My new massage client lay face down on the table, back bare, awaiting my touch.
“Inga, you mustn’t,” whispered my mother’s remembered voice.
I poured oil across my hands and rubbed them together, warming it. Gentle music and ocean waves played on the overhead speakers. My client, Makoto, sighed and let her arms dangle.
“Touching another is forbidden, my daughter,” my mother had said time and again.
I swept my hands across Makoto’s back, and her thoughts teased me. Fragments of laughter trickled across the edges of my mind. A smile, a snatch of conversation, pastels in the afternoon. I pulled my fingers away, and Makoto settled her petite body into the table.
I pressed my palms into her back, and the massage began.
To learn the technique, I’d covered my hands. My teacher, an eccentric herself, was delighted by the elbow-length gloves. She was right about their antiquity. I had inherited them from my mother, who’d inherited them from her mother, who’d inherited them from her mother.
I still wore them every day, despite comments on the tiny buttons and perfect stitching. But when I gave massages, they come off so I could plunge into my clients’ minds.
Today, Makoto was recalling a picnic near a lake. Birds chirped in a tree. Water sloshed against a dock. When she leaned in to kiss the blushing woman she huddled on a blanket with, warmth spread over my cheeks and down my body as strongly as if I’d experienced it myself. I burned with her passion and with the shame of spying on something so intimate, on a life I couldn’t live.
Makoto’s scene abruptly changed. Now she was walking through the city streets at night. Her skin buzzed with anticipation of—what? I rhythmically rubbed my palms across her back, curious to see what she was going to do.
She stopped in front of a homeless woman draped in a blanket. A ragged paper coffee cup sat on the pavement. Makoto knelt, dropped a twenty dollar bill into the cup, and reached out a hand. “I’m sorry for your troubles.”
The woman’s face was haggard, but her smile was grateful. “Thank you kindly, miss.” She extricated her own hand from the blanket and reached toward Makoto.
When their fingers connected, the woman’s eyes went wide.
Makoto’s excitement turned sharp. She plunged into the woman’s mind, and I was a toy sailboat tossed in a heaving ocean.
Now we were looking through the homeless woman’s eyes, just as I was looking through Makoto’s.
Makoto’s black hair hung like a curtain over her manic smile. The woman was so terrified she was thinking of nothing else, no snatches of plans for an hour hence, no thoughts of passersby she’d seen earlier. Something squeezed her mind, blotting out the world around her, closing in, and turning her vision to black.
Still in Makoto’s memory, I was thrust back into her body. I looked down as the woman slumped to the side and Makoto’s fingers slid from her grasp.
The woman was dead.
Makoto rose and cupped her hands. Inside a violet glow sparked to life. She was filled with peace and contentment, emotions I felt, too, at odds with the terrible event I’d witnessed.
Stunned, I jerked my hands away from her body on the massage table.
“What is it?” Makoto lifted her face out of the head rest.
I tried to calm myself, but the horror must have been evident on my face. She met my eyes and sat up abruptly, clutching the blanket.
“I think you should go.”
“I just do.” I couldn’t unsee the woman’s death. How had she done it? Why had she done it?
Then Makoto’s eyes narrowed. “You’re one of us.”
Before I could react, she leapt forward. I raised my arms in defense, but she was reaching for contact. Our hands brushed together, and crimson exploded through my body—harsh and sharp and delicious.
Awash in feeling, I stopped fighting and let the sensation tickle through my belly and shiver across my arms. She, too, stood motionless, her eyes wide and her mouth parted in a stunned expression. Finally, I wrenched away.
We stared, panting, at one another.
“I never knew there were others like me,” she said.
“But I’m not like you.” I’d never killed someone. I’d never known it was possible. “I only…look.”
“Spy, you mean.” She smirked and let a bit of cloth drop. “Voyeur.”
My cheeks flushed, but not at the sight of her naked breast. I’d kept my secret, taken only lovers I knew I could never truly care for. One or two nights only: that was all I ever gave anyone.
Mother would have been proud of that, though she would have been dismayed that none were men. I’d overcome the searing-white desire to have a daughter long ago, though echoes of the child who never was tinged my loneliness with reminders it didn’t have to be this way.
“My haha never told me there were others,” Makoto said. “I thought my family was the only ones.”
I don’t know whether I gripped her fingers or pressed my lips to hers first, but the whole world exploded in lights and color and beauty. Her kiss was fierce, and her hand squeezed mine with electrical zaps that curled around my wrists and shot into my body. When we fell apart, breathless, our fingers stayed entwined and colors kept washing through my mind. I forced myself free of her and scurried against the wall.
“No, I can’t,” I said. “You have to leave. Get dressed and go.”
“Let me show you why I do it.”
I didn’t want to know how she could justify it. She was a murderess. A murderess whose kisses tasted like sunlit afternoon, whose touch felt like bathing in a warm lake, and whose mind was like walking in a garden of rose petals.
“Please,” she whispered.
The desperation in her voice matched the desperation in my soul. The loneliness—ah, the loneliness! sharp and dull at once!—made me force out the words. “Show me.”
She grabbed my hand and kissed it in a sparkle of brilliance. When she dropped it to reach for her shirt, the chill of emptiness replaced the warmth of her fingers.
Makoto brought me to a house on the edge of town, where the rich, old families lived. My glove-clad hand clasped hers as she tugged me up the walk and past an immaculately manicured lawn. The house rose above us, a great three-story structure with 1940s movie star presence.
“You live here alone?”
“Yes.” She pushed open the front door, which was unlocked, and swept into the house as though it owned her.
The rooms were high-ceilinged. Makoto threw her keys into a glass bowl and kept moving. I gawked at the crown molding and paintings worth more than my car.
Toward the back of the mansion, she opened the door to a large room—perhaps a sitting room in times past. The walls had wood paneling along the bottom and fleur-de-lis wallpaper above. But the most striking thing were the rows and rows of wooden shelves, upon which sat glass bulbs containing glowing orbs just like the one Makoto had cupped in her hands after the homeless woman had died.
Awed, I entered the room. Her gaze was upon me, intently taking in my reaction. I should have been repelled by the sheer amount of lives this represented, but the beauty of the orbs overwhelmed me.
They were lined up in order of the rainbow, the reds to my left, melding into oranges, all the way over to purples on my right. Every orb was a different color, with no two the same shade.
On a small pedestal in the center of the room sat a box with a green orb floating on top of silk lining.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s waiting to be purified.” Makoto rushed past the box to the purple shelves and pulled out a bulb containing a violet soul. “The homeless woman. Feel.”
I pulled off my glove and tucked it under my arm. When I pressed my hand against the glass, a warmth flooded my hand. First I couldn’t make sense of anything—a child’s laugh, a wedding veil, the heat of passion—and then I began sifting through them. Each one separated, and I could hold them in my mind like glass beads, gazing into them and pulling out memories.
Through the homeless woman’s eyes, I watched her kiss her new husband. Then she held her newborn in her arms and sang him a lullaby. Then, tearfully, she watched that same child graduate from college, proud that he’d surpassed his parents. I pulled my hand back to wipe away my own tears.
“And?” I said.
“And I’ve taken her terrible memories and left her with only the good ones. Don’t you feel how happy she is?”
Something dark swept through me, either jealousy of the homeless woman or anger for the lives Makoto had taken. “But you killed her. Trapped her here.”
“She was miserable. Didn’t you see her? She was going to die soon anyway. I could see it in her eyes.” Makoto replaced the glass bulb. “I create these myself. I have a furnace in the basement, and I make sure each one is perfect. I hold the souls in the box and leach away their unhappy memories until they have only their happiest ones left.”
Makoto grabbed my ungloved hand. With the onslaught of the energy we created, I couldn’t stop her. She was intent and crackling and desperate and longing. I saw double, through my eyes and hers as she pulled me to the box.
“Watch,” she urged, not letting go.
I closed my eyes, unable to wrench my hand away even if I’d wanted to. She placed her fingers on the green glow. A terrible scene was unfolding within this soul, a boyfriend who had beaten her—snatches of emotion and shouts assaulted me.
“She’s reliving this terrible memory! She can’t release it.” Makoto was nearly breathless. “I can make it stop.”
And with that, a heat surged between us, and the memory grew dimmer and soon disappeared. Pleasure, simple and pure, came from the orb and rushed between us. Makoto’s happiness at bringing relief to this poor, dead soul warmed me.
And now I knew why my mother and her mother and her mother before me told me never to touch another person. It wasn’t because I shouldn’t spy. It was because this.
“Why do they have to be dead?” I whispered.
Makoto dropped my hand, and I longed for her to take it up again. “Because it doesn’t work any other way. Your mother never told you?”
My mother didn’t know. Perhaps her mother or her mother’s mother knew, but she didn’t, of that I was certain. I’d asked why we must continue the lineage, only to doom our daughters to solitude, and she’d only told me that I must. I’d smiled and promised and kissed her gloved hand, and I’d made a pact with myself to end it with myself after she was gone. I hadn’t been able to keep that pact yet.
“What are we?” I whispered.
“I don’t know. Maybe in legends, we are the grim reapers or the sirens or the succubi. Perhaps we were once gods, faded to this. We help those too damaged to help themselves. It is our purpose, our sacred mandate. For what reason have you been living, if not to help others find peace?”
“I don’t know.” The tears, this time, were mine alone.
Makoto kissed me, clasped my hand to her cheek, and put a hand on the green glow. Memory after memory we relived in that kiss, tongues roving and hearts hammering, while we cleansed the poor woman of her trauma. Each remembrance was more terrible than the next until they finally peaked with the woman’s death. Her eyes filled with fear as Makoto stood over her in a darkened alley, and I wanted to cry out in protest.
But when we took her death away, peace and love flowed over us. She was content. Whole. Happy.
Makoto took me to her bedroom. We tore off our clothes and tumbled onto the huge, four-poster bed. As we made love, I tried to forget my loneliness, but still it clung to my skin like a suit I couldn’t shed.
I awoke the next morning and watched Makoto while she slept. When her eyes fluttered open, she looked up at me, and her smile glowed as warmly as one of her souls.
During the night, I had made a decision. “I want you to purify me.”
The morning light was brightening the room. The house was silent. Perhaps it had been decades since another person had been here with her. She said, “But who will help me?”
“It never would have been me. You knew that the moment you realized what I was.”
“Are you really that unhappy?”
Last night, I had been angry. This morning, with Makoto warm against my side, I understood and forgave my great-great-grandmother, whoever she was, who had buried our purpose.
She had fought against the all-consuming desire for touch, but she had been too weak to fight the need for companionship. I was strong enough to embrace my loneliness, but I was too weak to fight against the comfort of another’s mind. Maybe when she defied who she was, she had hoped and prayed for me to exist one day.
It was my sacred mandate to finish what she had started.
“Please, do it now,” I said.
Makoto placed a hand on my forehead and kissed me one last time. I reveled in the feel of her lips and the crackling of energy between us before she pulled away.
Her power squeezed my mind and my vision faded. Just before darkness overcame me, my world turned pale blue and shining. I existed, awash in my sense of self—all my happiness and sadness, all my moments of pure anger and pure joy.
But soon, the anger and sadness decreased, my loneliness finally—finally—faded, and all the pain rolled away into nothingness. Floating in blue, I felt myself carried and placed gently in my own glass bulb. There I settled in forever, surrounded by glowing, colorful contentment.
S. L. Saboviec’s fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, AE, and elsewhere. Her debut novel received an honorable mention in the 23rd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. She grew up in small-town Iowa but emigrated for her Canadian husband. They live in a Toronto suburb with their almost-three-year-old and twin newborn daughters. You can check out her website at http://www.saboviec.com/