THE X // A SHORT STORY

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She walked in the small wooden house carrying her usual essence of dismay and pessimism. Jacob liked her messy red hair down, but today she wore it up, a few strands of deep red hanging loosely, ending where the wine red turtleneck of her long dress began. It was cold out, but Jacob was sweating. Perhaps it was this damned disease, perhaps it was seeing her again. She stopped in the doorway of his bedroom, disgust crawling on her face.

“Look at your hair,” she began softly, but Jacob could feel the venom in her words as she continued talking. “It used to be so dark, dark and shiny, like- like a raven’s wing. But… It’s faded. And your body has lost all of its’ muscle. You don’t even look like a man anymore.”

“Don’t talk to me about being a man, Victoria. I am twice the man-” Jacob was cut off by a sudden choking fit. He coughed into his hands, and when he pulled them away, blood drenched his palms. Victoria smiled at the red liquid on his fingertips which mimicked the color of her hair.

“Aye, I see,” she stifled a laugh. “A man.” Her words hung in the dead silence of the room, weighing heavy on Jacob as he stared at the unfurling of fabric at Victoria’s boots. He wondered if that was one of the dresses his mother had made for her.

After a few minutes of silence, he looked her in the face and croaked out his fear: “Victoria, is there talk of the X going around?”  

Victoria raised her head so she peers down at the man in the bed. She hums for a bit, rolling her eyes around, then finally looks at him and says, “Aye.”

“I am not dying, Victoria.”

“Who said that?” Victoria asks, a defensive tone forming in her voice.

“I did. Now go down to the town centre and let it be know that there shall be no X upon my door. I’m not dying.” He begins to get out of bed, only to be scared into stopping by Victoria, who comes to his bedside, voice at full volume.

“I know you are dying, Jacob! Do not lie to me! Your skin is as black as your hair once was and everyone in the town can hear your cursed coughing! And the smell-” She pauses as if the smell had just hit her. She gags a little. It reminds her of the way her father smelled after coming home from the butchers. Rotting flesh, exposed bone, dry blood. “It smells as if you yourself are rotting away from the core! Yet you are not dying you say? You’re fine, you say? Well, tell that to them when they come and paint a big, giant X on your door and burn you alive!”

The room falls silent and the air feels heavy as Jacob processes what she has said. She is breathing heavily, out of breath from yelling. He looks down at his hands, which are black and cold. He had grown so used to the smell of himself that he didn’t even think twice about it until she had mentioned it; she was right, too. He was rotting away, slowly.

“How do you know they’re coming tomorrow?” he asks, eyes unable to move from his fingertips to meet her eyes. He fears what she is about to say.

“I told them. I can’t stand to see you suffer, Jacob,” she says as she gets on her knees. She takes his hand in hers, despite how cold, black, and lifeless it is. He can’t feel that she is just as cold as he is. Her voice has softened now. “Do you think I wanted to do it? I love you. I’m doing this to end your misery.”

He looks from their intertwined hands to her eyes. “Misery? How do you know I’m in misery, Victoria? How do you of all people know what misery is?”

The smile she gives him is unsettling. As he begins to cough again, she kisses his hand and stands gracefully.

“Goodbye, Jacob,” she says as she turns towards the door. “I’ll see you in the morning. I’ll be the one with paint and fire in my hands. Do keep an eye out for me?” She smiles over her shoulder once more before walking out swiftly.

The last thing Jacob sees of his lover is her red hair, slowly coming undone and falling into pools around her shoulders as if she were bleeding.

As flames fill the sky, Victoria can hear Jacob screaming from inside. She smiles to herself, happy that he’s okay now. She watches the house crumble and fall into ashes, and she half expects to see Jacob rise up from the ashes and run to kiss her. She is hardly saddened when he doesn’t, however. As the fire is extinguished and the ashes settle, she turns to leave. When she looks down to pick up her dress, she catches a glimpse of her own pale hand. She suspects, for a moment, that she sees that it is beginning to turn as black as Jacob’s hair as well.

Submitted by Kinsley Eley

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