The city during the summer is golden and dripping, syrupy slow, and the days taste sweet, like clementines or peaches, the juice running in sticky rivers down forearms, chins, watermelon slices spilling pink onto cheap porcelain plates.
The air is smoky, burning sometimes, filling up the lungs, too hot and too heavy. Not enough oxygen in one breath, too much exhaust in two.
Sunlight falls slowly onto skin, stone, glares through windows.
The grass in the park has been cut, and the smell of it is pleasant in the thick, still warmth. The air, which shimmers and distorts the world around it, is tinged with heat.
Doors are left open and whole streets share each other’s noise.
People in offices cook slowly behind sun-warmed glass and can’t see their computer screens for the daylight glare.
In bare kitchens, girls eat cool slices of crisp watermelon and say nothing.
The air conditioning in this city is terrible. The walls are stone but summer is long and they heat up all the way through. It never gets cold, comes closest at night, but even then the air is more calm than cold, mildness a blessing after the bright, vicious hours of day.
A woman, her hair slick with sweat at the base of her scalp—where it coats the nape of her neck, long and dark and heavy—is cutting a lemon.
Her nails are red and chipped. She’s done her makeup, eyes dark and goopy, foundation waxy and melting. She’s beautiful, but it’s too hot.
She will put a thick, yellow lemon slice into a tall glass full of sparkling water. Put it in the humming fridge.
Then she will go up the stairs, the wood swollen and creaking, and take a freezing shower.
Before she does either of these things, she runs the cruel edge of the knife along the soft skin of her index finger, opening the tissue to let scarlet spill out onto the counter.
She does this because she believes in the magic of the body, spells of blood and bone and exalted flesh, the real murder magic of the city.
Its knowledge evades her even as she looks in the face of it. It’s just a red puddle of oxygen and iron, looks like sugary cherry liqueur. Maybe the magic is real, though, and the blood has real power over the human eye, the human mind, but there are no answers from it today. She bleaches the counter before she goes up to the shower. Continues to let her finger drip.
At night the city is cooler, but the veins of it thrum and the blood runs faster. The lethargy of the day sinks into the ground, leaving behind a frenzied need to be and to do.
Shards of glass, like sparks off fireworks, cover sidewalks in wide arcs. Everyone is drinking.
Night in this city—as in all cities—is blue and yellow and sparkly, deep purple, blurry with street lamps and the glow from window displays, reflections dancing on the thin surface of the deep, dark river water.
Now she is in her friend’s apartment, coating her eyelids in gold glitter, sipping warm cinnamon whiskey. They are dressed in black, both of them, smoky-eyed and smiling too much after drinking too fast in the yellow-lit, bare apartment.
The drip from her finger has clotted and darkened, but the purpose of it is there. Tonight she will be untouchable.
This is not the type of city where women are usually untouchable. This—as in all cities, when you rub the gilt away—is a place where women can disappear at parties, where women are grabbed by the arms and the hair. It is the type of city where women have to make themselves sharp and fast and angry.
They do this well—they conceal this anger with eyeliner and they eat fruit in each other’s kitchens. She has cut her finger for the magic her blood will give her, but she has still filed and painted the nail, along with the rest of them, ten scarlet ends like a movie star.
Her friend, Luisa, has not run anything sharp along the edge of her sun-soaked skin because she has a boyfriend. He is tall and furious and silent. He does not like his friends and he does not like strangers. He carries no weapons but this isn’t because it’s something he wouldn’t do, or need to do.
When he was fifteen all the fingers of his right hand were bent back back back until they touched his forearm and snapped. Luisa does not need to make herself untouchable because he will do it for her. He loves her and she loves him back, but she also finds him useful.
He is coming over in an hour to pick them up. They are passing the time by letting the liquor turn them soft and boneless, heavier than they would usually be. Her limbs feel like molten metal. Her feet are very far away.
“Bella!” Luisa is laughing. “Are you even listening?”
Bella is trying. She is looking at Luisa’s slender reflection in the mirror, and the long tendrils of her hair that snake out of her hairstyle down the sides of her face, coming to rest on her collarbones. She, too, has painted her nails red. We match now, she’d murmured, and Bella had thought yes, wanted to tie them together with this similarity, had snatched we match out of the air and swallowed it, felt the sweet fizz of it on the way down.
Luisa’s boyfriend is coming but for now they are drinking and they match.
“Girl, I’m trying to do my lashes but I’m drunk as shit,” and Luisa’s always been much better at makeup. She grins, comes over to where Bella is sitting on the floor at the base of the mirror. She walks in the too-steady way of those who are nowhere near sober despite clinging onto consciousness. Kneels down too heavily and smacks her bare knees off the varnished floorboards.
“Fuck!” and then she leans in, far too close. Bella can smell the whiskey on her breath and the spearmint under that.
Up close she can see each pore in her friend’s soft coffee skin, the clear lip gloss and the brown lip liner, the goopy texture of her mascara and the powdery finish of her eyeshadow. She is grinning—they both are—as she applies glue to the lashes, shakes them.
If Bella leaned over she could kiss her and it wouldn’t even mean anything because they are drinking and drink makes all sorts of things not matter at all. But it would mess up their makeup and they’ve been doing it for ages.
Luisa has golden glitter glued to the inner corners of her eyes and Bella focuses on that instead. Then she has to keep her face very still as the lashes are put on.
“Perfect!” Luisa says, pulling back and cheery after a job well done, breaking the moment of breathless closeness.
“Thanks.” She feels like she’ll be caught out any minute, though caught doing what, she’s not sure.
A moth has come in through the open window. It’s flapping around, throwing itself against the bare lightbulb. In the street below, people are fighting, a couple maybe.
“She’s a fucking liar!” Bawled, drunk off liquor or anger or both, and then pacifying male tones and then, again, “I’m not fucking talking to her, she’s a liar!”
Bella listens with distant interest, wonders who each is to the other, wonders who the liar is to both.
Ambulances in the distance, maybe the fire brigade. Music playing in the apartment building, but it’s coming from far enough away that they can only hear the bass, deep and repetitive.
The window is open so Luisa can smoke. She does when she drinks, like most people in this city. Bella is rarer—she fears the nicotine stains and the constant spending of money. Fears the long-term ravaged lungs less.
“I have vodka in my bag,” she says, to give them a purpose. They’re mostly ready now, but they still have time. Luisa lurches over to Bella’s bag, discarded on the floor, and pulls out the bottle. Her thin, ringed fingers wrap around the glass neck. The length of her sharp nails means that they clink against it, red like the cap.
“Will we just do shots? I don’t have any mixers, I don’t think.”
“Sure,” and it’s not going to be nice. Bella can already taste the warm, nail-polish burn of it. She’s used to that, though, prefers to watch Luisa’s hand on the glass and then the curved shape of her as she leaves the bare bedroom to get two shot glasses.
A moment of spinning solitude. She sits and grins to herself, trying to ignore her stinging finger. Glitter coats her eyelids, so she can’t itch her eyes for fear of smudging.
Luisa’s back, two glasses. Two shots are poured, lifted to their lips off the floorboards. Horrible on the way down, but she can’t wait to feel it in her bloodstream. It heats her up a bit like the afternoon sun. The makeup she’s wearing disguises the violent flush of her cheeks.
“Girl, when the fuck is my man gonna get here?” Luisa’s laughing, her voice soft and much higher-pitched than Bella’s.
“What do we need him for?” Bella sounds like she’s joking. “Let’s just party at your place.”
Luisa is sitting again, right next to her at the foot of the mirror. The girls form the epicentre of a tidal wave of makeup products, eyeliners and mascaras, expired foundation, and the cracked plastic eyeshadow palettes. Wipes and an eyelash curler. She starts putting the finishing touches to her face, dabbing around her mouth with a stick of concealer.
There is a thick, colorful print on the rim of her shot glass, so she reapplies her lipgloss. Bella hasn’t done her lips yet, picks a dark brown matte colour off the floor.
Luisa doesn’t respond, wants to go out. So does Bella but the vodka makes this hurt.
“Oh my God, you look so fucking hot,” Luisa tells her, after a few minutes of concentration.
Something twists in her chest, in her stomach.
“No,” she breathes, after a second. “You look fucking hot. Marco won’t know how to act, when he gets here.”
“Stop,” but she’s smiling, pleased to be reminded that she’s in charge of Marco and all the violence he carries with him.
“Bitch, I’m serious. You’re literally so sexy,” and she can say this kind of thing to Luisa and really, really mean it because that’s what girls do, compliment each other, and it’s not weird, it’s just her being supportive, and obviously Luisa thinks so too because if anything she leans in closer. Leans in so her hands are in front of her bent knees, her arms keeping her torso up. Her face centimetres from Bella’s once more.
All Bella can smell is vodka and perfume. They mix together nauseatingly, sugary florals mixed with ethanol.
And maybe Luisa picked up on something, because—
“No, you’re sexy.” Whispered, and then she closes the tiny gap between them.
Her lipgloss is ruined. Bella’s knees are pressing painfully into the hard floor. She’s been sizzling for a while, in the urban summer, in the constant steam of Luisa’s company, the furnace of vodka inside her. She’s ignited now, on fire. Everything makes her shudder—the drag of manicured fingernails, the warm catch of a mouthful of teeth against her neck. Matte brown lipstick smeared where it shouldn’t be.
Luisa’s head is bent right over her collarbone and Bella realises she’s murmuring desperately, repetitively under her breath (how are you so good at this how are you so good at this oh my god Luisa how), so she buries a hand in soft dark hair, pulls her up and closes her eyes again. Tastes smoke.
Other things take longer than they should to come into focus. Luisa’s phone buzzing. The doorbell being rung, from down in the street, the one set into the pale stone façade of the building. When they break apart, Bella is trembling.
“Marco’s here,” Luisa smirks, already amused, already happy to really party. Bella can’t speak. She’s breathing too hard.
The constant rush of cars, trains, people outside the window, like the incessant crashing of waves by the coast. It goes quiet in the apartment, and the city grows louder in response.
“Let’s go down, then,” she manages, after this. She sounds like she’s been running.
She has just kissed the most beautiful woman in the world. The split skin on her finger, the murder magic of the city that runs in her veins, will protect her from angry, masculine hands. They will go dancing. Tonight, she is already untouchable.Freyja Hellebust’s short stories have been published by the Listowel Writers’ Week Competition, as well as the Book of Kells Creative Competition.