She’s a Work of Art
by Kelly Lynn Thomas
It had been the dangerous slope of his back, the way it arched even when he stood straight, that compelled Nicolette to say yes when Johnny asked her to the junior prom. He smiled, exposing a sharp right canine.
“Nicolette,” he said in a low voice, “I’m excited.”
“It’ll be fun to dance to terrible music,” Nicolette said, not sure yet if the light feeling in her stomach was excitement or something else. “I already have an idea for a dress.”
As he walked away from her, Nicolette could see the outline of the muscles beneath his shirt. The thought of him, his movement, made her fingers tingle.
When her father left the family for another woman, Nicolette’s grandmother taught her to make her own clothes while her mother sat on the couch and drank cheap vodka.
“You should be glad his sorry ass isn’t here to smack you around anymore,” her grandmother said to her mother every day when she brought dinner over.
Since then, Nicolette wore whatever she liked, regardless of how it looked. She thought of herself as a work of art-in-progress. She didn’t have friends, but that suited her. Works of art were meant to be looked at and studied, not spoken to.
Johnny had been studying her for a while, and she had noticed. Some of the boys at school lacked control of limbs that had grown too fast for their brains. Some chased confidence around like a ball. Some slunk and hid, trying to escape the gazes of the others. Johnny moved like a hyena: quiet and swift. He surprised people. Most students stayed away from him. They joked that he was the one who would bring a gun to school.
Nicolette imagined which of her outfits would look the best on her corpse, considering there might be a lot of blood if Johnny shot her. She decided on the red skirt and white shirt with the arms connected to the body by organza. The blood would contrast with the white shirt and match the skirt. With the way Johnny looked at her, she thought she’d be able to tell if he planned to kill everyone the next day, so she left that outfit in her closet, hanging.
* * *
Johnny picked Nicolette up before prom in a new black BMW convertible. She knew his family didn’t have enough money to own one, but she didn’t ask where he’d gotten it. She rubbed her hands over the soft leather seats, inhaling the mixture of animal and chemical scents. She’d never sat in a car with leather seats before.
“Ready?” Johnny asked. He looked into her eyes, and Nicolette forgot about leather seats and animal and chemical scents.
When they got to the highway, Johnny floored it. The wind whipped Nicolette’s hair, and she thought she must look like Medusa. He leaned over and tried to kiss her, but almost drove off the road. He righted the car, then leaned back and laughed.
The BMW squealed into the school parking lot. Johnny threw on the emergency brake and jumped out. Instead of opening Nicolette’s door, he lifted her. His fingers dug into her sides below her breasts. For a moment, she felt weightless, suspended above the asphalt by Johnny’s arms. When she touched down, her heels clicked against the pavement, and her spine compressed. She left her hands on his shoulders. But instead of kissing her like someone in one of her mother’s romantic comedies would have, Johnny stared at her, at her whole body. Nicolette felt an unfamiliar warmth between her legs.
“Should we go inside?” she asked, the words jamming between her tongue and her lips.
Johnny shrugged and let his hands fall from her body.
Everyone stared at them when they walked into the gym. Most of the looks were ones Nicolette had expected, the ones she always got when anyone bothered to look at her at all. Scoffs, bewilderment, derision. None of her classmates understood her artistic vision. But a few of the looks were ones Nicolette did not recognize. She liked the way they made her feel.
Nicolette had made her dress out of blue taffeta. The left side hung down in a point to the floor, but the right side hung just below what would have been her underwear line, if she hadn’t been wearing a thong. The thong had seemed like a good idea, but she hadn’t realized it would lodge itself into her ass. Nicolette had overheard a few popular girls talking about what they would be wearing underneath their prom dresses one day in the cafeteria. Those girls seemed to be having a lot of sex and enjoying it, and Nicolette had only just discovered how to make herself come. She had thought they must know what they were talking about. Now, with the thong threatening to split her in half, she wondered why anyone would submit to this torture, for any reason. Nicolette tried not to squirm.
Johnny, who hadn’t bothered with a tie or even to tuck in his shirt, dragged Nicolette into the middle of the dance floor and pulled her close. His musky cologne thickened in her nostrils, and she felt faint, but his grip on her waist kept her upright.
“Nicolette,” he whispered into her hair, knotty from the wind.
She tightened her arms around his neck.
“You should let people see your face.” He let go of her waist and pushed her hair out of her eyes with both hands, then held her chin while he kissed her. Her stomach leapt into her throat and her diaphragm locked into place, leaving her unable to breathe. Before Johnny pulled away, he bit her lip, hard.
She pushed him away and sucked in her lip with a gasp. “That hurt.”
Johnny grabbed her hand and pulled her back into his arms. She could feel his biceps tensing. “Hurt me back,” he whispered.
Nicolette said nothing, and instead sucked on her lip and looked down at the floor. She thought about a book she’d read once, where the people having sex also hurt each other, and enjoyed it. She thought about whether or not she’d enjoy hurting Johnny.
A light touch on her elbow brought her gaze up from the floor.
“It’s okay,” Johnny said. His face wore that grin, the dangerous one that showed his canine tooth, but Nicolette felt relieved. “Let’s get some food. I’m starved.”
Johnny kept a grip on her hand, and together they walked to the snack tables on the other side of the gym. The local vo-tech cooking students had made the refreshments and stood behind the tables in white shirts and chef hats. Nicolette thought the food tasted pretty good. She surveyed the tables, selecting each cookie, each hors d’oeurve, to make a sky and cloud pattern on her paper plate. She didn’t notice that Johnny had slipped away until she looked for a table and didn’t see him. She shrugged, and devoured the sky, leaving the clouds for last.
Nicolette decided against sitting down and hung by the wall, tapping her foot to the music, resisting the urge to reach under her dress and tug at the thong. It wasn’t that she didn’t know what it meant to suffer for art. She had no qualms with ridiculous shoes that left her feet blistered or corsets that tightened around her waist so much that she couldn’t eat more than a few bites at a time. But no one could even see the thong. Maybe, she thought, blushing, Johnny would see it. She imagined him unzipping her dress, slipping it off.
“Nicolette, right?” a voice yelled over the music.
Nicolette startled. She saw Aaron Babcock standing close, smiling. He was in her history class and was one of the people who usually looked at her with bewilderment, as if she broke the operating rules of the universe.
Aaron did not look bewildered. Nicolette couldn’t decide how he looked. That intrigued her.
“I know we haven’t talked much, but would you like to dance?” Aaron held out his hand. Unlike Johnny, he’d put every effort into his attire. He wore a full tuxedo and had his hair gelled into spikes.
She glanced around the gym, but all she saw were the flashes of color and glitter of the girls’ dresses. She was about to say she was waiting for her date, but then she understood the look on Aaron’s face. She realized she was desired. Desirable. And not just by a person widely considered to be the class psychopath.
“Okay,” she said. She took Aaron’s hand and let him lead her into the mass of bodies grinding against one another.
The air in the gym had grown humid and smelled like sweat.
Aaron wasn’t a good dancer. He moved out of time with the music. He didn’t know what to do with his hands, and so held them in front of him. The song had a strong beat, and the female vocalist’s voice moved with it. Nicolette doubted she looked any less bizarre than Aaron, but she moved with purpose. She swayed her hips against the beat to create disharmony between her body and the sounds colliding with it. That threw Aaron off even more, but Nicolette didn’t care.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a few girls looking at her. They weren’t looking at her like she was a freak. They weren’t admiring her, exactly. But they recognized something in Nicolette they hadn’t acknowledged before—that she could be pretty, too. Nicolette couldn’t help but smile. She went so far as to consider the possibility that she might be having fun.
When Johnny came back, smelling like alcohol and cigarettes, Nicolette was still dancing with Aaron, who had almost caught on to her anti-rhythm. Johnny grabbed Nicolette’s shoulder from behind and whirled her around and into him. He wasn’t looking at Nicolette, though. He was looking at Aaron.
Johnny bared his teeth. He growled.
Nicolette took a step back. Johnny wasn’t trying to be sexy or funny. He had growled at Aaron the same way a dog growls when another dog tries to steal his bone. Nicolette felt her cheeks redden. She felt that same warmth between her legs. She feared what Johnny might do, but her fear also excited her.
“Let’s bail,” Johnny said, keeping his eyes on Aaron. “I know where we can find a real party.”
“I think I want to stay,” Nicolette said. “People are noticing me.” There was something else, too, something that teased the back of her mind. Maybe it had come from the sky she’d devoured. It told her to stay in the half-lit gym.
Johnny slipped his arm around her waist. “They aren’t noticing you the way I’m noticing you.”
Nicolette felt certain, though she didn’t know why, that Johnny was right. When Johnny let her go and walked away from her, she exhaled and followed him out of the gym.
* * *
The night air felt cool against her skin. Johnny jumped into the BMW, then reached over and opened the passenger door. The moon, a waning gibbous, shone down from a clear sky. The moonlight made Johnny look like a different person, someone softer, but also more terrifying. Nicolette barely had time to wonder what her dress looked like in the moonlight before Johnny was running his hands up and down her whole body, pressing her into the door. She wrapped her fingers around his hair and on impulse, bit his earlobe. He made a noise, one that conveyed both pleasure and pain.
That noise, somewhere between a groan, a sigh, and a yelp, made Nicolette bold. She kissed his neck, biting the soft hollow above his collarbone. He reached a hand under the short side of her dress and squeezed her ass. She was suddenly glad for the thong. He didn’t let go. She knew, without knowing how she knew, that he was planning something. She didn’t want him to take control. She raked her long nails down his back, digging in. He arched his back and squeezed her ass even harder. She figured she would have a bruise there in the morning, but now she didn’t care. She wanted to make his back arch until it broke him in two. She wanted to own him. She wanted to make art with their bodies.
Before Nicolette could kiss him again, Johnny grabbed her arms and pinned them next to her. She tried to move, but that made him tighten his grip. He tore at the neckline of her dress with his teeth, and pulled it partway down, revealing her bra.
“Stop,” she said. She struggled against his hands.
Johnny ran his tongue around the edge of her bra.
He squeezed her arms tighter, and she could feel his erection pressing against her hip. He ran his tongue up to her neck and bit her.
Nicolette cried out in surprise and pain.
“I like you, Nicolette,” Johnny said, looking her in the eye. “I like you a lot.” Then, he let go of her and started the car. Soon, they were screaming down the highway. A flash of fear rose from her gut, but she let the wind carry it away.
* * *
Johnny drove for ten minutes. Nicolette liked the way the wind dried the trails of saliva Johnny’s tongue had made on her skin, the way it tugged at her clothes, pulled tears from her eyes. She felt it cut through her, right through her skin, through the part of her that made art. For a moment, she thought she might be able to become the wind, to take its shape and leave Johnny behind, and blow somewhere quiet, but the car stopped too soon. She wasn’t sure she wanted to leave, anyway. She liked these new feelings.
Nicolette recognized the graveyard. She’d never known its name, just that it was the biggest one in town, sprawling out around a cathedral-like semi-gothic church that looked old and weary. Nicolette had come here to sketch before, to get inspiration for outfits. She liked to come at dawn, liked the contrast of a bright yellow sunrise with the pallor of grimy marble stones.
Without a word, Johnny leaned over and pulled Nicolette into a violent kiss. He wrapped his fingers through her hair and pulled her head back, using his tongue like a knife inside her mouth. She tried to push him away, the fear had come back, there was no more wind, but he was too strong, and now his other hand squeezed her shoulder. She tried to scream, tried to summon the wind to her lungs and her mouth, but the only thing there was Johnny.
Johnny moved a hand to her throat. He stopped kissing her for a minute and looked at her. He grinned the same sharp smile he had when he’d asked her to the prom, but this time she could see both canines.
Nicolette reached behind her. Now, she knew what that smile meant, she saw what the hidden danger behind those blue eyes had been. Her fingers fumbled against the smooth, soft leather of the door panel, finding no purchase and no handle.
Johnny let Nicolette go for a minute and unbuttoned his shirt. She watched as it fell away from his chest a little at time. Wisps of hair circled his nipples and led from his belly button to below his pants. She almost wanted to touch the places where his muscles curved up from beneath his skin. He looked at her, and she knew he was playing with her, waiting for her to scream now that she had the chance. She took a deep breath and was ready to let her body go limp when her fingers found the handle. The door swung open and Nicolette tumbled backwards out of the car. It took her a second to figure out how she had come in contact with the cool, damp earth, but as soon as she realized she was free, she ran.
The ground was slick with mud and wet grass. The mud sucked Nicolette’s heels into itself. She didn’t stop running, although she stumbled as her forward momentum forced her feet out of her stuck shoes. She ran toward a mausoleum tucked away in a cluster of monuments, one she knew was unlocked from her early morning explorations.
When she closed the mausoleum door behind her, she crouched in the corner and hugged her knees into her chest. She tried to listen, to slow her breathing.
The combined noise of her heart and gasping breaths masked the sounds of Johnny entering the mausoleum, and she didn’t notice his presence right away. He stood in the entrance, unmoving, until Nicolette looked up. She could see only his silhouette in the door frame, but she imagined he was smiling that same sharp-toothed smile. She thought of the red skirt and white organza shirt hanging in her closet, where they would remain unworn, and how it would remain there, its potential unfulfilled.
About Kelly Lynn Thomas
Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Thin Air Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, metazen, and others, and she received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. She is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars and can always be found with a large mug of tea. She also runs the very small Wild Age Press. Read more at http://kellylynnthomas.com.