In a Tide of Blood
by Lindsay King-Miller
Issue 5: Occult | 3850 words
Philip’s voice came out of her car radio on a hot day, harmonizing with the sour breath of the broken air conditioner, and Laila felt it like his fingertips traced the sweat drops rolling down her face. She heard his whole body in his voice, felt him like a presence beside her, around her, a tremble in her throat as though she were the one singing. Or as though she were choking.
Laila listened to his song over and over that sticky, underwater-feeling summer, lying on the mattress on the floor in her studio apartment and wondering if her neighbors suspected that she was masturbating. Mostly she thought she did a good job of staying silent, but sometimes a single syllable escaped with her orgasm, a strong “Oh” or “Ah” in tune with Philip’s singing.
Philip lived in the same city. She might run into him anywhere, she imagined—while reading a novel at a coffee shop or riding her bike through the park. She could only fantasize about meeting him while doing things she never actually did.
Laila went to the concert alone. She couldn’t talk to anybody about the way Philip’s music made her feel, how it gripped her so hard it almost bruised, how she loved it and wished she could shut it out. Anyone who came with her would look at her looking at him and know things she didn’t want them to know. She sat on the hot sidewalk outside the theater for hours, and when the door opened she was the first one through. Her sunburn heated the air around her, so the rest of the audience kept their distance. She floated in a bubble of solitude at the edge of the stage.
Maybe it was because she was so clearly alone, or because of the tangible need that gleamed on her skin like sweat. Maybe it was even because she was beautiful. Philip looked straight at her, and she looked back.
Later, she would think, He must do this at every show—pick a girl out of the audience, sing to her all night, then slip a note into her hand as he reached into the crowd to disperse rock-star blessings. His pockets were probably full of them, those hand-scribbled slips of paper, Meet me at the stage door.
Laila, as nearly as she could recall later, said nothing the entire time. They must have exchanged at least a few banal words of small talk, but all her memory could conjure was the stage door opening, Philip’s face like the moon rising over the mountains, Philip taking her hand.
The green room couch felt sticky underneath her bare skin, but she tried not to think about it. His breath was loud and hot in her ear, and she tried to remember whether she had told him her name. He kept calling her “princess,” and she didn’t like it, but she didn’t say so.
Philip held on to her hard, his fingers digging in everywhere—as though she were a piece of driftwood he was clinging to, as though she were all that stood between him and drowning. She understood that this was a reflection of her own need: he needed her because she loved him so much. He must look for the girl in the crowd who radiated desperation, who stared up at him like a religious icon. He craved her hunger. He used her body to make love to the version of himself that she saw.
When he wrapped his hands in her thick hair and pulled hard, she squeezed her eyes shut and pictured his face, not the one looming over her with sweat dripping down his upper lip, but the face tacked to the wall above her bed. She imagined that other, airbrushed Philip was the one fucking her somewhere that didn’t smell like spilled beer and old pot smoke. She imagined her hands slipping off his skin because he was made of glossy paper, and she held that image in her head and clenched her jaw hard and willed herself to come.
Afterward he lay back and closed his eyes, and as soon as he wasn’t looking at her, she loved him again. Laila got dressed quickly, leaving her underwear on the mildewy carpet.
When she got home, she took a long bath, thinking about how strange she’d felt when he was inside her, like a life vest instead of a body. The next morning she didn’t listen to any music. There were faint lavender bruises around the base of her throat, five of them, a perfect set of fingerprints. They were so light; no one who wasn’t looking would ever have noticed them. But they didn’t fade, not that day or the next, not for weeks. Her sunburn peeled, and there was tan skin underneath, but the bruises didn’t go anywhere. The day Laila realized she was pregnant, she also noticed that the bruises were getting darker.
She scrolled through Twitter while the cashier rang up her pregnancy test. Philip had posted a picture of his hand in close up, a scrap of blue fabric hanging from two fingers—her underwear. Below the picture, he wrote, “Trying to find my princess. Are these yours?”
“Fuck you,” she whispered and unfollowed him.
There was a small crowd outside the clinic when Laila got off the bus, and she realized they were protesters. Why hadn’t she thought to expect this? It was the first time she’d seen so many people in one place since Philip’s concert, and a scrap of lyric from one of his songs floated through her head:
I should have been born on the open sea.
Senseless, connected to nothing.
She actually pressed her hands over her ears as she walked down the sidewalk between the protesters, their cardboard signs warped from weather as though they were here every day, or maybe as though they never went home at all. She wasn’t afraid of them. She just didn’t want to hear what they would say. They weren’t allowed to touch her, she remembered, and then she spread her arms wide, watching them move back from the tips of her fingers. Their mouths opened and closed, gulping air. Laila thought about gills.
It didn’t hurt much. “Take it all out,” Laila said when the doctor bent between her legs, her head swimming.
“All what?” the doctor asked.
“Everything,” she said. “I don’t need it anymore.”
There was another dimly lit room for her to sit in while she recovered, full of other girls and women—it seemed like hundreds but was probably only a handful—waiting to reenter the world, newly relieved of their fecundity. A womb full of empty wombs. Laila giggled. The laugh rose from her mouth like a bubble deep underwater, searching for the surface.
When she got her period, it was like a sigh of relief. No, it was like vomiting, in a good way, like finally purging a poison. Philip was gone from her body. Now, at last, the bruises on her throat would fade.
But they didn’t fade. They seemed to darken, to grow angrier every day, like the blood pooled beneath her skin was going bad. Philip’s songs kept getting stuck in her head. She didn’t want to remember his voice, but a line of melody lodged itself in her brain with half the words missing, and she found herself poking at it all day, like tonguing a split lip. Irritating, but irresistible.
She kept bleeding, too. There were no cramps, none of the headaches or inexplicable sadness that usually accompanied her period, just bright red blood leaking out of her like an old faucet, for days and days and days. After the first week, feeling chafed and sore, Laila stopped putting in tampons and just let the blood pool in her underwear, wearing black jeans or leggings despite the August heat, so that what little soaked through was camouflaged. Would this summer ever end?
For a few days Laila called in sick to work; then she just stopped going. Sometimes she picked up her phone and looked at it, thinking about texting someone—she’d had friends, once—but knowing she wouldn’t. The bruises spread down from her neck to her collarbone and the tops of her breasts. She took long baths and read the back covers of all her books.
The batteries in her vibrator died, and she didn’t bother to put new ones in. She used her fingers instead, curving them slick with blood inside her, imagining a fish hook snagging her by the cunt. It hurt when she came, but it was better than the jittery silence ringing in her ears whenever she was still. Laila couldn’t stand listening to music anymore. Even at low volume, it felt like the vibrations were scraping her skin.
She made a profile on a dating app using a picture of herself from months ago with long clean hair. It had been up for no more than fifteen minutes or so before a man messaged her. When she clicked open his profile, she realized it was Philip. His photo didn’t include his face, but she remembered the slope of his torso, the tattoo on his ribs. His message was lecherous but impersonal, not the kind of thing you send someone you’ve already fucked. He didn’t recognize her. She sent him her address. Laila got up and unlocked the front door, then lay back down on her mattress on the floor.
He knocked on her door, waited, and knocked again. Three times before he finally opened the door and came inside. Laila was lying on her back with her head toward the door, so she arched her neck backwards and looked at him upside down.
“Hey,” he said, hesitant. “Are you Laila?”
She couldn’t nod with her head in this position. There was no one else here.
“I’m Philip,” he said. He was barely inside her apartment, the door still ajar behind him.
Laila stood up, facing him. She was wearing a big t-shirt and bloodstained cotton briefs. She held out her arms in invitation.
“Oh, shit,” said Philip as he finally recognized her. “It’s you. I didn’t… I mean, how have you been?”
She shrugged. She didn’t want to talk to him. That wasn’t why she had invited him over.
“We don’t have to,” this new, different Philip said. It sounded like there was more to the sentence, but he couldn’t find it. “I mean,” he said, “there’s no rush. Maybe we can talk a little first?” He still hadn’t moved toward her. Belatedly, it occurred to Laila that her apartment might not smell good, this airless room where she’d been sweating and bleeding for days on end.
Laila pulled her t-shirt over her head. Philip flinched, whether from the suddenness of her movement or in surprise at the bruises that covered her throat and shoulders, she couldn’t say. Being shirtless didn’t feel very different; the air in her apartment hung around her like an unwashed t-shirt.
Finally, Philip stepped toward her, as though by disrobing she had answered a question. He was telling himself some kind of story about what was happening right now, she realized, sculpting the narrative into something he would later tell his friends over drinks. She wondered if it would be a funny story or a sad one.
His hands rested lightly on her hips. She tilted up her face to kiss him. His mouth tasted like a tide pool.
When he pulled off Laila’s briefs and saw the blood on his fingers, Philip looked at her earnestly and said “Don’t worry, it’s okay.” Laila couldn’t quite swallow her laugh, but she buried it in the crook of his neck, and it sounded passably like a sigh of pleasure.
After they had each come once, she got up and tugged him by the hand into the bathroom. He followed her, quiet and docile, having not said a word in more than an hour. Laila turned on the shower, but the water ran cold, no matter how long she let it pour from the faucet. She tried to remember when she had last paid her gas bill and realized she didn’t even know what day it was. This time there was no hiding her laughter, and no point either, so she stood there naked with icy water splattering her bare skin, laughing until her throat was sore. Philip laughed uncertainly along with her at first, but he ran out of momentum long before she did, and eventually he left the bathroom.
Laila climbed into the cold shower. A blue washcloth had dried in a gnarled shape like a tree root, hanging over the bathtub faucet. She held it under the showerhead until it softened, then she scrubbed her whole body with it, over and over—no soap, just friction. She lifted her face up to the spray and let her mouth fill up with water, spit it out, filled it up again, swallowed this time.
When she finally turned off the shower, she didn’t towel herself off. Instead, she stepped dripping onto the linoleum and looked at herself carefully in the mirror. Blood meandered down the insides of her legs in watery curlicues and left pink trails on the floor.
From throat to rib cage, her skin was raw. Her scrubbing had left trails of abrasions, rashy prickles of blood just below the surface everywhere that she had been bruised before she stepped into the shower. The bruises lingered under the irritation, looking purple and fresh.
Laila’s shoulder itched. She watched herself scratch it in the mirror, leaving, in the shape of her fingernails, momentary white furrows that faded quickly to an angry red. When she examined her fingers up close, the index nail was stippled with blood.
She felt perfectly, beautifully clean. When she left the bathroom, she saw that Philip was gone, but he had pulled the flat sheet up over her mattress and tucked it around the sides, leaving an approximation of a tidily made bed. Laila lay down on top of it and fell asleep.
When she woke up, Laila’s legs felt strange. She looked down at them with a kind of detached curiosity. All the while she’d been sleeping. For hours? Days? It was dark in her apartment, but she couldn’t tell if that was because of night or her unpaid power bill—she had kept bleeding, as though her whole body was shedding itself through her cervix. The blood coated her inner thighs, tacky and half-scabbed over, her legs sticking to each other. The mattress beneath her body was squishy, permeated with fluid.
She laughed. It was so lovely.
The rash had spread to her lower body, rough scabby ridges springing up on her skin wherever she could see. It itched terribly except where her own blood coated her skin. There, she felt shiny and protected.
She sat up and patted her hands in the blood on her thighs, like a little girl splashing in the bathtub. With bloody palms, she massaged her arms, her breasts, as much as she could reach of her back. The relief was immediate, cooling like a fresh burn under cold water.
Were her fingers longer than they had been, or was it a trick of the light? Come to think of it, what was wrong with the light? It wasn’t just the darkness—everything around her looked wrong, overexposed and distorted. Laila liked it. It made things seem farther away.
She stood up to get a glass of water, but when she took the first step, she screamed. Her thighs separated with a sick sound of tearing flesh. The blood that had been a steady stream from between her legs became a gush—she heard it hit the floor like a drink being spilled. Strange, she had never heard that exact noise unaccompanied by the sound of breaking glass. From her knees to her cunt, the insides of her legs were on fire.
Laila fell to her knees in a pool, nearly a pond, of her own blood. She retched, but nothing came out of her mouth. As the agony subsided, she lay her forehead down in the warm liquid, already cooling to stickiness, and slept again.
Still dark when she woke up, dried blood on her cheeks and in her eyelashes. It was the sound of the phone that had woken her. How did she still have service?
This time Laila didn’t try to break up the scab that gummed her legs together. Sitting on the floor with her legs straight out in front of her, she used her hands to drag herself backward until she reached her mattress. The text was from Philip. He couldn’t stop thinking about her. He was worried. She hadn’t seemed well. Could he come back? Could he do anything to help her?
The room smelled like old metal and salt water. She pressed a hand between her legs and brought it away flecked with brownish-red. The blood coming out of her wasn’t fresh anymore. After all this time—was it hours? Days? Her body must have been running out.
It should have been a relief for the bleeding to stop, but what Laila felt was panic. Her insides were scabbing, her skin drying. The prickling feeling of the rash was coming back, an itch, a sense of crumbling.
On the back of her shoulder, where the blood hadn’t reached, Laila’s rash had hardened into something that looked like shingles and smelled like dry rot. Scaly and iridescent, ugly yellow-white like dried pus. Laila trembled when she looked at it. She tried to use a fingernail to scrape it off, but underneath, it oozed. Scratching only made it worse. There was another patch of scaly skin at her left wrist, and suddenly the itching was more than Laila could bear. Frantically, she dug her teeth into the skin, gnawing toward relief. Her arm tasted foul, but the points of her canine teeth found what they sought: a few drops of blood in the desiccated landscape of flesh.
For a moment, the damned itching stopped. But the bite mark scabbed over within minutes. Laila didn’t have enough blood.
“I’m fine,” she texted Philip. “I just want to be left alone.”
Her refusal writhed like a worm on a hook, drawing him in the way no invitation ever could.
“Are you still in your apartment alone? You need to get out. You need to eat something. You need to see people.”
“It’s none of your business,” she answered, stopping to claw at the side of her neck, where the skin felt like sand. What came away on her fingertips looked a little like sand, too. “I don’t want your help.”
Laila thought of the sirens from the Greek myths she’d read in high school, of the song that called sailors to die on the rocks around their island. Maybe they hadn’t been singing enchantments and seductions at all. Maybe they’d only been crooning “Leave us alone, don’t come any closer.” Was it their fault some men found that irresistible?
“I’m going to come see you,” Philip responded. “I’m worried about you.”
Laila tipped her head back, resting on the edge of the mattress. She could see the shape her body had left in the blood pooled on the floor, a sticky outline like a crime scene. Curling her knees up to her chest, her legs still adhering together, she looked down at where the blood had dried on her arms and chest.
It was as though her skin was absorbing it, turning darker where it touched and smoothing over. The dark spots weren’t scabs; they were supple and glossy, and when she ran her fingertips over them, she felt the touch with a sensuous shudder. Laila’s fingers were definitely longer now, and some sort of sticky membrane stretched between them at their bases. It shimmered, not in the light—there was hardly any light—but in something else that she was just beginning to perceive.
Philip knocked on the door. She had told him not to come, and here he was, but he was still pretending to be polite. A gentleman. A gentle man. She didn’t answer him. He came in, as she’d known he would.
Laila felt more than saw his shadow falling across her body, the way there was slightly less air in the room when he gasped. He said her name, and she felt the vibrations in her spine— not just the sound waves, but the way he trembled as he spoke. His revulsion and his confusion. She was not what he had expected.
“Oh my God,” Philip said. Laila attempted a smile to reassure him that she was all right, though even as she did she wondered why she was bothering. She tried to stop smiling but her lips seemed no longer capable of covering her teeth.
He knelt by her body. She saw herself reflected in the muddy water of his eyes: prone, helpless, covered in blood. If she gave him a chance, he would fall in love with her. He would lift her in his arms.
He brushed her bloody hair from her forehead, slipped an arm beneath her and pulled her halfway to sitting. Laila grabbed his shoulders and pulled herself up the rest of the way. Then she sank her teeth into his cheek, just below his right eye.
For a moment his arms tightened around her waist, as if in anticipation of a kiss. She had already spit out the piece of flesh she’d torn from his face when he started to scream.
Philip tried to pull away, but Laila was stronger than she remembered being. She held on, her arms wrapped around his neck in a staggering parody of embrace as he lurched to his feet. He thrashed his head from side to side, and her next bite almost missed, only taking off a bit of his earlobe.
She pressed her forehead against his bleeding cheek, and the blood over her face felt cool and refreshing, like running through the sprinkler as a little girl. Laila had never realized before how strong her neck was, but she used its strength to force his head back and to the side, exposing his throat. She bit again.
If his bloody face had been a sprinkler, this was a fountain—baptismal, holy. Laila let go of Philip’s shoulders. Her legs, or whatever her legs had become, wouldn’t hold her up, and she crumpled to the floor. Philip stood over her, gushing. She thought he was trying to say something, but it didn’t matter. Nothing hurt anymore.
Laila tried to push herself up to her hands and knees, but the ecstasy of transformation was too overwhelming. She drifted on the floor in a tide of blood. Waves lapped her skin when Philip finally collapsed beside her. Laila closed her eyes. Her whole body felt new. She pressed her ear to Philip’s chest and heard the ocean.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer advice columnist and author. Her fiction has appeared in The Fiends in the Furrows: An Anthology of Folk Horror and Dark Rainbow: LGBTQ Erotic Horror. She is the author of Ask a Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls who Dig Girls (Plume 2016). She lives in Denver.