The Bethany Arms. The kind of place where they keep a donkey inside a barb-wire enclosure. Chickens chased each other through the rising dust.
“Do you think that’s our supper?” said Jean, trying to make me laugh.
She’d spent the trip sulking. We were on our way to see my dying father and I could have used some support instead of Jean’s black moods. At first she had charmed me – her quick wit, even her temper – but now I knew that she wasn’t the right companion for this kind of thing. If she sulked in the car, God knows what she’d be like when we finally reached the hospice.
For now, the sight of the mundane – a desert motel, the dirty animals – had restored her good humor. To her, the livestock was a charming novelty. But I’d grown up in a town not far from here and my childhood had schooled me well in small cruelties. Unlike Jean, I could spot the whip-marks across the donkey’s back. If this place was a joke, it came at the expense of the voiceless.
The motel office stood locked and empty, ringed by cheap outdoor furniture. We sat in silence, drinking warm soda from our cool-box, suitcases at our feet like loyal dogs. The local fey, finger-length, fluttered around us, cursing in mouse-squeaks until I opened a third can for them.
“They set traps for them. I saw one outside the manager’s office,” offered Jean.
“They don’t like magic around here.” I fumbled across the table for her hand but she crossed her arms and stared into the distance.
“They don’t like magic here? So where does something like you come from?”
“My father had Old Blood. Just a trickle. It didn’t breed true in him. But with me-” my voice trailed off at the sight of a man slouching towards us.
“The manager. You should carry your own luggage,” I mumbled. “We don’t want people to talk.”
Jean’s scrutiny made me clumsy; my suitcase banged my shins. Instead of anger in her gaze, there was something worse. There was judgment.
The manager had wet brown teeth.
There was something anachronistic about his poor dentistry; rotten teeth are almost unknown in an era of cosmetic spells. But as I’d told Jean, they don’t care for magic this far South. His eyes darted from me to Jean, assessing. He took in our superficial resemblance and his brow furrowed in confusion.
“Sisters? Passing through?” he guessed.
Jean opened her mouth to correct him.
“Yes,” I interrupted smoothly, “Just passing through.”
Our room was narrow and smelt, for some unknown reason, of apples. The air buzzed with raised voices. It took me a few seconds before I recognized one of them as my own. I experienced a strange sense of detachment, as if I was standing outside myself, studying the fight with clinical disdain.
“Why the hell did you want me here? If you’re ashamed of me?” hissed Jean. In anger, her face became smoother, her features less defined.
She glared up at me. Lonely as I was, I still wasn’t stupid enough to whistle up something taller than me. And of course, she was shrinking now. A safety measure of sorts. When I first created her, I’d sworn that this one wouldn’t go wrong but God knows, I’d made those sorts of promises before.
“Why am I here if you don’t need me?” she whined “What happens to me then?”
“I make another,” I said.
Her hand – barely larger than a child’s now – struck me. Without thinking, I hit her back as hard as I could. Something – not blood – flew out of its mouth. Then the homunculus collapsed at my feet.
Drained of magic, its corpse was smaller than a drowned kitten. It looked like a half-formed fetus, something born dead. The only sound in the room was my own breathing. I was alone again.
That night I didn’t sleep. Instead, I thought about my mother’s illness. By the time she died, she didn’t even look like a person.
After the funeral, my father came into my room for the last time. He was a lean, gingery man; his Old Blood manifested in his unusual eyes, a foxy cast to his features. He spoke in a beery gasp, somewhere between a sob and a growl: “Did you do something to her?”
I studied him with pale eyes – his eyes – and offered him the lie, carefully rehearsed at her graveside.
“Yes. And if you touch me again, I’ll do something to you too.”
He ran from my room and I heard the sound of spasmodic vomiting. A week later, I left home. Now I was less than a day away from the man who had raised me, sometimes violently, less often with love. I couldn’t face him alone.
On the pillow beside me, Jean’s corpse was a hard leather lump. Briefly I cradled the spent thing to my chest, my lips parting in a reedy whistle. But it was no good. My magic needed living flesh to sculpt. My thoughts strayed to the motel donkey.
There was no one else awake when I approached its enclosure. The animal shifted uneasily but settled down when I reached through the wire and petted its nose. I started to whistle. In the middle of nowhere, a miracle unfolded beneath my touch.
I slipped away before dawn, my new homunculus at my side. Everything fascinated her – the rumbling car, the caress of Jean’s shirt on her skin, me. We touched constantly. In a few hours, she’d be capable of speech. In a few months, she’d be bored with the world and me. Soon she’d look at me with the same disappointed eyes as Jean.
Might as well enjoy my new relationship while it lasted.
Lee Jacob Phillips is a former art lecturer who has had 4 solo exhibitions. His short fiction and articles have appeared in a number of collections and anthologies. He was selected multiple times as an Ambassador of Words by the César Egido Serrano Foundation and recently received a Shortbox grant for his comic work. His previous occupations include toy salesman, bartender and bodyguard. He currently lives in South Africa. To find out more about his art, writing and other projects, you can visit his Twitter https://twitter.com/smokefurandsto1