The stranger stretches out his hand to me. I don't think twice about accepting it. It's been so long, so long since I could touch someone. And even him, even him I cannot touch. Anything I touch dies. Everything withers, turns to stone and dust. Thin, ragged gloves cover my own hands to keep this death from spreading.
And warm, elegant gloves cover his.
He pulls me up from the mud where I've fallen. I'm bleeding just a little. A drop falls on a flower, and it shrivels. He doesn't notice. He motions me to follow him. I don't think twice. My feet are moving before my head can say no, and I stumble after him like an ugly duckling. He smiles, and slows so I can walk beside him. I've been slower, recently. Something is eating at me, making my blood run like ice. Perhaps I am finally killing myself. It's about time.
He opens his mouth to speak, but closes it again. I'm not sure what to say to him. Thank you. Thank you for helping me up. Is there anything I can do for you, sir. Thank you for letting me walk with you.
“So. You've got it too.” He speaks in a conversational, friendly tone, like he refers to the weather or what a fine crop we will have this year.
I look up at him in shock. “Excuse me?”
“The touch. You have it too. I can tell.”
I hide my gloved hands behind my back. “The touch? I don't know what you're talking about, sir!” I try to smile to hide my fear. I am a horrible lier.
He sees right through me, and smiles again. “Of course. I don't know what I'm talking about either. I'm afraid I'm rather strange like that, my dear lady. Perhaps we should go somewhere more private to figure it out, eh?” I hesitate. He senses my discomfort. “No, not like that. There will be no wind of scandal in this, trust me. I merely wish to talk away from prying ears. Would that be alright?”
I nod, so slightly that it's barely noticeable.
But he notices. “Come on, then. This way.”
We arrive at an inn, one of the better ones. He slips in a side door. I hesitate, but he reaches out his hand again. I take it again, glove in glove, and we go in. He leads me to a parlor, where a maid stands waiting with tea. He thanks her politely. She is too demure to ask about me, but he sees her curiosity. Nothing scandalous, he assures her. The inn's reputation will be safe. If she would like, there is a window that she may look through, just to make sure. She assures him that she would never suspect him of such a thing, but I can hear the relief in her voice. She looks at me, long and hard, and leaves. He is such a perfect gentleman.
“Now,” he says, pouring me a cup of tea. “I know you have the touch. I knew as soon as I saw you. I have it too. See?” He pulls the glove from his right hand. The patterns of mottled gray on his skin are all the confirmation I need. I bare my right hand as well, and accept the cup of tea with all the grace I can muster. He smiles. “So I'm not the only one. The doctor said that all we all were killed as soon as we were born, but I knew...”
“I thought I was the only one,” I admit. “I've never met someone else with the touch before...”
“Nor have I.” He looks away for a moment, rubbing his neck with his mottled hand. “So this is a first for me, too.”
“How did you know I...”
“Your hair,” he says with a shrug. “You've tried to hide it, but...”
“The bonemark?” I refer to the streak of white hair that runs from behind my ear, and refuses to be dyed.
“If you prefer to call it that, yes.” He sighs, and removes his silk hat. He has it too, though his is cut short. “You're lucky not many people know about it anymore.”
I shrug. “Enough know. I hide it as well as I can.”
We sit in a strange silence for a moment.
“So.” He pours me another cup of tea. “What's your story?”
I hesitate for a moment, then spill forth. This might be my only chance to ever have someone listen. “I killed my mother when I was born. The doctor wanted to kill me, but my father wouldn't let him. He kept me a secret from everyone, or they would have killed me, and I spent my first ten years with him. And then I tripped, and fell, and he caught my hand. And I wasn't wearing gloves.” I struggle to keep from crying. “He died. I've been on my own ever since.” He takes my bare hand in his gloved one and looks into my eyes. He understands. Somehow, I can tell. I struggle to ask him. “And you?”
He looks away again. “I... killed my mother, yes. And my father wanted to kill me. But the doctor... he told my father that I must be killed in a special way, and took me away. The doctor raised me. And when I was old enough, he started taking... work for me.” His face burns with shame. “I hope I don't have to explain what kind of work it was.”
I understand him, and pity him. I know what it is to kill. It is not a pretty thing.
“He made a lot of money with me. And he gave me so much, so much to keep me happy, to keep me obeying. I know now that he was afraid.” He puts his head in his hands. I put my gloved hand on his shoulder. “I didn't... I didn't want to kill. But I thought that I did. I thought that it was my duty to the doctor to kill, my duty to the world. It was why I'd been put on this earth.” He paused a moment, in the stillness of the room. “But I was wrong, I was so wrong. And when I saw that... When I killed him... I almost meant to. I almost wanted him to die. I almost... Almost...” He can't finish his sentence. I don't blame him, no more than he blames me. And that fact is a comfort more than anything I've ever known.
We sit in silence as the moments pass.
He looks up at me, finally, and tries to find the words, eventually giving up and switching topics. “I'm curious...”
I know where his sentence is going.
“Can we touch?”
I stretch out my mottled hand to him in the same way he stretched out his to me. And he takes it without a second thought.
We sit there, for a moment, waiting to die.
Perhaps we are dying already.
Perhaps this feeling is death.
Or perhaps this is life.
I don't even know where this one came from. Enjoy anyway.