Kathryn Kulpa is a writer, editor, and librarian, as well as a lifelong Edward Gorey fan. She is the author of a short fiction collection, Pleasant Drugs (Mid-List Press) and a microfiction chapbook, Who’s the Skirt? (Origami Poems Project). Her short stories have been published in decomP, Florida Review, Monkeybicycle, NANO Fiction, Superstition Review and other journals and anthologies.
Under the Skin
There was a ghost girl. She talked with the dead. It didn’t do much for her popularity among the cafeteria crowd at her local high school. Not that the cafeteria, with pop radio and the smell of fried potato puffs hanging heavy in the air, was where anyone saw her. Not that she ate at all, other girls said uncharitably, all stick legs and wispy black clothes.
The girl’s mother had been a member of the pep squad in her own high school days and couldn’t understand it. The mother searched albums of baby pictures for the normal child she’d had and lost, not this moper in black bangs and absurd, oversized headphones. It was the music, her mother’s friends assured her. A fad.
Often the headphones were silent. They helped, a kind of disguise. What the girl liked was to lie in the thick grass of Cemetery Hill, close to the pond and the weeping willow and the stone angel some Victorian father had built for his daughter, fifteen and consumptive. At first, only the wind would speak, only the pines and willows. But she was patient, and the dead have so many stories to tell. They would tell her everything, and she would listen, arms stretched wide, feeling that space where her own wings ached to grow.
There was another girl. A girl from outer space. She passed Ghost Girl but they didn’t talk. Different circles of hell: it was that kind of school. Space Girl didn’t visit the cafeteria either. Afraid someone would say: Like she really needs more pizza! She sat in the farthest, darkest library carrel, head down, reading celestial maps. Online, in cyberspace, she would follow voyages, collecting facts. Each galaxy is haloed by dark matter, extending far beyond its rim of radiant stars. Lacking atmospheric pressure, bodies in deep space are weightless.
Space Girl waited. It seemed she’d been waiting all her life, watching the sky through her Discovery Store telescope. She’d been abandoned, she was sure, but she liked to think it was a mistake. Somewhere in a vast dark world her true family was searching for her. When they found her she would know them by their eyes and their star-like hands, six-fingered as her own had been when she was born. They’d cut the extra digit off to make her less of a freak. It hadn’t worked.
She brought her telescope to Cemetery Hill the night of the meteor shower. It was dark. She was sure no one would be there. Too late, she heard laughter, smelled something skunky and burnt. “Come and probe me, Mr. Alien!” A raw, slurred voice.
She heard giggles. A girl’s voice. “Shut up, you ass.” People from school; she’d have to leave. She stumbled on something dark, maybe a tree root, and fell, skinning her palms. It was ridiculous but she started to cry. The hill was her place and they’d spoiled it.
“That’s my leg, you know.”
Space Girl scrambled backward. Thin black legs branched out of boots dangling with unfastened buckles. A black-haired girl on the ground looked at her. Her eyes were hazel, shot through with a strange unknowable color. Verdigris. Ambergris. They were her own eyes, looking back at her.
The girl helped her sit up. “Don’t worry about those dickheads,” she said. “They won’t stay around long.”
“I’m not worried.”
“You’re still crying,” said the black-haired girl.
“They spoiled it,” she said.
“People do.” The girl stood like a stretching cat, head back, arms stretched wide. Something like black netting fell from her upper arms to her sides. Was she in costume? A Victorian cape, delicate as bats’ wings.
Space Girl took a deep breath. “Do you ever feel like you just don’t belong on this earth? Like you belong someplace far away?”
Ghost Girl’s hand, painted with black fingernail polish, curled around hers like a starfish. “I feel that way all the time.”
Space Girl exhaled. She felt her cramped chest expand, felt the stirring of wings behind her shoulders. Not batlike, these wings. Powerful and feathered. She thought of a childhood vacation, a boat ride, a lake with swans. She’d thought of them somehow as pretty and lacy. “I didn’t know they were such big animals,” she said, and an older boy next to her looked up from his phone and nodded with approval. “Swans will fuck you up,” he said.
She felt herself growing lighter and noticed, with a complete lack of panic, that her feet no longer touched the ground.
The lonely dead murmured their approval.
Now the two girls faced each other, joined both hands like dancers in a faerie ring. Now they were rising, weightless, and though no map of earth or stars showed their destination, they seemed to know where they were going. It made sense. Gravity requires a reference point, a solid object one can hold. And the ground kept getting farther away.