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Illustration by Rowanne Dean

I have this theory that people with demons can smell the rot on each other. Kind of like sharks with blood—did you know a great white can detect a single drop in an Olympic-regulation swimming pool? That’s my leading hypothesis for why we were so drawn to each other. She could smell my blood and I could smell hers, and we could both tell it was contaminated at a hundred paces.

I met her at the beginning of the spring semester. I was taking a class on campus fictions, and that first day we were discussing one of my favorite books, The Secret History. Despite this, I was feeling dispirited. I couldn’t help feeling that my life had come to a grinding halt—after the abrupt end of my lacrosse career, I struggled to find something else to fill the hole left behind. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t much good at anything else, and I knew it. My life felt like a fairground carousel abandoned for years, stationary and weather-beaten.

Class was well under way when she opened the door and walked into the room. She was wearing tight, distressed jeans with glossy riding boots, and a black blazer shot through with purple pinstripes—all normal enough. But she had chin-length, vibrant red hair, waved in that typical Prohibition-era style, a small, exploding bud of a mouth gleaming with red lipstick, and the most shockingly blue eyes I had ever seen. And when she sat down, I choked on my energy drink—she wasn’t wearing a shirt under her blazer, leaving her sternum exposed.

In that moment I found myself sympathetic to the signs dotting Low Steps just outside our classroom: CLEAVAGE KILLS and UNIFORMS FOR ALL! and RIGHTS FOR MEN. I could feel myself starting to get hard, and although I’d had my weekly PESA appointment at Health Services just the other day, it was extremely unsettling, not to mention physically uncomfortable. I was wearing a chastity cage, as I imagine every other guy in the room was at this point (it was a year after the viral vector disaster, so we’d bypassed the shortage problem), and it made a full erection not only impossible, but also painful.

The professor resumed speaking and on went class, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. At one point, she caught me staring and raised an eyebrow across the table. I immediately became very interested in the intricacies of the notebook open in front of me. When I glanced back up she was still looking at me, eyebrow still raised, one corner of her mouth tugged up.

After class, she walked straight up to me.

“Like what you see?” I was so stunned that an uncomfortable amount of time passed before she smiled. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”

I laughed nervously. “Yeah, you did.”

As soon as the words had come out of my mouth, I realized I sounded like an asshole. But she cocked her head and narrowed her eyes, and her smile grew wider. It was an unsettling gesture. I thought of poisonous creatures reposing in glass cages you could press your nose up against.

“You’re right. I did.” She paused to run her gaze up and down my body. It came to rest on my crotch. “What do you wear?”

“Excuse me?”

“What model do you wear?”

“Um. The CB6K?”

She nodded, slowly. “Hmm. Comfortable, but not the most secure. I’d recommend something from Steelwerks. If you can afford it, that is. The Crown of Thorns is—,” a sly smile unfurled across her face, “—very appealing.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but found I had no idea what to say.

She smirked. “I liked what you said in class. When you were talking about how Richard sees life in Technicolor after Bunny’s murder. You said taking a life is like a drug, a key to another stratum of existence.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d agree with them, but yeah, that’s certainly how it is for the characters, I think.”

“Oh, but you should agree with them. The human experience is so anaesthetizing—we’re almost never aware of the fact that we’re actually living. Only when it’s under threat do we ever recognize the ineffability of life force. Fear, pain—those emotions bring everything into such sharp focus. It’s almost amusing, really. Only face-to-face with death can you ever truly experience life. Why do you think homicide detectives do what they do? Detectives, doctors, morticians. They’re all in the same business.”

She paused for a moment before checking the gold watch slipping around her wrist. “Well, I have to get going. I’m late for a meeting. I’m Marisa by the way.”

I watched her as she walked away, barely registering the pain in my groin.

Marisa. Where on earth did you come from?

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