Liberty Street was a small development of thirty-two homes, the oldest of which was erected less than twenty years ago. The street had a shape similar to the angular number “two” displayed on digital clocks. My house stood close to its far end. I walked the street, smelling the coal smoke that for over a month now had been spewing out of stained, concrete chimneys, stinging nostrils like chlorinated water. Black particles of soot danced with crystals of ice, graying the white of snow wherever they settled, especially near the sidewalks. It was twilight.
Walking up the cement steps, I smelled the cozy familiarity of home that always hovered outside its front door, a mixture of ground coffee beans and fabric softener. I entered the small foyer crowded with shoes and squatted to untie my boots, which must have weighed a kilo each. Besides my own breathing and the quiet music in the kitchen coming from Mom’s radio, my ears detected two voices, both coming from my room. Never too fond of surprises that could compromise my privacy, I barged in. Two girls—one sitting on my spinning desk chair and the other cross-legged on the floor by her feet—went silent. Instinctively, I scanned the space for open drawers and objects that were out of place. Everything seemed to be as I left it, so my shoulders dropped a centimeter.
“Hi, Eve!” said the girl in the chair. Her name was Paula, and she was one year younger than me.
“Sorry . . . I completely forgot that you guys were coming,” I said, somewhat bummed that I wouldn’t be able to read more of the mysterious book that waited in my backpack.
“No worries,” Paula waved her hand. “We just got here. Your Mom let us in.”
“Hope you’re ready,” I said to Paula, dropping my backpack and my coat onto the floor and closing the door behind me.
“You bet she is ready!” said the second girl, one of my classmates. “She can’t turn away now, even though she’s about to undergo a bloody torture. Isn’t that right?” Her name was Marta and she never held back her opinions. In fact, she was known for her ability to be so direct, it hurt, which allowed her to avoid most confrontations due to intimidation, but at the same time made her the subject of much behind-the-back gossip by the girls who eschewed her intimidating presence.
“Is it going to hurt more than, you know, doing it the normal way?” Paula asked, her face turning pale.
“It may,” I shrugged, bending over my desk to open a drawer. “But that depends on you.”
Someone knocked on the door. I recognized Mom’s slim silhouette through the glass. The moment she entered, the faces of my guests transformed. Her serene smile always put people at ease.
“I made sandwiches. Are you girls hungry?” she asked. I looked at the plate filled with tiny sandwiches made with ham, cheese, and egg salad sprinkled with red paprika and chives, and thought of the stranger to whom I had given my lunch. Where was he now?
“That would be sa-weeeet!” Marta said, clapping her hands. She loved to eat and it showed in her distinctly plump figure.
After our impromptu supper, Mom delivered three cups of hot lemon tea and leftover pieces of cake from Rena’s birthday party, which had been two days ago, further delaying our procedure.
“Okay, ladies. Let’s get down to business. It’s getting late,” I declared, putting my plate on the edge of the desk and shaking the breadcrumbs from my lap. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and tie my hair back, and when I returned I pulled out a bag of white cotton balls from my desk drawer, along with a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a bundle of the thickest syringe needles I could lay my hands on.
“These must be fun to get,” Marta remarked.
“I get raised eyebrows from the pharmacist every time,” I muttered.
“She must think you are feeding a nasty habit. Careful, your parents might go through your room!”
I gave Marta a lopsided smile, “No one ever goes through my room.” I turned on my desk lamp and lit a small candle. “Why not make it a little ceremony?”
“Woo . . . mysterious,” Marta whispered, kneeling next to the desk, then looking at Paula “Hey, don’t panic, it’s not a big deal. I’ve got five in every ear!”
“My business survives, thanks to this girl,” I sent Marta an exaggerated smile.
“How many do you have, Eve?” Paula asked.
“Eight total,” I replied, brushing my finger across the tiny silver hoops in my right ear. “Five in this one and three in the other.”
Paula wanted her piercing to be at the tip of her left ear, just below the fold. That meant going through cartilage, which could be tough. I rubbed her skin with a cotton ball soaked with an ample dose of alcohol. I took the needle out of the plastic wrap and snapped it out of its little plastic shaft. Just then, his yellow eyes flashed before mine, throwing me off balance. I steadied myself by grabbing my desk.
“Are you okay?” both girls asked at once.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a little dizzy, sorry.” The stirring sensation returned and suddenly I got the urge to be alone. I felt him so close to me, his hot breath on the back of my neck.
“Are you sure you’re up for it?”
“Positive,” I said, brushing my thoughts aside and taking control of my mind with one deep inhale. “Let’s get this over with. I’m going to count to three and do it at three. Ready?”
“Yes. No! Wait,” she drew a breath. “Okay. Go.” Paula shut her eyes and lips, making small creases in the skin of her face.
“One. Two . . . ” I pushed in, never getting to three.
Two long tears streamed down Paula’s cheeks. I felt something inside of me implode, a new kind of awareness entering my body, like the cold blade of a sword. The needle was moving slowly, encountering much resistance as if the tissue was made out of wood. I stood there, bent over Paula’s ear, squeezing my legs and lips tight, trying to hold on. I’m waiting for you to open, to allow me to come through… I heard him and groaned before making it to the other side with one solid push.
Both of us were perspiring, our hearts pounding. Paula’s temple vein pulsated under her flushed skin, which was sparkling with a thin film of sweat. It was a breathless rush every time, but never quite like this. With the needle stuck in her throbbing ear, Paula sat up straight, her spine at once turning into a staff while I dropped lifelessly onto my mattress bed.
“Intense stuff!” Marta said. “I better open the window or else I’ll pass out from all this excitement.”
“Please do,” I murmured, pressing the heels of my palms to my eyes.
“How much longer?” Paula asked.
“We’re almost done,” I replied, knowing well that the real labor had just begun. The frosty air coming through the window helped clear my head. I searched for any lingering sensations inside my body, but only found his afterglow, an echo shimmering in the distance like rain.
I got up and tugged on the needle stuck in Paula’s ear. A drop of blood oozed out of the opening. “Let’s give you and your ear a little rest.” I reached for the tiny silver hoop earring that Paula had brought with her and swabbed it with alcohol-soaked cotton ball. My hands were trembling.
“So, what are you up to tonight?” Marta asked, scanning through my music library of close to two hundred audiotapes, most of which I had inherited from my cousin, who at the age of twenty-four deemed himself too old to still listen to Iron Maiden. “Usual assembly behind the theater?”
I nodded, and Marta suggested we walk there together, since she and Paula lived nearby. While I enjoyed my solitary walks, I didn’t mind having company at this late hour when the oak-lined avenue resembled a dark tunnel.
“Have you guys seen the new visitor in town?” I asked, and bit my tongue. It was too late now. The cat was out.
“Which one?” Marta asked, pulling out a Slayer tape before shoveling it right back in.
“The punky-looking guy with the blue mohawk,” I said, walking up to my desk to collect cotton balls stained with crimson droplets.
“No, I haven’t. But he sounds interesting. I like punky guys with mohawks.”
Paula broke out laughing and I picked up her earring to resume my labor.
“I need you to hold still so that I don’t make a second hole with the earring.”
“Sorry, I just imagined Ben getting jealous.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t that be something? I mean the guy always has the same expression on his face,” Marta laughed. “Look at me, I’m so calm, cool and collected,” she intoned in a low voice.
“Oh, shut up, you two! Ben and I are just friends. No one is getting jealous of anyone,” I said, gearing up to pull the needle out of Paula’s ear to insert the hoop.
“I think Ben might have a different opinion about that, but, oh well. How’s he doing by the way?” Marta asked, before moving over to scavenge through my bookshelf.
I didn’t answer, instead remembering why I usually eschewed the company of girls. They were nosy and talked too much.
“What’s this?” She forced out a book that was tucked between two larger tomes, its spine facing away from her. “Are you studying black magic?” she asked, the tone of her voice exposing enthusiasm and condemnation. My mind made a connection with the book that was still in my backpack. They seemed related, although the book Marta found contained forbidden knowledge shrouded in darkness. The one I had just found seemed to emanate light rather than absorb it.
“Sort of was reading it, but I stopped,” I mumbled, trying to control my mounting frustration. I wanted her to leave my room at this point. The wet ring slipped through my fingers and fell onto the carpet. I cursed under my breath.
“Does it have spells?” Paula perked up, forgetting about the hole in her ear.
“It’s full of them!” Marta answered for me. “Wow, this is great! Can you cast a spell on someone to make them fall for you?”
“I wouldn’t go there if I were you,” I said, disinfecting the earring again and forcing it into the hole in Paula’s ear.
I wanted to finish this job before Marta got her hands on other things she and the rest of my town shouldn’t know about. “You should check out the alternative medicine book instead.”
“I’d rather cast a spell than make herbal teas.”
“Eve is right, though. Doing that wouldn’t bring you true love,” Paula winced and hissed. “It’s like cheating.”
“Okay, fine. You want to know about alternative medicine? Take this: my aunt said that an acupuncturist told her to never pierce ears. The needle does something to the energies, messes them up or something.”
“Don’t listen to her,” I told Paula. “Just breathe. I need to focus now.”
This was by far the most difficult part of the procedure. Clenching my jaw, I pressed the sharp end of the earring into the hole, curved it slightly, withdrew the needle, and felt a small snap. The ring passed through. I breathed out a whole lungful of stale air.
“And I heard that you can wake people up from a coma if you insert the needle in the right spot in their ear,” Paula replied.
“Feeling more awake?” Marta said, and all three of us laughed.
“Better than after two hours of trying to sleep with my eyes open,” Paula said.
“I’m telling you, this girl is crazy,” Marta said, rolling her eyes at Paula. “Sleeping with her eyes open.”
“It’s technically called mediation. But back to the black magic book,” Paula said, “I once heard that just having such a thing nearby could attract bad spirits.”
“Heard that Marta? You should listen to Paula,” I said, cleaning her ear of bloodstains. “There, all set,” I proclaimed, putting a mirror in front of her face. “Marta, please put the book away.”
“Looks great,” Marta said, holding the book open on
her lap and watching Paula caress the ring with her trembling fingertip. “Okay, back to your little black book, where did you get it?” she asked, her attention back on the page in front of her. “Ben?”
“He gave it to me to get rid of it.” I said, which wasn’t entirely true. Ben warned me about this book when he showed it to me one night in his attic. He had borrowed it from some guy at his school, who supposedly had received it from a practitioner of magic who had moved on to more advanced stuff. Aside from letting me browse through it, Ben wouldn’t let me take the book home, so I took it without his permission. I promised myself I would return it within a couple of days, but then school ramped up and I forgot about it until Marta reminded me it was still here.
“Why would he want to get rid of it?”
“Because it is like playing with fire!” I snatched the book out of Marta’s hands and shelved it back. “It’s getting late. Let’s get out of here.”
Paula was already reaching for her coat. “Do you think my ear will be all right in the cold?”
“Yes, yes. The cold will do it good,” I replied.
“Thanks,” Paula said, tucking tightly rolled-up cash into my palm.
“Coming?” Marta asked, her hand already on the doorknob.
“Yeah,” I said, and untied my hair, letting it fall loosely onto my shoulders. The three of us stepped into the cold night as the full face of the moon climbed over rooftops, quietly echoing my name.