‘Scaled Soul’, Rhianwen Phillips

Illustrations © 2020 Toeken

 [ pulses of pain, © 2020 Toeken ] Fog clouds my eyes even though the air is clear. Icy wind tears through my skin even though the night is warm. The ground beneath me spins even though the concrete is stable as can be. My heart though, my heart is just as damaged as it feels. It thuds in my chest in uneven bursts, pushing against bruised ribs (a shove that Alex swore wasn’t meant to hurt, a careless elbow while watching a movie, a crushing hug that should have felt safe) and sending pulses of pain through my chest.

I can’t do anything other than try to keep going, trying to outpace my thoughts. Everything that was at Alex’s apartment can be replaced, and I know I shouldn’t go back there. It doesn’t matter that half of me wants to turn around right now and say that I didn’t mean it. It doesn’t matter that I feel like something vital has been carved out of my heart. It doesn’t.

One foot in front of the other, keep going, don’t think about the good times. Focus on the little things, like the leaves under my feet and the sound of footsteps.


When a hand clamps down on my shoulder I almost think that it’s Alex, come to drag me back home. My eyes land on a rough hand covered in calluses and quickly discard the thought. The rest of my body doesn’t get the message and locks up, holding me still while the man behind me hisses, “Wallet, now.”

I wish I could move, lash out, do anything at all, but my limbs refuse to move. Anger coils through me like a snake, demanding that I do something, but I can’t even muster up a twitch. The snake has nowhere to go, trapped and writhing as I stand as still and fragile as a spire of ice. If I could move just a bit, anything to break the stasis, then maybe the snake would settle.

I can’t move though, and the man behind me growls as he barks, “Wallet, now! Don’t make me hurt you!” I can’t stop a laugh from pushing through my throat and breaking out of my mouth at that. It’s more hysterical than actual amusement, but apparently the man can’t tell.

“That’s it!” The man spins me around and throws me to the ground, cracking my head against the concrete. My vision blurs even more, keeping me from seeing the man’s face. Instead, I see Alex, hovering over me after I’ve tripped (again, even though the bruises from last time are still fresh). A foot knocks into my side and finally forces me to move, even if it’s just to curl up around the ache. “Hmph, pathe—Wait, what?”

I want to look and see what’s caused my attacker’s surprise, but my body once more refuses to move. The snake roars against my rib cage, twisting and hissing as I shake. The dull roar that started back at Alex’s apartment finally starts to drown out all other sounds, even the man’s cry as something knocks him away from me.

The roar and the snake fight each other, both of them trying to take over, and my body shakes with the strain of containing them. It feels like I’m coming apart at the seams.

I don’t know how long it takes me to snap out of it. It could have been hours, it could have been seconds, but however long it was is enough for my bruises to stop stinging so badly.

As I start to uncurl the world around me fades back into view. Red hits my eyes first, sliding across my arm and onto the ground. Gray comes next, both the cold gray of the sidewalk and the once-warm face of the man who mugged me.

I probably should be worried about that. Whoever killed him probably won’t mind if something happens to me. All of this “probably” means jackshit if I can’t even muster up the energy to roll over though.

One try, two tries, and I finally manage to roll onto my back. For a moment I think my eyes still aren’t working right, because there’s no way that the hazy shape hanging over me is truly as grotesque as it seems.

The shape moves, slit eyes slowly blinking, and heavy head cocking.

If the roar had fully taken over I could have screamed loud enough to draw help. If the snake had taken over fully I could have lashed out.

Neither of them can wrest control from the other.

Instead I lay silent on the pavement, waiting for whatever is hovering above me to cut me to match the mugger. The creature reaches out with a claw, tracing my lips with one sharp tip. In a moment the snake lashes out, sending my hand up and knocking the claw away. The creature rears back, its head tilting even farther as it blinks.

It’s as if a switch has been flipped inside of me. The snake sends life back into my legs, and I scramble backward, pushing myself away. My throat is still frozen, my arms still heavy, but I’m moving again and the snake is hissing in triumph. The creature starts to crawl toward me, one step bringing it back over me. The snake lashes out with my legs. The roar keeps them from connecting with anything that might anger the creature too much. My feet knock against a hard shell and glance off. The creature takes another step and bends down its head.

“Little woman, have you finally decided to fight back? For a moment I believed you had given up.”

The creature’s voice (if that is what the noise echoing around my head is) sounds old, with a leathery edge that wraps around me and dampens the roar in my ears. The snake curls up and around my spine and sends me wriggling back.

“Yes, you still wish to live. Do not forget that again, little woman.”

Without another word the creature turns and stalks into the woods, leaving me alone with the man’s body. The snake finally settles low in my gut and the roar quiets. It still takes most of my strength to roll over and push myself to my feet. I leave the man there in the middle of the sidewalk and stumble towards what I hope is home.

 [ eye, © 2020 Toeken ] The next few weeks pass in a blur. A few days later the radio spits out a report about how the police are still accepting tips about whoever murdered a man in the park. After that, I drive in silence. The days fall into a hazy pattern, wake up, get dressed, delete the messages Alex left overnight, get to my shift without crashing, go home, eat the bare minimum to stop my stomach from growling, shower if I remember to, slide into bed and hope for peace.

By the end of the month I’m at the end of my rope. Every time someone comes around the corner I flinch. Every time I hear footsteps behind me I freeze. Every voice sounds like Alex’s soft murmurs or the mugger’s demands.

Simply put, I’m about to snap.

When Paul gets frustrated enough to say that I shouldn’t be working I jump at the opportunity. I’m going to be missing out on pay, but Alex was always the one to insist we go out to nice places. Now that I’m alone I don’t go out much, so a week or so of missed work won’t make that much of a difference.

The first two days I don’t leave my apartment. I hide away from the world and the people in it, distracting myself from the noises outside with music and an endless stream of videos. About fifty videos deep I fall asleep on the keyboard, only to wake up to the dregs of some True Crime playlist. The narrator is droning on about a string of missing women that were found in bits and pieces, and something in me shatters.

The next thing I know I’m standing at the edge of the park. Out of the corner of my eye I can make out a faint stain that still hasn’t been scrubbed clean. The wind whips my hair around and stings my eyes, drowning out the roar that’s plagued me since Alex. The snake pushes at my legs, urging me forward.

The branches above me rustle, providing just enough noise to silence the roar, and I step on to the grass.

Almost instantly the world around me erupts into chaos. The wind howls, the trees shake, and the lights from the street flicker and go out. The snake writhes in joy, trampling the last remnants of the roar. The shadows wrap around me like old friends and hide me from anyone who might be watching. The rush of chaos and sheer power that surrounds me should probably terrify me, but after Alex and the mugger it just feels like freedom.

“You’ve come back, little woman.”

The words wrap around me as surely as the shadows do as the creature steps out from the trees. Its armored form circles around me, just as curious as the last time it saw me. “Have you come to plead for protection? For me to kill your troubles as I killed the man?”

It’s tempting, oh so tempting, to say yes. To beg for it to save me from the world. The snake climbs up my throat and says, “Just teach me how to fight, and I’ll figure out the rest.”

The world shakes with the creature’s glee. It dances around me, shrieking “Good, good! You have made a good choice, little woman! I cannot wait to see you grow!” The snake inside of me seems just as joyful, squirming and jostling my insides until there’s no room for the roar to come back. I wonder, was the creature once like me? Will there someday be people who swear that they saw a creature with scaly skin and a voice that promises freedom?

Ah, that’s a thought for another time. For now, I’m content to feed the snake living in my skin.

© 2020 Rhianwen Phillips

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