Break My Body. (2245) "Come give your Daddy a kiss, Birthday Girl." Brahm was all smiles, twinkling eyes and cheeks flushed from the champagne as he pulled Daphne into his lap. Music played in the background as the family gathered around the table for desert. Daphne indulged her father, an innocent smile on her lips; she was eager to please. She was six years old now and she shone in the attention she was receiving. "Look there. Arty, there’s no need to be jealous. Your ninth birthday is sneaking up on us quickly." There was an awkwardly loud giggle, punctuated by an unsuppressed snort. Clearly Aunt Muriel thought herself clever in deciphering the poison daggers Artemis was shooting in her younger sister’s direction. Artemis' scowl simply deepened at this remark. Her aunt clucked like a laying hen about how she was far too moody for an up and coming young lady. "Scowls are unbecoming. No one wants a sulky bride." The seams of Aunt Muriel's dress strained against her immense girth, a fact that was not lost on Artemis as she discredited her Aunt's warning. It was common knowledge that Aunt Muriel was caught in the eighteenth century. Artemis' Mama often proclaimed that this was a direct result of the trashy romance novels she read; which were almost always set in fashionable London boarding schools. Arty felt mixed up about Aunt Muriel, angry and sad because her Aunt didn't pay attention to anything that mattered. "Brah--Daddy? Isn't it about time Daphne got to bed?" Despite her sweet simpering, Artemis' face was closed like a window in winter, and equally as frosty. Her eyes nipped from her father to her younger sister as if she couldn't decide whom she loathed more. For all her limited eight years, Artemis knew how to portray hatred. "It's her birthday, Arty. Let her alone." Brahm chortled, snuggling his youngest daughter tighter to him and planting a kiss on the top of her tiny head. Daphne's eyes twinkled like crystal; she was a glutton for affection. It wasn't Daphne's eyes that had Artemis worried; it was Brahm's. She knew that glistening in his eyes; hunger and anger rolled into one look that told Artemis her hopes for her sister’s innocence were futile. It was the look that her family politely ignored, covering their mouths with their hands in fake yawns and averting their eyes. It was like the dirty laundry that Mama tucked at the bottom of her drawer because she'd had too many spirits to bother with tidying. “It really is a shame your mama was sick tonight. I’ve had a wonderful time.” Aunt Muriel stood to leave and the floor creaked beneath her like the cricket that Artemis stepped on in the yard the day before. She had had to kill it to put it out of its misery. Aunt Muriel scooped herself another generous slice of pie, plopped it onto a napkin and, with a guilty smile on her face, headed towards the door. Artemis’ eyes blinked pleadingly up at Muriel, framed by her pale eyelashes. There is nothing but an ocean of hope and sorrow in those eyes as Artemis tagged along behind her Aunt to the door, fingers wrapped tightly in Muriel’s unstylish skirt. “Don’t be talking any of that nonsense again, you’ll ruin my evening. Hop off to bed, young Arty, and remember that your father is a great man.” With a pat that she no doubt thought was reassuring, she sent Artemis trotting down the hall with her tiny little fists balled into unexpressed frustration and suppressed terror. Her Daddy wouldn’t hurt her; she knew that. He didn’t mean to hurt her. Her Daddy loved her a lot, and she was a bad girl for bringing out the Devil in him. That’s what he always said: “Artemis, why are you always bringing out the Devil in me? D’you want to go to Hell for sinning?” Artemis took her sister’s hand in her own, leading her up the stairs one at a time. Daphne’s legs were still small, so she couldn’t skip a step like Arty could. Tucking Daphne deep in her blankets Artemis kissed her sister on the cheek, dropping her voice to a whisper. Fingers still laced between those of her little sister’s protectively, Artemis squeezed Daphne’s hands to get her attention. Her lips felt dry and cracking, the way Aunt Muriel’s voice sounded after she had too many fancy cigarettes. “Daphne. Listen to me. Are you listening?” Her sister’s solemn nod was confirmation enough, but it did little to ease the knot in Artemis’ throat. She knew, deep down in the dark parts of her mind; the places where she could hide, that Brahm was supposed to protect her and Daphne. She also knew, with nothing but actions to speak for her father, that she was going to have to protect her sister. Her sister deserved to be in Heaven with the angels. “Promise me you will lock your door tonight. Promise me you will lock your door tonight, and every other night until you go away to college. To keep the boogeyman out.” It crushed Artemis’ heart to see her little sister’s big innocent eyes fill with tears. There was a sniffle, and her lower lip started quivering dangerously. Panic rose in Artemis, flashing across her face for a second. Brahm couldn’t know she was here, or he’d get angry and swear like he did that time the deer got away while he was hunting. “Arty, what about you?” There was a foreign sting in the backs of Artemis’ eyes. She was a big girl now, almost nine. She didn’t cry anymore, because she knew that the Boogeyman wasn’t real. She knew that she deserved everything she got. Taking a breath, Arty offered her sister a smile. It must have been convincing enough, because the impending waterfall ebbed. “I’ve got magic fairy dust. I’ll be alright.” Only after Daphne pinkie-promised did Artemis slip from her room, pausing outside the door just long enough to hear the solid click of her sister’s safety being bolted. Brahm’s footsteps disguised her own as he thundered up the stairs. She barely had time to leap into her bed and squeeze her eyes shut before she heard the metallic scratch of Daphne’s bedroom door turning. Artemis could imagine her small sister shivering with fear in her bed, thinking the Boogeyman hovered outside her door. Artemis stopped breathing and curled quietly away from the door, hoping she appeared as asleep as she wished she were. “Arty, baby? Are you still awake? Don’t be jealous of Daphne. I love you too. ” He stepped into her room, the light from the hall making his shadow big and suffocating on her bed. Her throat tightened and she didn’t say anything. Her words didn’t matter anyway. She held her knees so close to her chest that they almost touched her nose. She could feel his fat fingers, each of them like little rolls of unbaked bread, combing through her curls. Fingers brushed her shoulder and she could feel them through her nightgown as lightly as snow falling on her cheeks at Christmas. It felt like fairy dust, scattered across her skin, taking her to a dark place where anything was possible. Artemis didn’t open her eyes. She pulled away from her skin, wanting to feel just like Aunt Muriel looked: dull eyed and vacant. She recoiled from emotion. Artemis took a vacation from her body. She didn’t taste the blood on her bottom lip from where she bit it. She didn’t feel Brahm’s weight sway the mattress as he sat down next to her. Butterfly wings skipped up her thigh, as if they were tracing patterns on her freckles. Through the clouds of her safe world, Brahm’s voice filtered through low and thick with the smell of beer. She hated when his breath smelled so bad, like he was exhaling clouds of stale alcohol onto her body. It made her feel sweaty and squirmy. She wished that he would wipe the sheen of sweat of his forehead; it made her feel sick to look at. There was a pinch that made her bite her lip harder, something felt wrong, no matter what Brahm was saying. “I love you, Arty. I would never hurt you. I love you, I would never hurt you, I love you, I would never hurt you.” He said it so often that after a while it seemed to Artemis like he was speaking a different language. Something he made up to trick her, something that didn’t make sense through his heavy breathing. She didn’t like his language, and she didn’t understand it. It was like when her and Aunt Muriel heard the French people at the market. She didn’t understand them either. She tuned him out, thinking about Daphne and how dark her hair looked when they went swimming. Artemis hoped she had kept Daphne safe. She hoped her sister would never have to fake a smile. --- “Gerry” “ Gerry?” “ Gerry! If you want me here till two, you’re going to need to hook me up.” Nothing but the smell of sex, sweat and desperation in the air, it was thick like smog in Mexico City. The lusty hunger of the patrons filled the air with their rotten morals and dysfunctional home lives. You could smell it before you even walked in the door. Artemis leaned into the mirror, staring into her own hallow eyes. She was vaguely away of Gerry placing a CD case with a couple lines of Blow and a straw on the desk in front of her. Artemis couldn’t remember the last time she looked alive. Pinching her cheeks a few times, Arty tried to bring colour to her ghostly skin. If she held her breath she could pass for dead. “Artemis. You’re on in five, so get off your ass and take what the Doctor gave you.” “Give me ten.” “Shut up. You think you own this place? You ain’t nothing but a whore. Get ready, now.” “Give me ten minutes, Gerry. I need to call my sister.” “Yeah, yeah.” When Gerry gestured with his arms, which he did frequently, Artemis had to swallow vomit. She was fairly sure he hadn’t showered in the last century, and his tight white undershirt was brown from use, and clinging mercilessly to the thick rolls of his stomach. His upper arms were about the width of Artemis’ waist, and they flopped around when he got excited, making it impossible for Arty to hear anything he was saying. She turned away from him, back to the mirror and her emotionally void, pale face. With a finger to one nostril and a straw up the other, Artemis snorted the illusion of happiness, the impression that she was whole. She smiled as she picked up the phone, not because she was happy but because she wanted Daphne to hear the smile in her voice and think she was alright. “Happy Birthday, baby sister.” “Arty! Thank you! How are you?” “I’m fine. How’s school?” “School is amazing, my friends are awesome. You should come visit, you’d love them.” “I will. I want to meet them all.” They both knew that Artemis will never go to visit her sister. The secret that Artemis kept had dug a canyon between them over the years, never breeding resentment, but creating a silent tension that Daphne didn’t understand, and Artemis refused to explain. She couldn’t fix the distance between them, because it was the kind of secret that filled her up inside until she was about to break apart, and at the same time made her feel so void of emotion that she thought she would die from the cold in her body. Artemis knows the things that she missed a child; the way it changed her. She understand the claustrophobia she feels when she is alone, the paralyzing drowning in darkness while she claws at her own throat trying to breath. Artemis knows that he took from her the ability to trust and the ability love without sex. “Well, I’ll come see you soon, okay?” “Can’t wait.” Artemis was smiling for real by the time they hung up. She knew it hurt her sister, the distance she kept but she also knew that Daphne was happy. She could hear it in her every syllable. Normal, enviable innocence and contentment dripped off her words like honey from a hive. Artemis let her robe fall to the floor, listening for the sound of it pooling on the ground around her feet. She walked on stage, her starving exhaustion made beautiful by lights, makeup and alcohol. The simple, inconsequential song of Daphne’s voice in the receiver reminded Artemis that is was all worth it. Artemis felt it in her heart as truly as she felt the grubby fingers stuffing bills in the elastic of her red garter; she would do it again and again: sacrifice her entire life for her sister. Running her hands down the front of her body, Artemis flipped her hair out of her face, offering a gaunt smile to the observing customers. It was taken for a mischievous grin of enjoyment and was the cause of catcalls and more touching. Her sister’s innocence for her psychological well being, it was a sacrifice she’d be making every day for the rest of her life. It was a price she would gladly pay.