Steam escaped the corner radiator and pushed aside the curtains above. Margaret rolled over in a vain attempt to escape her fate and the harsh rays of sunlight. It was twenty minutes before she absolutely had to be up, but restlessness sat on her mind like a millstone. Little worries ground away, second by second. The dinner dishes were collecting flies. A load of laundry waited in the washer to be set in the dryer. Bits of rock salt brought in on the bottom of her boots needed vacuuming off her little living room carpet. Margaret conceded. She needed to get this small stuff done before she headed off to work. Her arm reached overhead and picked up her phone. A dry, hoarse groan escaped her when she saw the date and note on her phone’s unlock screen: remember Liv’s bday gift.
It was her day off. Her first real day off in two weeks, in fact. “God damn it.” She slammed the phone next to her in bed. It was her first Saturday off in months. She requested it. Rubbing sleep from reluctant, tired eyes, Margaret then kicked herself free of her sheets. If she was waking up early on a long awaited day off, then she was going to have a killer breakfast. There was some bacon left in the freezer, a new carton of eggs, and plenty of orange juice. She picked out some lightly dirtied laundry off the floor and tied back her curly, hazel, bed-frazzled hair. The bakery was just a short jaunt down a couple of blocks. Margaret slipped on her comfortable pair of shoes before departing.
Brisk, end-of-November air was as good as a cup of coffee for waking up, but lacked substance or sweetness. Margaret kept a quick pace; sporadic, whipping winds motivated her. She arrived at Dunes’ Bakery in a record ten minutes. The smell of fresh baked dough enticed any passerby and windows exhibiting racks of golden brown bread beckoned them closer. A small gathering of customers populated the lobby while a multi armed Mythfolk doled out brown bagged orders. Warm relief washed over Margaret’s hair from the heating unit over the door as she entered the line behind a wolfish Mythfolk in a loose-fitting college sweater ahead of her.
Margaret glanced at her phone while the line paused. Liv didn’t respond to her on Messenger, Impsta, or Discord. She huffed, and stuffed her phone back into her pocket. There were better things to think about than fret over her shut-in sister. Margaret mulled over her chores again: the dishes, laundry, and vacuuming. She needed an outdoor rug so she didn’t track so much rock salt around her living room. Her previous plastic one melted. If she was out shopping, she could nab a few groceries. Perhaps she would make meatballs and pasta tomorrow. Ah! There was the pop up bar she planned on visiting with her girlfriends too. By the time she cycled through her coming day, the line shrunk to her and the wolf woman ahead of her.
She idly checked her phone again. Damn it Liv. With a flick of the screen, she quick hashed out another message. Appt. today.
“Next,” the four armed, blue skinned Mythfolk called. “Good morning Maggie.”
“Hey Linda. Three everything and a French toast if you got it.” Fresh, steaming pastries brought out by another, four armed male baker caught her attention. “And two of the cinnamon buns.”
Dunes’ Bakery sold their bread around town, but nothing beat getting it first thing in the morning just out of the oven. The girls’ mother brought them here almost every weekend for bread and pastries. It was a tradition the eldest daughter continued even now. Margaret watched with bated breath as each bagel disappeared into the brown bag, then Linda boxed her buns. It was impressive to watch her four hands build the box in a single motion, and again when she checked Margaret out and passed her the box at the same time.
“9.89 is your total,” Linda stated before gesturing to the older man next in line.
Margaret gave her a ten and three ones and wished Linda a good one before hustling back outside. The line showed no signs of slowing, and the little sunlight from earlier was gone. She broke her stride only for a moment at the door. Next to the exit was a neat stack of fresh papers all with the same picture and headline: Samael Hersch Convicted. The fallen angel was pictured smiling and waving to the crowd of reporters with handcuffs over her wrist. Chained black wings partly obscured the Connecticut court house behind her and the platoon of navy-blue clad officers she towered over. Olivia would have something to say about it, and Margaret would hear about the trial sooner or later.
A gray cloud cover dulled the early morning and the rows of homes and small businesses on her way back. The chill wind buffeted her face and her precious breakfast the whole way back. It was the type of cold that dried out faces and affected sniffles. Margaret was wide awake again.
Home was a welcome sight. The two story structure built in the 1950’s was her parents’ second home, and after they passed, Margaret lived in and cared for the property. It was taller than wide, with a gray tile roof, and asbestos siding too toxic to get removed for any reasonable price. Only a set of four wooden steps lead up to the entrance. The red face was dotted by two windows on the second floor and a third, horizontal window from the kitchen that overlooked the street. Just as she fumbled with her keys to unlock the door, her pocketed phone buzzed once.
“Well, she’s awake, at least,” Margaret muttered before the mechanism came undone and the brick-red door swept open. “I’m back! I’ve got Dunes’!” She shouted down.
Loose drinking glasses and the living room furniture rattled first, followed by every radiator in the home whistling at a high pitch. Unphased, Margaret headed into the kitchen to prepare her breakfast. She grabbed a package of Colombian beans from her pantry, a jar of peanut butter, cream cheese, and a pair of plates, one paper and the other a metal disc. The buzz of the grinder competed with the low rumble creeping up the stairs. Whir! Stomp. Hiss. Whir buzz! Stomp. Hiss. Click. The head of the coffeemaker snapped shut. Next, she sliced their bagels, then laid out plates and a pair of metal tongs. Her bagel went down just as the cellar door inched open.
A haze of wispy black smoke preceded Olivia. The temperature in the room jumped as a wave of displaced, eager warmth rushed to fill the first floor. Liv was not human. Her imposing form stooped under the doorway. She was living lava in person shape. The center of her mass, what might be called a torso, was composed of dark, smooth granite cooled and solidified into an approximation of her old body. Joints were articulated by magmatic muscles and fed by visible veins of liquid rock. Her lower legs terminated into a gooey flow of lava that creeped along the flat surface.
Her obsidian black hand offered a curt wave. “Hey. Got your text.” Liv lacked a lot of detail in her face save her eyes and mouth. Her voice was faint like steam escaping a closed pot. Olivia slunk into the kitchen just as Margaret’s toast popped up.
“You still goin’?”
A strained sigh escaped Liv. She saddled her heat resistant seat at their small counter. It required Margaret’s skilled discernment to read her near blank face. Two eye shaped holes with visible magma roiling underneath evaded meeting her sister. “Yeah…” Her sister was distracted until the utensil drawer opened.
Using a pair of tongs, Olivia grabbed the cream cheese and a knife with one hand and waved another over her first everything. The surface browned in an instant. Her sister worked quick to add a sizable chunk before it curdled. She stuffed half into her glowing orange mouth.
“So good,” Olivia mumbled between bites and unbothered by the now burning bagel in her cheek or the smoke between her lips. There was only a single fire alarm in the old house now located upstairs and down near the master bedroom.
Margaret savored the hot French Toast bagel smell as it jumped from the toaster to her plate. Dough, egg, and a touch of cinnamon were a delightful combination. A thin layer of peanut butter and a touch of butter was all it needed. Crunchy, crispy, sweet, and salty, Dunes’ was hard to beat. Olivia powered through her second bagel by the time Margaret finished her first half, and her last in just another moment.
Olivia sunk into her seat, satisfied and mild. She could control her body temperature enough to not singe the marble top. Her stone face dully smiled. “I fucking love Dunes’.”
Margaret fished out the cinnamon buns as she finished. “Same. These were killing me on my way back.”
“Ah! Fresh too? Gimme.”
Hesitating for just a second, Olivia pinched her half of gooey, icing covered pastry. It was moist enough for her to pick at rather than hurriedly eat. Margaret settled for splitting hers and putting the other quarter back in the box. The bun was dark with cinnamon, sugar, and butter in its swirls, and lathered with thick, opaque icing. Olivia ate hers from the bottom up and saved the icing top for last. Margaret pulled parts of the pastry right to left and made sure a bit of icing dotted each morsel.
“I was planning on cooking bacon,” Margaret began. “You want some?”
Olivia shook her head. “I’m full now. Know when the Black Parlor opens?”
“Uh…” Margaret recalled seeing the times online, but failed to recollect exactly. “I think we’re the second appointment. 11AM.”
“I was wondering because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it open.” Four fingers of liquid rock tap-tap-tap-tap’d along the countertop punctuated by her heavy thumb whack. It was an old habit whenever she was thinking.
“Weird. Didn’t you have to get on the expressway for school? It’s right there.”
“It’s probably open around 6 or 7 then. Especially if it’s a more complicated design. Good tats take a while.”
“Your little roses-”
Margaret caught herself before stumbling. Olivia was distracted and didn’t catch Margaret nearly tripping on that emotional landmine.
Before her transformation into living lava, Liv spent a significant sum on tattoos of all sorts. Sleeves on both arms, a piece that stretched from her shoulders down her back, memorials to their parents on the back of her legs, and hawk’s talons set on her feet. Margaret recalled the little roses that grew on the nape of her neck from the border of her gravestone inspired back tattoo. Liv wanted to add color down her back over time. The roses were the first to get colored in, though she never reached her goal. Last Margaret recalled, her sister only finished the top quarter.
“Great reviews on Glassdoor.”
“Eh, Yelp is for customers. Customers are morons.”
“Ugh, now I’m thinking about when we worked at Wal-mart.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Margaret shot back. Faux-offended, she couldn’t help but laugh.
“You were my supervisor! It was the worst.”
She was also the one who got Liv the job, kept her from getting fired for taking twice as many smoke breaks as everyone else, and vouched for her when a fire broke out in the produce room.
“Did you actually set that fire back then?”
Liv rolled the stone pupils one could call her eyeballs. “What’s the statute of limitation on arson?” The question lingered about as long as Liv could tolerate before dismissing the accusation. “No, no. I was in the bakery that day. The only reason I was near there was because some old guy held me up before my lunch.”
“I kinda figured.”
Liv was one of those harmless rebels against proper society; a girl who dressed in all black, black mascara, and silver chains in high school. She smoked weed and ran in goblin circles despite mom’s scoldings. In college, her fashion sense improved, well, at least in Margaret’s eyes, and Liv stuck with an assortment of vinyl tees and torn, washed out jeans. She wore her resistance to popular culture in her sleeve, despite being a ravenous consumer of both the Vampire Diaries and the Real Vampire Diaries among other network TV schlock. She even volunteered at animal shelter on her free weekends. Her sister never posed a threat to anyone. Liv setting a fire in work never crossed Margaret’s mind until the minute the fire marshal asked if her sister might be motivated to.
Margaret washed her cinnamon bun down with a glass of water, then drank another for good measure. The temperature in the room was a balmy ninety, she guessed, and rising. She needed to open a window.
“I couldn’t bring myself to cancel,” Liv groaned. “By the time I realized it, it was too late.”
“Eating 125 bucks is your price for crawling out of bed?”
“Eh,” she countered with a puff of smoke, “it ain’t my money. God, I need a job.” Her head slumped, then partly melted into her open palm.
“A job to pay for your own cancellation fees? Yeah, good one.” The cold air was now refreshing on Margaret’s face. A car sped by. Dry leaves moved with the bitterly cold breeze.
Liv shifted forward in her seat. Her voice became small and wispy as though to constrain herself. “I saw that bitch got indicted.” Her fingers stopped their drumming.
“Last night?” Margaret feigned surprise. “The trial went on for quite a while.”
A long, sharp exhale of steam escaped her sister and filled the room. It fogged every glass surface in the kitchen. “I hope she rots.”
“I guess that’s it then.”
“I guess.” Liv flicked a crumb. The incendiary projectile landed on the fire proof tiled floor. “Seven hundred years is a long time.”
“What did Heaven say?
“The angels don’t want her back. She’s stuck here.”
“Ah, I see…” Margaret did not have any clue what to say, nor did she desire to further this discussion. The topic of Samael tapered off like candle smoke.
Olivia relented, and shifted back in her seat. The air cooled. Margaret’s sister made a sound like a yawn or a settling house foundation.
“I’m gonna head back down then.”
“Don’t fall back asleep.”
Liv’s legs sloughed onto the ground followed by the rest of her semiliquid lower half. She propelled herself slowly over the smooth surface like a pair of roller skates down the hallway. It was the easiest way to distribute her dense mass over a wider space. Margaret cleared the table with an oven mitt before running the sink. Dishes, laundry, vacuuming; Margaret had plenty to juggle before the appointment at the Black Parlor.
* * * *
The Federal Bureau of Nonhuman Security paid for the truck. Before Olivia’s transformation, Margaret stuck to small Chevy’s, but she’d come to appreciate the height she had over other drivers. Changing lanes on the busy city expressway was certainly easier. From her rearview, Liv relaxed with her arms back on the truck’s side. Heavy iron chains only she could lift held her to the bed lest she becomes a thousand pound projectile in an accident. They lucked out with the weather: any damper and the steam from Liv’s body would be a driving hazard.
The Black Parlor was just off a busy street the expressway passed over and opposite a popular greenhouse-flowershop and a burnt out cigar shop. The lot was loose gravel with spacing being a suggestion rather than neat, solid lines. Facing the building was a black mini Cooper and parallel to that was a red, shiny F350 near three times the Coop’s size. Margaret opted to park in the far corner on a little slope leading to the main road.
Liv unhooked herself and slid over the side. She landed with a heavy plop her sister could feel on the opposite end of her truck. Visible steam rose from her, but her voice was drowned by the traffic. She stared at the tattoo shop.
“What’s that?” Margaret asked as she hurried closer.
“I said I think I’m getting cold feet,” Liv nervously, shakily hissed. “Shit. Shit shit.” The pin dot stone pupils darted to the ground, then Margaret. “I thought- damn it. It’s so hot…”
Her hands melted into stumps and began oozing onto the stone. The cold gravel crackled when her molten body made contact. Margaret stepped back to avoid touching the uncontrolled lava. Once part of Liv’s magma detached from her, it resumed normality at temperatures measured in blast furnaces.
“It’s alright. You got this far. Take a breath.”
To her credit, Olivia mimicked her sister’s sharp inhalation, expanded out her chest, and stopped her meltdown. They took a moment. Liv was capable of functioning without oxygen, but her instincts were still very human. Frustration steamed visibly in the cold.
“I can keep it together.”
Her hands regrew thin first, like grasping straws, then molten stone blood expanded out and gave Liv’s hands definition. Five fingers were troublesome to create, so instead she settled for a crude three and a thumb. Last, a layer of cooler stone formed a patchwork of black-grey skin, a mix of obsidian and sand fused together, with spacing at her wrist and fingers to allow them to articulate. Margaret caught herself staring and hurried away.
The Black Parlor‘s door was big, with a black painted iron rod for a handle. Margaret didn’t think much of its size until she gave it a pull; the solid metal door hardly budged.
“Is it locked?” Liv asked. “God I hope so.”
“It’s just- really heavy.”
“I got it.”
The door parted easily for her Mythfolk sister and they entered the lobby. It resembled a bar: ornamental, green glass lamps overhead cast incandescent light on the scuffed wood floors and a long counter opposite the door.
“Floor’s magic. You won’t burn anything in here, hot stuff.”
A Mythfolk secretary swiveled about on a stool. A dark elf with hair a shade brighter than cotton and white tattoos to match set down a magazine to greet them. Margaret couldn’t help but admire her ivory bramble tattoo that caressed her left cheek and wrapped around her neck like barbed wire. The sharp, pointed plant tattoo extended around her hands as well. Stranger, Margaret observed the branches moving independently of the Mythfolk. Small framed reading glasses inched down the bony length of her thin nose.
“I’ll let the boss know you’re here when he’s done. Grab a seat wherever,” she waved to a collection of wide seats away from the door, “you can’t melt those either.” The dark elf’s lithe, lilting voice was tinged with a fading british accent.
Margaret was about to sit down, but Liv glided up to the counter.
“Is everything here fireproof?”
The dark elf smirked and closed her magazine. She leaned closer to the lava woman. Liv reflexively backed up.
“Yep. Even me. Gregory does work for all types, and we take great efforts to ease our clienteles’… concerns.” She shrugged. “Not a thing to worry about, love. Sit back and relax.”
“And you got those done here?” Liv pointed to the brambles on the elf’s neck.
“Gregory did the line work and coloring, but it’s my magic that lets them move.”
“It’s really good. I’m jealous. I had something like it in- er on my neck.”
Liv weakly sighed. Margaret did not have to ask her sister if she missed her old ink. Her obsidian finger pointed where her old tattoo might have been on her neck.
“Gloria Steinem did a lot of my old detail work.”
“Wow, really? I didn’t know she did… ah, okay.” The elf realized what Liv intended. “Gloria’s good. She stopped doing conventions though.”
“She had a kid, I think. It’s been a while.” Stone prattled like halting, uncertain laughter. Was it too obvious her sister lived on Facebook, Margaret wondered, watching others going about their lives while she remain as still as a stone?
“Know what you’re getting?” The secretary reached for a catalog close at hand.
“Ah, um, no.” Again, Liv’s finger hovered over the ordinary looking book.
“It’s fireproof too,” the elf chuckled.
Magical fire-proofing was out of the sisters’ price range even with the extra settlement checks from the FBNS. Hiring magical contractors was twice the price of mundane workmen. Better to get the cheaper, replaceable tile, and dollar store rugs Margaret could fix or replace herself then spend outside their means.
The human sister sat down in the three-times-too-big chair closest to the window and double checked her phone. More messages; some from work, some pushed reminders about upcoming bills, and a text from Patti about grabbing drinks tonight.
7/3’s? Margaret asked
K. Tia n Cam coming. See u l8r
The nonsense pop-up bar opened two weeks ago and she really wanted to go before they closed in December. The Mythfolk bar was modeled after the Mad Hatter’s tea party: ever changing seating arrangements, cheap drinks, and an actual hostess from the mad realm to lead the festivities. It sounded fun, and Tia swore it was a good place to mingle.
“Maggie, check this out.”
Liv’s voice pulled Margaret back into the moment. She pocketed her phone and walked up to the counter. Her sister slid the open book over.
“It’s number 127.”
There were 3 example illustrations to a page. On the left were iterations of stylized script: an old woman’s looping cursive, angry, jagged 80’s album characters, and ballooned graffiti style lettering. On the right were illustrations of nature juxtaposed with machines. The natural aspects were emphasized with neon-like shininess and pop, while the metal was shaded in fading rustic hues. 126 was a gearbox with dandelions and sprouting from the top. The white of the dandelions reminded Margaret more of lightbulbs than flowers. 128 featured an eerie elk cyborg. It looked at Margaret, its metal skull partly visible, silver plates bolted onto its haunches, and its yellow-white body ready to charge like a lightning bolt.
Between them, an evergreen tree glowed neon green. It grew from the wreckage of a soft brown-white, 4-prop plane. The tree’s curtain of needles crowned its upper half, while branches twisted out from the metal frame. Part of the plane’s nose was buried, and roots extended down the picture’s frame. A separated wing hung suspended by the clawing canopy. Margaret did not get why her sister wanted this specifically, but nodded reactively. “It’s nice…” Her voice trailed. Despite her best intentions, she could not disguise her confusion.
“It’s not um, like anything you’ve gotten before.”
“Yep. If I’m going to be stuck as a lava monster, I’d rather not be reminded about what I don’t have. Time to move on from the gravestones and flowers.”
Olivia dryly chuckled. “It’s not like that, okay? I want to try something new. Might as well, anyway.” She paused, then turned to the elf.
“I can’t say I’ve ever had any chiseling done miss. Our last two semi-solid customers say Gregory’s got a good hand, but I can’t speak to it personally.”
“Pain’s been pretty rare for me. I-” Liv’s eyes matched the turning pages searching for the precise vocabulary. “Can’t even stub my toe.”
“I wouldn’t be terribly nervous. My boss is-”
A long haired, young man crept out from around the door behind the elf. Margaret hesitated to call him human though. His eyes shined with a fierce golden light and his alabaster skin was unsettling in its faultlessness. Yet, she couldn’t help but match his gaze. “Turn down the glam Gregory,” the elf distracted Margaret with a wave of her hand and broke her trance. “Sis is human.”
Gregory reached under the counter and opened a soft glasses case. Inside were a pair of sunglasses. “Pardon.”
The lightheadedness faded when Gregory put his plastic sunglasses on, then breath found its way back into her throat. Margaret reassessed herself and the man. His marble-like skin was decorated with pointed geometric shapes of various shadings of black. Individually, they resembled Tetris pieces or circuits, but altogether formed an incongruous lattice that contrasted with his flawless skin. Margaret’s eyes were diverted by their random complexity rather than mesmerized by the Mythfolk’s supernatural glamor. The rest of the tattoo artist was equally artificial: bleached hair with faded streaks of barnhouse red, a half dozen, black piercings through his right ear, and matching black lipstick.
Behind him ducked below the already tall door frame followed a Red Dragon. She towered over everyone present. Her two narrow horns jutting from her forehead like a bowing V avoided scraping the ceiling of the lobby by less than an inch. On her left arm was a tapestry delicately cut into her scales. A fanged maw of a dragon’s head for a crest sat at the top and rows of little medieval knights clashed below. There was an immense amount of detail on even one of the little warring men: dented armor, a coat of arms on his shield, and the links on a flail’s chain were all lovingly rendered in silvers and blues.
“Same deal as always, Tabi.”
“See ya ’round Gregory,” the dragon woman added with a nod to the elf. “Elise.”
The dragon Myth without further comment and vanished out to the cold.
“Wow, I liked her ink… er, was that even ink?” Liv stated.
Gregory’s genial smile was disarming to an alarming degree. “No. Dragon scales are tougher than diamond. I use acid and pigments for color, and wood varnish to get the design to stick. Took a while to get the right mixture, but she’s been a customer for a fair while. ’29, I think.”
The sisters shared a wary understanding. “You’ve been open that long?” Margaret asked.
“War ended in ’24, moved to Earth in ’25, and… yes, I opened then.”
“You don’t look a day over sixty,” Elise sniped. “Geezer.”
Gregory chuckled off the accusation. “Anyway, we should get started. Olivia?”
“Liv is fine, and my sister is good to watch?”
“Not a problem. Come on in.”
The room was more akin to a tool shed than the inside of a tattooist’s parlor; a half dozen power tools hung from a waist high table, dozens more shining drill bits and files meticulously set in a display over a sizable bed, and wheeled in from a corner was a green tank labeled Nitrogen and a hose connected to a narrow spray head. Gregory dragged a metal folding chair and forced it open. Margaret guessed it was older than her, but did not refuse the offer. She set herself up against a wall behind Gregory’s left shoulder.
“Did you decide on what you want?” His fingers stretched in and out as he spoke.
“I like 127, the tree-plane one. On my upper chest here,” Liv pointed where lava met her granite torso near where a human heart might be.
“Ah, that is one of Elise’s originals. No problem, no problem.” He grabbed a heavy looking vest, an apron, and a pair of vice grips from his menacing collection. “Let’s get you solid first.”
“Well, first of firsts, take a seat and face me. We use a bit of liquid nitrogen to solidify where I’ll work. It’ll sting.”
Liv shrugged. The impressive seat-bed did not flinch under her molten mass. Gregory tested his nitrogen with a spritz. It whined and emitted a trickle of cold smoke. Satisfied with his tool, he reached to grab Liv’s arm. Her whole body pulled away.
“Watch it!” A whistling, scalding hiss warded away the hand. “You’ll burn!”
Gregory did not flinch. “Trust me, Ms. Olivia.”
Nozzle to the back of Gregory’s hand, he gave the trigger a squeeze. Liv, to her credit, was aghast. She recoiled like a landslide. Margaret fared better and hid her open shock under her hand. The scalding cold gas passed over him without effect.
“I’ve got some pretty thick skin. Don’t worry about me.”
Satisfied or not, Olivia crept back to the edge of the seat and allowed him to touch her. Margaret could see her sister’s shock when he did, the first time she touched another living being since her therapy sessions. Her sunken eyes glowed bright orange.
The nozzle sprayed a concentrated mist left of her chest, above her stone bust and under her magmatic left shoulder. The contact produced a crackling, sparking clacking like a distant train rumbling along the tracks. Liv remained motionless, but spoke up.
“Ah, that’s funny… ah, shit it’s like pins and needles.”
Gregory cracked a small smile at her reaction. “So you’ve had tattoos before?”
“Yes… a few.”
Margaret glared incredulous over the artist’s shoulder.
“Okay, fine, I’m an addict. Happy Maggie?”
“I got my old stuff done at Pin-Up, but it’s been like a year and a half since my last color.”
“I was eavesdropping before.” He steadily waved the nozzle back and forth, and with each pass the molten glow dimmed. Practiced and efficient, he cooled the stone row by row. “I’ve known Gloria for some time. Lovely girl, good eye for talent. She sends her folks here sometimes for a more-” he dryly chuckled “inclusive education.”
A thin layer of cooled, greenish black stone formed over the seething lava, first as pebbles percolating up like goosebumps, then expanding into each other. Both sisters were at rapt attention by the slow process of chilling a shell of stone over roiling magma. Gregory expanded the area to Liv’s shoulder, then under a portion of her neck. Once the layer was finished, he took a step back.
“How do you feel?”
“Weird. Very weird. I can’t really move it.”
“That’s normal,” he said before sipping at a steaming glass of water. “I’ll have to add another layer over it. Your mineral make up is pretty soft.”
“And that’s… bad?” A worried Olivia asked.
“No, no, more… inconvenient. Nothing to worry about. Just need you to relax.”
Twisting in her seat, Liv deflated and stretched. The mass of her lower body extended out like melting cheese. Her goopy arm reached out. A faint yawn whistled from her. The greenish stone on her body did not move
“You aren’t relaxing.” Gregory set his tool aside.
“Yes, I am.”
“Try unclenching your fist.”
There was a pop as Liv unfurled her few fingers, then realized she was not as she claimed. “Hah… guess I’m not.” She rolled each of her three fingers beside her. Margaret could hear the tension and steam escaping the cooled part of her sister.
“Much better.” He grasped the gun again. “If there’s any heat where we don’t want it, then we could run into some issues.”
“Like what?” Olivia asked.
“A pressure build up. Steam looks to escape. As soon as you move it, Bang!” He pointed to the vaulted wood ceiling. “You might put a hole in the ceiling.”
Gregory repeated his process over the partly cooled, greenish-black surface. In all, he spent twenty minutes adding on to the base layer. Margaret watched as her sister’s tapping fingers from time to time. The warning might have bothered Liv, but Gregory never asked for her to relax again. When he finished, he set the nozzle back onto its place with a click.
“Alright, smoothing it out. Mind laying back Olivia?”
She turned in her seat and sloshed back against the steel bed. Margaret noticed small, golden sparks flying off the bed-chair. It must be the same sort of enchantment that protected the rest of the shop, and maybe Gregory as well. It was her turn to relax. Her sister appeared calm. Yet, Margaret felt out of place in her too large space with its seat suited more for a person twice her size and four times her weight.
The next tool was an industrial saw whose hood read Be Not Afraid in twisty, fancy cursive. The thing had to weigh a ton, but Gregory handled it like it was a child’s toy. He dialed in a blunt-looking blade, plugged it in, and gave it a whirl. It shrieked like a bare-bones brake pad to start and filled the parlor with a dull roar.
“That sounds terrifying.” Olivia shouted.
“Nothing to worry about,” he flatly reassured. His focus was solely on the blade’s whirring. “Just don’t look.”
Margaret stood up. Her sister did cast a glance at the machine and its furious spinning. Inside, she was Liv the human, and all the electric impulses that entailed. Long dormant survival instincts dulled by her transformation and depression compelled her to react. Margaret jumped out of her chair to meet her sister, but suddenly stopped. Within the breadth of seconds, an angelic, white feathered wing interceded and shielded her as gobs of molten rock slammed into Gregory.
The man winced and inched back. He had protected his equipment, but ate a face full of molten rock and his arms were colored with angry, red bullets. Whatever he said was inaudible under the mask of lava, but Olivia escaped off the table. Well, melted, and hid opposite of the other two.
“I’m sorry!” She repeated over and over.
“I think he’s fine,” Margaret said. She was unsure where to speak, and hesitant to expose herself. He flashed a thumbs up to confirm her assumption. Liv was freaked out. There was no telling how she would react. “Liv… it’s fine, really. You need to calm down.”
“I can’t control it Maggie. I’m a mess.”
She peered around the tip of the wing. Her sister was barely holding onto the table with her solid arm. “Olivia, you’re alright.” She wanted to comfort her, to touch her, but even this close warmed her arms like it was a bright day.
“I’m a damn mess!”
A voice as sharp as a train whistle fired off half-swears in a violent, incomprehensible cascade. The harsh smell of molten rock, of rolling sulfur and metallic tang, clung to the back of Margaret’s throat. Liv’s elbow sunk onto the table and she scrapped her face.
“God damn it.”
Gravelly and grumbling, she relented. She hefted herself back on the worktable-bed-chair.
“Need a hand?” She offered to Gregory. He mumbled a brief reprise, clutched the rapidly cooling stone with his free hand, and a shimmer of golden light evaporated the lava mask into a neatly suspended cloud in his palm. He tossed the hazardous cloud of particulates into the trash like it were an empty bag of Doritos.
“Better,” his clarion voice chimed while adjusting his intact sunglasses. “No harm, no foul. The taste of ash never gets any better, but eh.”
Olivia apologized again before settling back into her seat. Margaret sat down too even as her heart pounded in her chest. Her foot nervously bounced on the floor until Margaret consciously stifled it by crossing the other leg.
“What are you doing now?” Margaret asked. The brief silence before the whirring began again bothered her.
“The last first part,” he sagely nodded. “I make the cool area nice and smooth so I can sculpt the design into it.”
The man wasted no time sanding down Margaret’s sister. Olivia resisted flinching, but judging by her stillness when the blade head made contact, it was no where near as bad as either sister anticipated. Where it touched, the green black skin shined like polished glass. Like with the lava, Gregory captured the particles in mid air above his palm to discard. Another twenty minutes flew by without event.
“Okay, this part is going to be the longest. Design time.” Gregory tapped a semi-lucid Olivia’s shoulder. She glanced up to him. “127, eh?”
“Yeah. It was love at first sight. Did you have colors in mind?”
“Oh, um… the color comes from these.” Using his foot, their attention was directed to a small metal pail filled with iron scraps. The reddish, rusted collection of bent hinges, maligned padlocks, and discarded fence ornaments invited Margaret to speculate how fast she would develop tetanus should she cut herself.
“We melt these down with some choice sand and I can make any color I need. After I cut away the design, it is only a matter of patience getting the iron to adhere.”
“Wild,” Liv offered. “I didn’t know you could get colors that way.”
“Yup, and I can give you some direction how to change the color yourself if you’d like.”
“Uh huh, that sounds… good…”
Armed with only a hammer and chisel, Gregory began chipping away. “I’ll cut away an outline, then work on definition. The cockpit has a lot of detail, but the rest is simple enough.” Tink. Tink. Tink. He started with the tree trunk, just above where it dominated the plane’s tail, but soon tapped away visible ripples in the bark. “Here we connect the two, but I’ll add more as we go. First, the outline.”
He worked on the suspended wing next, then the body of the plane. Both watched his masterful talents cut just the perfect amount away of the green-black stone skin to give the piece shape and depth. The hammer’s tap-tap-tapping reminded Margaret of a heavy knocking on a solid glass pane. Fragments of obsidian clattered to the ground and around Gregory’s feet. He only paused to sweep the gathered chips into a dustpan in the floor.
“How are you feeling?” Gregory asked as the outline of the plane came into being. His hands were steady even when he spoke.
“O-okay.” The question broke her concentration. “Lighter, I guess.”
“Not for long…” His voice carried as the chisel head curved around. “Iron fillings will take some getting used to.”
“I guess that makes sense.” She peered down to the bucket. Margaret could sense an air of apprehension. “Wait.”
Gregory paused his chiseling.
“I’m going to melt them?”
“Is that an issue?” Gregory’s saintly expression may as well have been a blank wall.
Olivia pondered on the question for a few seconds. “It’s just hard to imagine… right?” The words flew around the tattooist to her sister.
To her credit, Margaret didn’t blurt out the obvious answer, but her expression was harder to hide. Her jaw locked tight in a pained, feigned smile, and for a second her eyes went wide. “Yeah, I mean…” Margaret reached for whatever small kindness she could conjure. The pool was exceptionally shallow. “You were never good with a stove.”
“I- what? No, no,” Liv, confused, shook her head. “You could be honest with me Maggie. Yeah, the buzzsaw scared me but-” The Mythfolk sister struggled to believe herself. Two meltdowns within a few hours did not instill confidence in either. Awkwardness hung over Gregory, though the flawless man pretended not to notice.
“It’s like walking on eggshells,” Margaret twisted in her seat. Perhaps she could hide behind the artist. “I dance around it. I try, I do. I worry.””
“You pity me.” Liv’s statement was equal parts realization and response.
“Of course! You mope around all day watching the View and Dr. Phillis and your shouty online shows. I can’t deny reality though. Someone has to pay for the house, the taxes, the utilities…” Margaret pinched the bridge of her nose. There were better times to hash out her frustrations, and better ways to do so. She exhaled. Be honest. Be fair. “You can melt those metal things, easily Liv.”
“Ah, um, yeah,” she mumbled. There was an unspoken accusation laced in her sister’s words and an affirmation of Olivia’s long held suspicion.
“I’m not mad,” Margaret added. The matter-of-fact, sharply stated tone in which she spoke betrayed some lingering emotion.
“You don’t say ‘I’m not mad’ unless you’re actually mad.” Liv pointed at her sister with her free hand. “If you got something to say to me, now’s the time to say it.”
“Is it?” Margaret’s eyes darted to Gregory, perfect, hardly oblivious, Gregory. He was sharpening his chisel with a whetstone while humming an upbeat tune.
“Absolutely. There’s no better time than the present.”
“No,” Magaret crossed her arms and fell back into her seat. “It’s not important.”
“It clearly is. You have my full attention Maggie. Spill it.”
A few interminable seconds passed, but Liv showed no signs of backing down. Magaret scowled now. Her heel bounced a few times off the parlor floor. “And what? Have you fall apart again? I’m not going to scoop you off the floor.”
“I’ll be fine.” Liv flexed her solid hand as though to prove her point.
“As if.” Margaret bristled. She tagged along to support her sister, not to be interrogated by her. Margaret was here for her. There had to be some way to dissuade her sister from continuing her inane poking. “We can talk about it over dinner-”
“Now, Maggie.” Olivia’s stone pupils narrowed on her sister. “God, you can be so stubborn. Just like mom.”
The stab hit some raw nerve, and in turn Margaret conjured all the venom she could muster. “It bums me out. How about that? I don’t like thinking about my sad sister in the basement, or how she’s changed, or how you won’t even go to the group meetings. You just waste away down there. What happened to art school? Getting a job? I just- god damn it now you got me going.”
Still seething, Margaret got up and walked out. She needed to cool off. Liv didn’t say anything as the parlor door swung close behind Margaret. The elf at the desk only glanced up to see her red face as she stormed out. The heavy door gave her a brief pause, but it yielded rather than contest the human’s passage. Bitter cold washed over her again. The zip of passing traffic echoed on the main street. Her fingers curled closed and the thumping in her chest threatened to escape her throat. Margaret was awash with sensation she only wanted distance from.
Worse, she regretted everything she said. She should have been more honest to begin with, and yeah, she did pity her sister for the sad state she was in. Who Olivia was did not change when she became a Mythfolk. In fact, her tangle of guilt and regrets stuck like barbs around her heart. Margaret quietly lamented not saying as much. She put her head on the cold plastic of her truck’s bed. Deep breath. Deep breath. She checked her phone. Three-thirty. It will be getting dark soon. Unsure of how long a tattoo took, she worried she initially overscheduled. That elf kept an open day, and Margaret was only on the hook for the hours they were in the session. Margaret had nothing to worry about, and lingered long enough for her nose to lose feeling. By then, her head cooled off and she returned to the Black Parlor.
“Feeling better?” The silver-white haired elf said with a curt wave.
“No, but I’ll live.” The tapping of the hammer and chisel sounded through the door.
“Knock first before ya head back in.”
Margaret did so.
“Just a moment,” Gregory said between his work. Golden light flooded under the doorway. “You’re good.”
To her surprise, Liv buried her molten hand into the bucket of scrap and sand while sitting back in the elevated chair. A single eye watched her sister as she took her seat back and got close to approaching a comfortable state. Margaret was over their argument and Liv was busy stirring the admixture. The rusted material heated up and took on an angry, orange hue. The pieces lost definition until the material became a slurry of silica and molten iron. Gregory peered into the bucket on occasion. The first few checks he simply asked Liv to increase the temperature. When he finished chiseling, he checked the bucket again. The material resembled the consistency of the world’s hottest microwavable macaroni.
“It’s looking good. Try and keep it like that,” he said. “This part won’t take long.”
He grabbed another tool from his implements: a metal tong like one you might use to stoke a campfire. Its head was curved like a shepherd’s crook and its handle protected by black, heat resistant rubber. He dunked it in the metal slurry and slowly rolled it inside.
“The next step is getting the color on. Applying the stuff is easy.”
To demonstrate, Gregory removed the metal tong and the gathered material at its head and then applied the gooey stuff to the outline he made. He pressed the curved end down on Liv’s arm and dragged it along the chiseled edges. It created a trail of red leftovers. The segments reminded Margaret of lines of red ants marching along her sister’s arm. Gregory applied more force, and more of the metal lingered. Where he lightened his grip, it thinned to a string’s width. He covered every detail in orange.
“So… now it cools. Once that happens, I can tell exactly how much iron and sand we need to get the precise color.”
Liv set the bucket aside and crossed her free arm over her waist. She admired what shapes she could see. “It looks incredible,” she gawked. Margaret was impressed as well. It was a perfect copy of the original design that stretched from the center of her sister’s bust, under her left arm, and the broken top of the tree touching the solid parts of her collar.
“Yep, and I’ll give you a chart to affect the colors if you want to change them. Get weird with it when you want.”
“I like it l, and thanks. You should take a pic Maggie!”
Margaret’s tension melted under her sister’s genuine warmth; Liv wore a smile unlike any since her change. Happy sparks danced from her open smile. Margaret fished in her pocket and prepared a shot. She angled for just the image and her sister’s face. “Say Cheese Liv.”
* * * * * *
Patti helped Margaret out of her ‘09 Impala, despite Margaret’s insistence otherwise. She sobered up more in the car, well, after painting Cedar Avenue in panopoly of colored vomit and drinking a near-frozen bottle of water her hawk-harpy friend offered her. Margaret could at least stand on her own. Yet, she took the brown feathered arm of her friend and eased herself onto her feet. The spinning that plagued her earlier was a mild discomfort now. The taste in her mouth could be better too. She unthinkingly spit into the wind and hit her shoe.
“Wow, talk about unlucky,” Patti chirped. “You should get inside.”
Irritation slid like water down her warm stupor. She turned to wave off her friend. “Thanks for the ride. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Patti kept just behind Margaret like a hen after a chick. “No you won’t. It’s Sunday tomorrow.”
“Right, right… I totally forgot.”
“Here, let me get your door.” Lacking hands, Patti used her talons to reach for the knob.
“No wait, it’s locked-”
It opened with a skillful twist. A wall of heated air greeted them. Her harpy friend extended her wings to capture as much of the escaping flow as she could. “Ah! That’s great.”
“My sister must be up.”
Patti helped her over the four steps and to the threshold of her home, then spun in place. “Have a nice night Maggie! Olivia!”
“Night Patti! Thanks for getting my sister home,” Liv whistled from the living room.
The elder sister shuffled inside and closed the door behind her. She could peek in the around the corner before her sister saw her; Olivia was in a tub of ceramics and steel. Her arms were perched behind her, relaxed, and her liquified body stewed in the container. It was strange seeing her sister lounging about the first floor. Margaret worried about spooking her. She kicked off her flat heels and deposited her phone in the glass bowl as quietly as she could manage with a pleasant, drunken haze.
“Hey kid,” Liv offered as Margaret shuffled by. “Siri, volume two.” The television’s noise became far more tolerable. “Have fun?”
“Yeah, yeah… it was a lot.”
The pop-up bar was more exhausting than she anticipated: the hatted hostess was part drill instructor and part mad woman. Twenty people to a table all scrambled at her command to find new seating lest they be called on to join the ongoing karaoke. It helped that Margaret’s different drink orders appeared magically in front of her seat with each change. Her favorite was the Dormouse Doze, an Amaretto based drink with a tinge of sweetness, though the exact number she had was lost in the Mad Hatter’s frantic stumble shuffle.
“Uh huh. I got my emergency pretzels. Sourdough. Delicious.”
The sourdough pretzel was the perfect complement to any alcoholic drink, or so Margaret thought. Fumbling through her snack cabinet, she pushed aside veggie chips to reach her prize. She unclipped the bag and removed a handful of broken pieces. The salty snacks helped with the feeling of nausea creeping up her throat. A hard crunch distracted her from her dizziness.
“Want one?” she offered her molten sister.
“Toss it,” Liv offered with a ready hand. Margaret lobbed a curvy corner piece like a softball. It went left of her intended throw. Olivia’s arm stretched and caught the piece before it hit the floor. It began burning, then disappeared in a puff of smoke when Olivia bit into it. “Eh, not the same crunch I remember,” she chuckled before sloshing back and reclining again. “Bummer. I guess I’ll have to snack on diamonds next time.”
“Only if you’re paying for them.”
“Right… right…” Liv shrunk back into her tub. “I do need a job huh?”
“Not really. I don’t pay heating or electricity with you here and…”
“So I should ask for an allowance?”
“I mean,” Margaret was not feeling herself at the moment. The loose, thoughtless words slurred freely from her mouth. She sunk into her own seat at the counter. “You could?”
Liv whistled a faint laugh. It surprised Margaret. Though she did not mean harm by it, Margaret assumed Liv would take it wrong way. “
“I was thinking about what you said actually. Getting back to school, I mean. Seeing Gregory work was… inspiring. I’d feel better about it if I had my own money to help pay for more stuff from him.”
“That’s great Liv!” Margaret blurted out. “If I was less sober, I’d give you a hug.”
Liv glowed a shade brighter and ambient heat distorted the surrounding air. “It’s no big deal.” Waving off Margaret’s affection, Liv continued. “Also, I wanted to apologize.”
“I guess, like, two things really.” Steam escaped with Olivia’s sigh. “I didn’t realize you were that worried about me. I-” Olivia’s eyes scanned the middle distance for a proper answer. Margaret patiently waited with an arm on the cool countertop. “…you never asked anything of me, really, and I brought up something I shouldn’t have.”
“Well…” Margaret knew what she needed to say, but lingered on how to phrase it. She gnawed on a sourdough knob as the words fell into place. “I’m over it. Bygones be bygones.” A lazy smile crossed her lips. “Besides, you can make it up to me.”
Liv sunk a little. “What do you have in mind?”
“You can tell me what you like about your tattoo so much. I’ve been trying to figure it out.”
“Oh it’s- hmm…”
The bright, eye catching color of the new tattoo contrasted with the near-total black of her obsidian body. The neon green tree damaged in the plane crash stretched its branches over the broken body like an umbrella, while the silvery, shattered frame of the plane peeked out over the lip of the tub. Liv touched where the tree suspended the wing of the plane as she contemplated her decision. The metal was harder than her stone body and she did not have to worry about scratching it. She traced the broken wing up with her right hand, then brushed the top of the tree on her neck.
“I love it, really. It’s got a cool look. The wing hanging here is sweet. The colors are so bright. I didn’t think I could get color like this again…” Liv trailed off as she admired her iron ink.
Unsatisfied with her answer, Margaret pressed a little. “Nothing more serious?”
The tub shifted with Liv as she moved forward. “Throw me another pretzel.”
Margaret did so. Liv caught the piece handily and promptly burned it in her mouth.
“I guess… well it’s a little silly. When I saw it I-” Olivia huffed. The heatwave covered Margaret’s face. “Don’t laugh, okay?”
“You’re being hard on yourself.”
“Yeah, well,” her sister shrugged, “I really liked how the tree was growing up through the plane. I related a lot with it.”
“Growing? Huh. I thought the plane crashed into the tree.”
Liv glanced down at the tree, and Margaret did the same. Both briefly pondered the other’s observation. “If the tree was crashed into wouldn’t the branches be broken?”
“They’d grow back,” Margaret said before popping another piece of salty pretzel into her mouth. “Why’d you think it was growing?”
“The tree’s kinda bent through the cockpit, and the way the branches were poking through the windows.” She scratched her smooth chin. “Just like how I’m growing into this body.”
“I get that,” said Margaret. It was her turn to uncomfortably shift in her seat. Exhaustion was weighing heavier on her. She just wanted to crawl upstairs and fall asleep. Yet, she lingered. Not just on her seat, but on what her sister said earlier in the tattoo shop. She was pitying Liv, and how, even now, she couldn’t let that go. She even read that into her tattoo. Margaret grimaced. Her eyes followed the lines in the tile floor to the hallway.
The little voices from the television cohered around Margaret as she sat. They were angry and arguing. “What are you watching?”
“Eh, just a Twitch stream. They’re talking about Samael’s conviction.”
Talking did not quite describe what muted cacophony Margaret overheard. The voices spoke over each other in contentious tones, and the term “monster” was thrown around rather freely. Though far from rare in the common parlance, she would strain to find a news station on television using monster in regards to Mythfolk. The talking heads just out of sight were not so concerned. Margaret strained to understand more than a tone, a few pointed insults thrown between broadcasters, and Samael’s name.
It was grating and concerning, but she resisted her first impulse: Liv, you shouldn’t be watching that. Her hand clenched hard around the thought, and with a patient breath, she cast it away. She needed a new tack, and a glass of water. Margaret poured herself a glass staring out the window. The drink eased the scratchy, stinging ache at the top of her throat. At the same time, she sorted out her jumble of concern and condescension, then realized the solution to her problem.
“What are they saying?”
“Nothing too bad, I mean.” Olivia waved her hand to ward off any untoward accusations. “There is one guy who gives me the creeps. He’s saying Samael’s attacks didn’t hurt anybody.”
“Sounds… not good then.”
“It’s just one guy they bring on ‘cuz he’s a freak. Dude likes to up the ante.”
“And what about everyone else?”
“Glossy, she’s an elf, says that 800 years is a good sentence, and that Heaven should pay back her victims. That won’t happen though. She’s a fallen angel and they washed their hands of all this. Pinky1 is a slime. She’s saying toss Samael into the sun, which,” Liv offered a shrug, “Yeah, def.”
“And there’s more?” Margaret’s curiosity got the better of her and she entered the living room. There were seven people, 4 Myths and 3 humans, in squares. Margaret clocked the slime and the elf, but she didn’t really watch streams or anything more complicated than animal videos. “I can’t keep up with any of this.”
Liv pointed to the bottom left. A bored looking Wolf Myth played with a Switch while the elf and the bearded guy argued. “June was caught in a Samael attack too,” she said before sinking down into her tub. “I talk to her sometimes.”
“Oh, so she’s your friend?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?” Liv sank until her lower, liquid body threatened to spill out of the tub. “We talked about our circumstances. What the changes were like. She- well, It’s her first debate. I’m supporting her.”
A mix of relief and guilt washed over Margaret, and more the former than the latter. Though she did not understand what Liv got out of the mess of a show she was watching, Margaret related to her sister. Her friends supported her after Liv’s transformation. They lent her money for the renovations the house needed, but before the FBNS’s checks came in. Just because Olivia didn’t get out of the house did not mean her friends were any less helpful to her.
“Okay, well I don’t get any of this, but I hope you have fun. I’m going to bed.”
Liv rose back up and stretched back. “Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow. Maybe we can get Dunes’ together?”
Margaret did not cry. She would cry when she got upstairs. She grabbed the doorframe on the way out, turned, and grinned. “For sure. I’ll see you bright and early.”