My Wings Are Brittle, My Fangs Worn Smooth

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by Ryan McSwain, © 2019
Cover photo by Ann Froschauer licensed under CC BY 2.0

He raises a pale fist and knocks on the door.

A siren song drifts through the coffin wood. “Please, Mr. Rymer, come in.”

Frank considers making a show of it, but she’s surely seen it all before. He simply turns the brass knob—not iron, not steel, not silver—and enters her office. With all the hard angles and open space, the room might look ultramodern, except for the lack of natural light. A Bauhaus basement at ground level.

The woman, as striking as a widow tossing a rose, fills out her tailored suit but wears no dress shirt or brassiere under the jacket. She motions toward a Jacobsen chair, model 3107. It looks to be an original, and Frank Rymer should know. He has an eye for the finer things, and he loves wooden furniture with a history, provided it lacks sharp edges. One shouldn’t sacrifice taste for safety, or so he felt until recently.

As he takes his seat, she glides into her own and smooths her slacks. There is no desk between them, but she does not lean forward. Her posture radiates professionality, her predatory eyes catalog every detail of his appearance. His own attire is less formal: herringbone vest, charcoal shirt and chinos. His hair is styled but unkempt. His skin, more pale than even hers, contrasts with the shadows.

“How did you hear about our clinic?” she asks. “As you can imagine, our most satisfied customers are in no condition to make recommendations.”

“I stayed in one place long enough for my correspondence to catch up, including a letter from an old friend, Arnold Harman. Do you remember him?”

“Of course I remember Arnold. He spent quite a while here before deciding on a course of action.”

“Regrettably, despite his long deliberation, I failed to accept his invitation before he made use of your services. But he has done me a final good turn in bringing you to my attention.”

“And why might that be?”

“Because I’m tired, Miss . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“That’s because it has been intentionally obscured. But having made it this far, you deserve to know whom you’re addressing. I’m Carmilla Elms. But please, call me Cammy.”

“All right, Cammy, but you still have me at a disadvantage. You’ve had time to learn everything about me, but I hardly know anything about you and your clinic. If Arnold hadn’t let the location slip, I’d never have found it.”

Her eyes shine in the low light. “The Alba Wellness Clinic exists to serve people in your situation, but you understand the need for caution. Human society isn’t prepared for this discussion, and doubly so when it applies to our kind. As per design, we fly well under the radar.”

“And the few of us who are left might take issue with what you’re doing as well. I understand that, just as I understand your request not to hunt in the surrounding area. But please understand, I’m committed to utilizing your services.”

“We’re fully aware of your intentions,” she says. “You are welcome here. But are you sure this is what you want to do?” Frank laughs, and she asks, “What’s so amusing?”

“It’s strange to hear one of our kind seeking confirmation for the taking of a life. Especially considering your business here.”

“This is hardly a business. And it’s because of what we do here that confirmation is so important. Your life isn’t like that of a human, to be cast off on a whim. There are few of us left, especially those possessing your longevity.”

“It’s precisely because of my longevity that I’m sure of my wishes.”

“You’re sure there’s nothing you’d like to experience? Perhaps there’s a location you still haven’t visited. Or new advances in murder you’d like to explore. Maybe there’s still a novel you’d still like to read.”

“I’ve visited everywhere worth a stop, and I tire of my hands around a human heart. To my regret, I’ve even read the greatest novel ever written.”

“Oh? And what was that?”

“About eighty years ago, I stopped off in some Midwestern town for a snack. In a tottering house on the outskirts, I found a woman full of despair so visceral I could smell it from miles away. In a bottom drawer, in the back of a closet, I discovered her manuscript—as far as I know, the only one to her name. It took me to places I’d never dreamed of, and I felt emotions I’d long ago left in the grave.”

Now she leans forward; Frank has caught her interest. “Did you turn her?”

“By the time I’d found the pages, I’d already painted the walls with her. Unfortunate. But that was probably the only good book in her. I should know, having seen the rest of her stuffing.”

“Do you still have it? The manuscript, I mean. I’d very much enjoy reading it.”

“Wish I did. Not long after that, a mob found me. Pitchforks, torches, the whole works. Eight hundred years on this Earth, and I’d never seen such a thing. I was so amused, they nearly got hold of me. I escaped, but the book burned.” He stares through her, trying to recall what the woman looked like, but the image eludes him. “So how do you go about it? How do you humanely execute the inhuman?”

Her expression darkens. “I’d appreciate you not using that word. There’s no judgment here, only release. I’d think something that has survived as long as you would take a more enlightened view.”

Frank smiles. “Please don’t misunderstand me. I offer no justifications, and I expect none in return. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted, when I’ve wanted. No regrets. I just want to hear what my options are. It’s not like you sent me a brochure, now is it?”

“We’ve been in operation for over two hundred and thirty years. In that time, we’ve perfected every method of discorporation.”

“I don’t care what euphemism you use. I want to know, once you pull the switch, if I’ll stay dead. How do you do it?”

“Each client chooses for themselves. We discourage fire, because it’s inefficient and, by all evidence, quite unpleasant. The same goes for Holy Water and other religious talismans. As you well know, they are always unpleasant, but it requires a wellspring of faith to make them fatal. There’s no way to guarantee their effectiveness, but we will accommodate anyone and gather the necessary saints—provided our client agrees that no witnesses be allowed to survive.”

“Despite my cheery attitude, I’m not a religious man. Or a religious thing, if you prefer. What else do you have?”

“Most of us don’t know our own beliefs in our Achilles heels makes them dangerous. Since our clinic’s inception, we’ve used methods from every tradition. Running water. Steel nails in the forehead. We’ve allowed injections of tainted or dead blood. One of our most interesting clients hailed from Japan. Her request consisted of seven jujube seeds nailed into precise acupuncture points on her back. You must understand, we simply provide assistance. The client must take the final step. So we created a unique contraption for her, and with the pressing of a switch, she was no more.”

Carmilla Elms looks wistful, taking almost human pride in her past achievements. “You will probably be most interested in the basic three. Silver, stake, sunlight. These primary methods never fail. We can administer them painlessly; that is, if you’d prefer them painless. Not everyone does.”

“I choose? That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“What about payment?”

“There’s no cost to you. We have a healthy endowment. Most of us are volunteers, myself included.”

“Then what do you get out of it?”

“There’s no judgment here, but that doesn’t preclude penance.”

Frank considers asking what she means by this, but something in her eyes, the glint of her teeth, warns him. Instead, he says, “I’d rather not accept charity on my way out. I’m happy to pay my way. I’ve been somewhat negligent in recent years, but I still possess considerable holdings.”

“If you insist, my assistant will help you sort that out before you leave. She will make sure everything gets where you’d like it to go, including your ashes if any are left behind.”

“I hoped we could do this today. I’ve been looking forward to it.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Rymer, it’s our policy. You have to sleep on the decision. Come back before dawn tomorrow night, and we’ll honor your wishes then. If you don’t return, we wish you the best, and our doors are always open to you.”

“If that’s the way it has to be, I understand.”

“Have you decided which method best suits you?”

“I have.”

As he sleeps in his penthouse suite the next day, Frank Rymer dreams of his novelist, remembering not only her face but her name and her story, marking the last time she is thought of in this world. Upon awakening in the early evening, Frank stares at the moon, traces its craters with his unnatural eyes. He makes a final meal of his favorite vintage, Virgin ’71, a bottle saved for this occasion. To his knowledge, it is the last of the lot anywhere. He drains the bottle, just like the old days, and smashes it against the wall, showering the hotel room with tinkling, shining glass.

Carmilla meets him at the front doors of the clinic and hands him a robe, which he changes into on the spot, leaving his clothes where they lay. She escorts him to an elevator, which transports them both to a room on the roof. It looks like a greenhouse, but the glass is opaque.

“The windows remain tinted as their default state,” Carmilla explains. “When you apply electrical current, they become clear.” She hands him a small remote control. “When the light turns red, the sun has risen high enough. Just press the button when you’re ready.”

“Thank you, Carmilla.”

“Cammy,” she says. “If you change your mind, take the elevator back down.”

“Thank you, Cammy. That’s all I need.”

She surprises him with an embrace. They hold one another, their bodies lowering the temperature around them. Her hair smells of pressed flowers. Soon the elevator door closes upon her sharp smile, and he is alone.

Frank removes the robe and hangs it on a hook by the door. He stands at the center of the room, feels only the tingle of anticipation in his scalp. How long has it been since he’s felt such a thing? A century? Two?

The light turns red, and he hesitates. Although he doesn’t need the oxygen, he takes a deep breath, tasting the novelty of the morning air. The button clicks quietly, too faint for such a momentous occasion. But that’s fine. In his long experience, death often begins quietly.

The darkness fades like the smoke of a candle, and the world changes. Surrounded by light, there is no longer room for shadow, nowhere left to hide. Warmth fills him, and he realizes he hasn’t felt warm in centuries. It has been so long, he’s lost the memory of it, forgotten even that he’d forgotten.

The blisters begin on his skin, but soon his blood boils, his bones glow like uranium rods. His eyes melt and flow down his cheeks like candle wax. He opens his mouth, perhaps to scream, perhaps to laugh, but only smoke rises from his throat; smoke as black as tar, black as pitch, black as bone char in a bonfire.

His final thought is of Carmilla, and the gift she has given him, the gift to be no more. She may have been a demon once, but she is his angel. Carmilla. Cammy, he corrects himself, and he’s gone.

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