’d end up with something pretty to show for it—for a few hours, at least. Much like a true canvas, she’d always again end up blank.
As she’d done every year before, Aurora had dressed herself as seductive and alluring as possible, which meant a skimpy, bareback top and a pair of jeans that fit tightly enough to cut off circulation. This never failed to draw a crowd. The event had just begun, and already she could see people approaching.
“What’s this supposed to do?” a young teenage boy asked. He looked at her chest while he spoke to her. Aurora reopened her eyes and formed her most pleasurable face. This young boy was dressed in all black, and Aurora could have sworn that he was wearing make-up on his pale face. She took him for one of the Goth kids.
“Hey, lady,” he repeated. “What is this?”
When Aurora didn’t respond, Zachary fixed her with a hard, expectant look. She sighed. Zachary, for all his skill and talent, could be one mean bastard. If Aurora didn’t do everything in her power to oblige a customer, there’d be hell to pay.
“This is called scarification,” she told the boy. “It’s … think of it as a hardcore tattoo.” She pursed her lips, crossed her left leg over her right, and drew back her shoulders to make her snug shirt further expose her breasts. “Do you think you can handle it?”
The boy pointed to a cardboard sign that showed off some of Zachary’s finest work. “I don’t know. That looks seriously painful.”
“Painful?” Zachary asked, following the question with a merry chuckle. “Why, it’s not that painful. Isn’t that right, my dove?”
Aurora compelled the muscles in her lips to form into a smile. She would be personally blamed if she lost this customer. “No, it’s not so bad,” she said. “It feels kind of nice actually.”
Years’ worth of tears threatened to fall from her eyes as she spoke the lie, but she knew Zachary would torture her if she didn’t win over this boy. Instead, she kept the forced smile on her face while she prevented herself from looking away from the potential customer.
“Never take your eyes off them, and never drop your smile,” Zachary had always lectured to her. “Nothing wins ’em over like a big pair of tits and a shiny grin.”
Five years prior, she’d learned that the best way to cope with the pain was to dream herself somewhere else. Mentally, she prepared herself for action.
The boy gave the showcase another look. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t see how this wouldn’t be really painful.”
“There are varying forms of scarification,” Zachary answered, stepping in as if fearing that Aurora wouldn’t be able to close the deal. “Are you interested in seeing it in action? Perhaps you’d like to see it done before you try it?”
“Wait…” The boy held up his hand. “Are you… giving her one of these?” He spoke in barely above a whisper.
“Yes. Using only the safest methods out there, of course.” Zachary’s sleazy smile made Aurora want to gag. “Do you wish to see it in action?”
The boy stood motionless a moment as if deep in thought. Then, giving Aurora another look, his mouth opened and the boy began backing away. “N-No t-thank you, sir. I’ll pass this time. I-I guess.”
Aurora held her breath. She hoped Zachary wouldn’t blame her for the loss of a potential customer. For a few moments, neither of them said a word. Then, when the boy had gone out of earshot, she heard a low growl from Zachary.
“Such a pussy,” he said with a snort. “That boy wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds under the knife, huh?”
“I guess not,” she answered, fighting to keep her voice impassive. Her insides were in an uproar, and it was only experience and luck that helped keep her stomach somewhat calm—otherwise Zachary would have gotten a shower he’d never wished for in his life. Still, she was glad he wasn’t blaming her for the boy walking away.
She looked at her boss. The white wife-beater showed off all his beautiful decorations made from cutting and branding. All of the wounds had healed many years ago, and he no longer experimented on his own body. Why would he? He had Aurora for that now. And with her, he’d have a canvas that would never run out of space; the perfect body for him to bring forth his darkest creations.
Aurora gave him another look. His short hair didn’t show off the curls, which she’d liked at first. He’d cut it off as soon as she’d signed the contract. Actually, the only thing that still reminded her of the man she’d met five years ago was his devious green eyes, which were forever calculating and plotting.
“Oh! Look at that—our friend is returning with more friends, Aurora.” Zachary pointed at the little group of teenagers, who marched right up to them. He gave her another one of his cold looks, which seemed to say, “Don’t fuck this up for us.”
“Oy!” a pudgy boy said. “My mate says you’re doing wicked stuff here. Is it true?” His chubby cheeks folded over his mouth and nose, and only the gel-filled spikes on top of the head showed his gender—even then, Aurora had her doubts.
“I’m merely making a living,” Zachary said. “I know nothing of what’s considered ‘wicked’ any longer.”
“Show it to us then,” the boy demanded.
Zachary smirked. “With pleasure.”
This was it. It was time to begin. Luckily, Aurora had long-since learned how to deal with the pain. She began slowly counting backwards from ten. She had a routine, and this was part of it.
“Would you like to see a branding or a cutting?” Zachary asked, his words cutting through the counting in her mind.
It’ll be all right, Aurora. You’ve done this so many times before. It’ll definitely be all right. It always becomes all right.
“Cutting would work fine,” the chubby teen said, licking his lips.
Just focus on the outcome. Always focus on the outcome.
“Aurora, take a seat. Please.”
The feigned politeness didn’t fool her—as if she really had a choice! Yet she did as requested. Spreading her legs, she spun around, straddled the special chair, and then rested her chest on the supposed backrest. Zachary adjusted a little piece to settle her chin on to prevent any sudden movements.
One of the first things she’d learned was to never move during a scarification. It always meant trouble and would cause the art to become ugly and beyond repair. But most importantly, it made Zachary angry. And a botched job was nothing compared to that hell.
“What an amazing ass,” someone commented.
She knew that according to Zachary, the compliment should have made her beam with happiness, but Aurora had heard it so often before.
“Get ready for this. I can’t go slowly with potential customers watching,” Zachary whispered into her ear. She nodded in response and focused on her counting—on her routine. As long as she followed the routine, she’d be okay.
Ten, nine, eight…
Ten, nine, eight…
Ten, nine, eight…
For some reason, it took longer than usual before it began to work—her breathing wasn’t controlled enough. But she had little time to spare. If she didn’t escape now, she’d have to live through every scratch, every cut…
Ten, nine, eight…
Seven, six, five…
A part of her wondered what sort of hallucination she’d receive this time around. The routine always took her to somewhere else, somewhere far. Sometimes it was a pleasant place, and sometimes it was a world of nightmares. But no matter how good or bad, it was always better than the horrors that awaited her in the real world—the agony of the knife.
Four, three, two…
Unfortunately, she didn’t escape in time to beat the pain. Zachary sliced through her bare skin, and she tensed her muscles. Little trickles of blood rolled over her back. She knew that, in this moment, everything counted on her controlling her emotions. The pain would only worsen, and if she didn’t escape now, she’d be stuck here. She needed to begin again. She needed to do it right this time.
Ten, nine, eight…
There was another cut—deeper this time. She used every bit of willpower she had to drown it out and continue the routine.
Seven, six, five…
Yet another slice, even more painful. Yet she couldn’t rush the count. If she rushed, it wouldn’t work. She gritted her teeth. She had to get out. She needed to.
Almost there. Almost.
“As you can see,” she heard Zachary tell the crowd. “I use consistent patterns to ensure an even, balanced cut.” Aurora nearly shrieked as he ran his hand down her back, likely trying to illustrate his point. “Notice how I form the different shapes. They may look like nothing recognizable now, but soon they will form something wonderful.”
T-t-two… Two… Two…
Aurora grabbed the armrest in front of her. She felt the knife lift away from her back. This was it. If she didn’t leave now, she wouldn’t be leaving of them all. Each cut would be more excrusciating than the one before, and it would rip her away from her concentration. She had to leave now.
She felt the tip of the knife graze her back—then nothing. Even with her eyes closed, the world managed to darken. But only for a moment. A pulsating light replaced the emptiness, illuminating the darkness. Every visible color on the spectrum flashed before her eyes. A spinning sensation overtook her. She was no longer in the chair; she was no longer being cut. She’d left Zachary behind.
She turned the name over in her head. Who was Zachary? And why did she care about him? She was too busy—too busy dealing with someone else. Dealing with him. The Zacharies of the world could wait. Everything came to a stop when he was near.
And she was alone with him now. Alone, in the unseen crook between two tall buildings under a dark Manhattan sky. There was a warmth to the air, but it was countered by a pleasant breeze. This was a gritty place, with discarded glass bottles and graffiti covering the walls. Yet it was better when he was around. Everything was better.
“Where will you run to?” he asked her. His voice was like sweet music to her ears, and she had to fight against the urge to turn around and face him. Had they been having a conversation? Aurora couldn’t remember.
Please don’t go away, she pleaded in her mind. Not now.
He came closer, his footsteps echoing on the pavement. Like a predator closing in on its prey, he neared her from behind. She felt his arrival as his hands slid over her shoulders. When he squeezed, the pain of the world rolled off her.
It wasn’t a question—it was a promise. The little hairs on her arms rose, and she exhaled loudly to calm her racing heart. Aurora wasn’t sure how she knew, but he’d find her no matter how far she ran or for how long. He’d always be there.
He laughed, but there was no humor. He lowered a hand from her shoulder, trailing a finger down her back then caressing her bare arm. “I won’t let you leave me.” His voice cracked. “I can’t do this on my own.”
She didn’t answer. His warm breath landed on her shoulder, and she shivered lightly. He walked around to the front of her, and Aurora dared to peek. His shoes edged into her line of view, and she swallowed the gasp that threatened to escape her lips.
Maybe if she held him now, he would stay with her this time. This was the closest he’d ever been to her. She could feel his finger forcing her head upwards. A snicker came from him, and she gulped in response.
Millions of thoughts ran through her mind—it was a jumbled, chaotic mess about everything and nothing. She couldn’t make sense of it. In just a few seconds, her eyes would meet his—she knew it.
A moment of panic caused her to shut her eyes.
“Now you won’t even look at me?” he asked with amusement. “That’s so rude.”
“Because if I look at you,” she said, trembling, “you’ll go away again.”
“Come, Aurora. Open up your pretty little eyes and look at me,” he teased.
She didn’t budge. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. If she locked eyes with him, he’d leave her. She knew this to be true, as it had always been and always was.
At last, he sighed. “You know, this could have gone so much easier.”
She wanted to scream at him, but she knew it wouldn’t matter. Despite her best efforts, he was going to leave her even though she longed for him to stay. No matter what she did—no matter what she tried, he would always leave her.
But he always returns.
Aurora bit her bottom lip. Questions without answers rattled her brain.
He was becoming farther away. His hand caressed her cheek, and the skin burned wherever he touched, but a memory of his fading presence. She swallowed her whimper.
Her skin tingled—she liked his touch. She cringed. It wasn’t fair that he could cause her body to react this way. His forehead pressed against her, and she could smell a minty breath.
Why was she thinking her own name? She was busy right now. It wouldn’t take long before she had to move away. Yet she didn’t want to move. She never wanted to be away from him.
He placed his hand on her hip, and he pulled her closer. Pressed against his body, she could feel him somehow become lesser, as if his body was evaporating into the summer breeze. He was leaving her. Would he stay just long enough this time to kiss her? The anticipation buzzed inside her. Just a few moments, and they would unite. Just a few…
She groaned as a burning sensation erupted on the back of her head; she’d been slapped. “Wake up. We’re done.”
She shook her head and tried to swallow the nausea. On shaking legs, she rose from the chair and backed away a few steps, kneeling on the stand. Her shoulder ached, and she arched her back, forcing the on-looking teenagers to stare at the already forming scar.
“That is so unbelievably gross,” a girl said before stomping away. Her footsteps echoed on the wooden floor.
“It’s pretty cool, man,” a boy said. “Does it hurt?”
“Ask her,” Zachary said.
This was her cue. Apart from being the preferred guinea pig, she now had to reassure the customers that the outcome was worth the pain, as opposed to tattoos. She rose from the floor and wiped beneath her eyes to ensure her perfect look. Turning around, she faced the small teenage crowd. Despite one girl leaving, there were more here now than there’d been before her scarring. Aurora gave them a small smile, and innocently ruffled her hair.
“Yes?” She tilted her head slightly, waiting for their questions.
“D-Did it hurt?” a boy repeated.
Aurora shrugged. “Not much. Of course there’s some pain,” she said, lying shamelessly. “He’s cutting into the skin after all. But it’s far less painful than you’d expect. No worse than a cleaning at the dentist’s office.”
“Why did you do it?” a girl asked.
Aurora focused on the little redhead. It baffled her why she was standing with the gothic crowd, but who was she to judge? Instead, she winked at her. “Because it’s unique to do so.”
“What do you mean?”
Aurora sighed. “Anyone can get a tattoo. Most of you probably have one already.” The nods from several members of the group proved her point. “There are many different forms of art to decorate your body, but only scarring can give you a truly lasting work of art. Most tattoos lose their grandiose after a year or two: scars are forever.”
“It’s your skin healing itself. The results vary depending on the artist and your own skin.”
“M-Miss?” a tiny voice spoke.
Aurora struggled to see who it was. “Yes?”
“Why do you only have one of them then? If you like it so much, how can this be your first time? You speak like this is something you’ve done before.”
Aurora felt the blood drain from her face as she remembered the horrifying truth. She’d have to go through this pain again and again, until Zachary finally breached his contract. Until then, every scar would appear to be her first.
“All right, kids,” Zachary interrupted, shooing them along. “Now you’ve seen it. Go home and beg your parents for money, and don’t forget to tell your friends about how cool scarifications are. Oh yeah, make sure you brag to the kids who can’t afford one.”
The crowd lingered awhile but eventually dispersed. Aurora watched Zachary wave at them with a grand smile on his face. It wasn’t until they were out of sight that he turned around and faced her. Instantly his businessman smile gave way to a horrendous sneer. She had always hated the way his upper lip coiled back, revealing the shiny white teeth that masked his rotten soul.
“What the hell was that?” he spat at her.
It took everything inside her to simply wipe away the drops of saliva, then calmly look up to meet his eyes. “I keep telling you. I can’t answer that question.”
“Bullshit. You could skirt around it. What do you think I pay you for?”
“Sometimes I wonder that myself,” she muttered.
“What was that?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Nothing, Zach.” She averted her eyes to the floor, bowing her head in submission.
“Thought so.” He walked over to his tools and began cleaning them. “Take five, and get yourself together. We’ll continue in a while. The afternoon session is where all the serious customers come around.”
“As you will.” Aurora bowed her head.
“Oh, and Aurora?” Zachary said.
“Don’t fuck up again. I’ll make you regret it.”
She didn’t reply. Instead, she held her head up high, and slowly backed away towards the exit. She didn’t dare turn her back to him. Though Zachary had never seriously violated her, he seemed unable to resist groping her rear whenever she faced away. His threat lingered in the back of her head, and a shiver spread throughout her body.
She never should have agreed to work for this terrible man. This form of torture wasn’t good for her body, or for her mind.
“Stupid Zach, cursing me like this,” she muttered as she finally broke through the outer doors. A gentle breeze lifted a few strands of her hair and whipped it around her head. The touches of her hair tickled her cheeks, and instead of sulking, she turned her head upwards and enjoyed the sun on her skin.
Hopefully, she’d soon find a way to be permanently marked and therefore become worthless to Zachary. The fact that her skin renewed itself every few hours was the only thing standing in the way of her happiness.
That was the real curse of it all. No matter how many times she was scarred, her body would simply heal itself and erase all signs of her trauma. Even now, she could feel the itchiness that indicated her skin going through its stages of revitalization.
“I can do this,” she whispered. A small smile tugged at the corner of her lips, and she could feel hope filling her from the inside. After all, she had no time limitations—she was an Immortalia. A slave.