Nine red girls hang across from me, face to face to face, bold toxic majorettes, the fearless future mothers of fish-eyed babies, the children of the end of days. Each of them breathes with difficulty, remembering lungs their ancestors lost long ago and yearning for a thicker skin, an exoskeleton. Their heads hang limp on their shoulders, and they watch me through their dark eyelashes, their eyes the pale blue eyes of orphans. Their mouths hang half-open, speechless.

Up close, their breath smells of magnolias, thick and tinged with a rancid sweetness, and their teeth are lucent cherry pits. I reach out and touch one of them on the shoulder. She sways languidly on her hanger, something inside her rattling--seeds, I think.

"She's a very fine example, sir," says the man in the neat grey suit. He clasps his hands behind his back and surveys the girls with the eye of an expert. "Very fine."

She's mine to have, this girl, if I want her, the drooping, fragile curve of her breast under my hand, the soft empty space inside her. She is the new alchemy, the transmutation of substances. She is all this, but she does not know me, her eyes do not see. She did not pick me out across a crowded room.

I wonder what would happen if I took them all. I imagine them piled in my living room, crawling over each other like primordial beasts in their search for sustenance, their wet limbs sliding one between the other. They would take no notice; their eyes would only stare forward, their noses straining only towards the scent of food, and their breath would dribble slowly between their lax lips until one day, after many days, it stopped.

"None of these is what I'm looking for," I say.

"Perhaps--" begins the man in the grey suit, but I shake my head. "No, then. Of course." He sucks his lips back against his teeth, almost a smile, and leads me out of the locker.

As he slides the door shut, the light dwindles and the girls disappear against the darkness. He shows me out, and stands behind the glass storefront, watching, as I step onto the street.

Outside, ash is drifting down from the sky, and the clouds are the color of cold milk.

About the author:

Carlea Holl-Jensen is studying folklore at Indiana University. She was co-founder of Call & Response, and once received a prize.