The metal shriek of the train’s brakes reamed out my skull. I didn’t realize I was staggering backwards until I slammed squarely into the chest of a shocked bystander.
I jumped and turned, excused myself, and walked toward the exit. Then I ran, but only one step. Clinging desperately to such cool as I could keep, I walked the rest of the way to the escalator. Exit gates flashed through the intermittent gaps between people’s walking legs. It was a trap.
I paid my PASMO with a credit card. The exit gate would read it on the way out and know I had been there. It would know who I was. The two hard plastic wedges that politely give way for innocent travelers would crush me. The entry gate read my PASMO on the way in. The exit gates would be ready, waiting to strike. There had to be another way out.
I needed time to think—time and thoughts, neither of which I possessed in abundance. Over to the side of the atrium, I camouflaged myself by staring at a system map. That bought me time but not much. People would ask if I needed directions. They would ask why I killed that woman. I needed to be alone.
My PASMO would betray me to the gates. It already had. It was too late. They knew I was in the subway, and they were guarding all the exits, waiting. The public bathroom’s walls and ceiling closed in around me, squeezing like the too-tight tie of my obi around my waist.
The girl was right. My kimono was lovely. It was Kosei’s favorite, black silk, soft lining. Flames, which I never cared for, licked up from its hems, but they morphed into a mix of petals and butterflies, flying into a black sky. My obi accented the flames’ colors. It bore the subtle texture of a dragon’s skin, coiled around my waist. I had it in a drum knot that day, but there were painted accents on it so if I tied it dangling, the ends would appear to be the dragon’s head and tail.
I rose and shook my hands, pruned from being held so long under the running water. The dragon stirred. I froze, but too late. It was awake, shifting in the light, too tight and too wide.
The dragon’s coils expanded, deviating from their neat, overlapping paths. It slithered around me, deftly reaching out to encompass my arms in its turns. It crawled down around my hips, frightening away the butterflies, diving between my legs to coil around one thigh then the other. The dragon had me, but it toyed with me. The gates would have killed quickly. As it undulated around my form in a single, sinuous arc of circumscription, it clung tight around me, not tight enough to crush my bones and suck the marrow, but tight enough to show me how it could.
It pressed hard and turned, forcing its way around and over my breasts, climbing up along my shoulder, down my back, and around. The dragon was strong as living steel. It snaked around me and defined the limits of my body, carefully propagating each curve down its length. Its slightest mistake could have torn me apart, forcing my flesh into an inhuman mold, squeezing me between its coils like dough through fingers.
The steady motion of its turns and counter-turns sheared my kimonos against my skin, burning them with friction, raising just enough smoke to imbalance the rising heat of the infinite sea of flame below me into a whirlwind, a sheath of fire whipping through that nonexistent space between the dragon and my skin. The maelstrom whirled, tight as the dragon but fast and angry. I threw my head back and coughed in the suffocating torrent of ashes and dust, a volcanic plume of butterflies, of flowers, of shredded silk, blowing high into the air.
The dragon’s head rose behind me, above my eyes. It flattened and widened like a hooded cobra. It swelled and ascended like a hot-air balloon. Its hungry eyes smoldered, and in a flash, its multi-forked tongue snapped down around me and blinked away, tasting my flesh. It licked again, its tongue descending around my head, enveloping my body as bonsai roots clutch a stone, branching into hairy tendrils to search every surface, looking for its meal.
The third time, it penetrated, measuring the rounds of my eyeballs and digging far enough under my toenails to taste the quick. My scream only gave it new entry, and it pushed aside my breath to lick the disused corners of my lungs. The tongue pressed both sides of my eardrums, filling my ear canals and yawning open my Eustachian tubes for its tiny tendrils to pass. It burrowed through the deepest recesses of my sinuses, prodding at the edges of my brain. It missed nothing, delicately attenuated enough to tickle my ovaries and so long and serpentine that two ends intertwined somewhere in my gut.
All those sensations slammed into my mind at once, bowling over all thought and scattering self-awareness like autumn leaves before a winter wind. The flash of its disappearance left my consciousness hollow, echoing with gentle resignation to the permanence of those sensations, deceived by their sudden absence. Into that absence, it licked and lingered for almost half a heartbeat, sliding over me before it was gone, testing every crevice, every pore, tasting and judging. It withdrew, filling the tracts of mind it had conquered with a twinge of shame for disappointing it.
The dragon’s face loomed over the earth like a thundercloud. It sent lightning, thick and dazzling, along every path its tongue had tested, snatching me up naked from a ruined world, from its preparatory coils, its whirlwind of fury. I slid along the peristaltic press of its throat, down into its belly. It devoured me. I belonged to the dragon. I was part of it. It was part of me.
I kicked and struggled in my acidic sack like a fetus unready to be born while my flesh melted away. I was not dead. I was no longer anything at all.
A mathematician by training and computer programmer by trade, J. Whitney Williams lives and works under the X in Texas, thinking too much and speaking too little.