“Good, Fine, No” by Michelle Ann King

girl shaving head on the run

When it’s over—which is a ridiculous thing to say, she knows, because it’s never going to be over—Gina runs. She shaves her head, changes her name and tries to disappear into the anonymous concrete rat runs of a dozen different cities. Tries to forget any of it ever happened.

She doesn’t succeed on either count.

‘Hey,’ the girl behind the bar says. ‘Don’t I know you?’

In the old days, that would have been a pick-up line. Gina would have rolled her eyes, but depending on how good-looking the girl or guy was, she might have said, ‘Maybe,’ or ‘Do you want to?’

Now she says, ‘No,’ automatically, and hopes that’ll be the end of it.

Usually, it’s not. Because people do know, that’s the thing. Somehow, they always do.

Either she gets recognised—the trial was, of course, a media sensation—or someone tracks her down and releases her location. Then they all come running: the people who want to interview her, the people who want to study her, the people who want to kill her.

And then there are the ones who don’t know or don’t care about any of that, but who still look at her and recognise something. Something other. Something wrong.

‘No,’ she tells the girl, not turning her head, and leaves without finishing her drink.

Marienne keeps finding her, too. Gina’s not sure how, exactly; whether it’s psychic ability, a network of private detectives, or a shared sense of responsibility and guilt that pulls them together like magnets.

‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Marienne tells her, over and over. ‘It wasn’t you.’

The jury agreed with her. Do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty? The true answer should have been Both, but that’s not an option.

It was Gina’s hands that picked up the knife, that slid it, smooth and surprisingly unresisting, into her mother’s throat. Her hands that came away red and dripping. Her hands, her action.

But not her decision. Not her intent. Not her fault.

Not guilty.

She goes into another pub, finds another quiet corner. Orders another drink she won’t finish. She never does, whether she gets hassled or not; she’s not giving up control of her mind to anything ever again, not even top shelf vodka.

She sits and stares into her glass, and waits for Marienne to find her. Waits to be asked again how she is, how she’s coping, if she needs any help. Waits to lie, and say Good. Fine. No.

In a way, it’s comforting—the familiarity of it, the routine. The sense that some things in this world still follow predictable patterns. She imagines most of the people on her jury are probably looking for the same kind of reassurance, too.

It wasn’t you, Marienne said. They’ll understand that.

Gina had laughed. There was precedent for it, of a kind—juries have acquitted people who supposedly committed murder in their sleep—but believing in the existence of sleep disorders was one thing. Believing in ghosts? That was something else entirely.

Marienne had placed her hand on Gina’s and pressed it; a hard but fleeting squeeze. They’ll believe, she said.

To this day, Gina doesn’t know exactly what Marienne did. What she showed them. She’s never asked.

But whatever it was, it was enough.

They arrived, that last day in court, and they were different people. It was evident—to Gina, at least—from the pallor of their skin, the shadows in their eyes. Different people, suddenly living in a different world.

Not guilty.

Sometimes Gina thinks about trying to look them up, trying to talk to them—if anyone’s going to understand how they feel, it’s her. But she doesn’t, because what can she do? Say sorry?

She is sorry, of course, for all of it for whatever they went through, for the death of her mother, and for everything that led up to it: her recklessness, her selfishness, her irresponsibility. Everything that very definitely was her fault. She thinks Marienne probably is too—sorry for not telling her to fuck off right at the start.

Gina leaves some cash on the table for her drink, and a note scribbled on a napkin for Marienne, when she turns up.

Good. Fine. No.

The only one who wasn’t sorry? Stacey. Stacey wasn’t sorry at all.

Gina tries to pretend—to herself as much as anyone else—that she doesn’t know that. She tries to pretend she doesn’t know, doesn’t remember, any of it. But it’s not true.

Stacey cut their mother’s throat—sliced so deep and so wide that the woman was practically decapitated—and she loved every second of it.

This is what happens, she said, with Gina’s voice. This is what happens when you’re a bad girl. And she laughed, so long and hard that Gina hadn’t been able to talk above a whisper afterwards.

That had always been Stacey’s thing, right from when they were tiny; if she was frightened, or in pain, she laughed. And it always made everything so, so much worse. Don’t you dare laugh at me. I’m your mother, and you will respect me. You ungrateful brat. You bad, bad girl.

That kind of thing becomes a prophecy of sorts, after a while. If you hear it enough, what choice do you have but to believe it? So Stacey grew up to do exactly what was expected of her—the thieving, the violence, the drugs. The sad, squalid death in a filthy bedsit. Because that’s what happens when you’re a bad girl: you come to a bad end.

In her dreams, Gina’s not sorry either, and she doesn’t know why she tries to say differently when she’s awake. In her dreams, she remembers the weight of the knife in her hand, the shocking colour and warmth of the arterial blood, the confusion on her mother’s face. Gina? What are you doing, girl?

And her voice says Gina’s not here right now, but it’s not true. She’s there. Finally, belatedly, she’s there. She’s doing what she should have done so long ago: helping her sister. Protecting her. Saving her.

Together they stab and slice, sink that knife into flesh as hard and deep as it will go. And it’s fine, it’s good, it’s righteous. It’s exactly as it should be. Because this is what happens to bad girls. This is what’s meant to happen.

And every night, as soon as she closes her eyes, this is what she sees. What she remembers. Over and over again. And yes, she loves it. Every single time.

She wakes up panting for breath, sweating, unsure if she screamed—or laughed—out loud or not. She pushes a hank of damp hair out of her eyes and looks in the mirror. It’s become a compulsion, checking her reflection, one she hasn’t been able to break. Even though she no longer knows who she’s hoping to see.

She dresses and goes walking, not caring that she’s alone, on dangerous streets, in the middle of the night. You need to stop taking risks, Marienne keeps telling her. But in these moments, when it’s just her and the dark, she knows she’s not risking death. She’s courting it.

Occasionally she hears things around her: footfalls, groans, muffled shouts. But no one comes near. No hands reach for her shoulder or neck, no weapons glint in the anaemic glow of street lamps. Sometimes she thinks they smell it on her—the blood, the frenzy, the death—and back off, satisfied that she’s not a victim but a kindred spirit. Sometimes she thinks she catches glimpses of Marienne in the shadows, walking behind her.

Either way, she’s been wondering lately if it’s not being done for her as much as to her. Maybe being protected, being kept alive, isn’t so much a blessing, or a sign of forgiveness, as a punishment. And maybe that’s as it should be.

When the first hints of sunrise begin to streak the sky, Gina whispers, ‘Good. Fine. No.’ Then she turns around and goes home.

How exactly Gina found Marienne, she doesn’t remember. The whole idea was as half-crazed as she was herself, after Stacey died—wild and lost, out of her mind with grief and rage and a battery of if onlys. If only she’d known more, done more, cared more. If only she’d given Stacey more money, or maybe not given her any at all. If only she’d taken that last call, when it came. If only, if only, if only.

If only she could try again. Get a second chance, for both of them.

I’m sorry, they all said—the doctors, the counsellors, the priests, shaking their heads and giving her sad, understanding glances—but you have to know this isn’t possible.

But she wasn’t prepared to know that, so she went further afield, asked different kinds of people—and she carried on asking until she got a different answer. I might know someone who can do that.

And eventually, there was an introduction, a meeting, a glimmer of hope. Eventually, there was Marienne.

She didn’t look like a witch. Or a psychic, or an exorcist, or whatever she is—Gina’s still not sure if there’s an actual job description. A bit of all three, maybe. No, Marienne looked like anyone you might walk past on the street and not look twice at. Someone who might do your taxes, or prescribe you tranquillisers, or deliver your post. She looked like anyone and no one. (And thinking about it now, Gina wonders if that might not have been part of the job description, too.)

‘No,’ she’d said at first, when she heard what Gina wanted. ‘Absolutely not. Trust me, you don’t want to do this. It’s a bad, bad idea.’

There was more in the same vein, but Gina didn’t listen. All she cared about was that nowhere in her rant did Marienne say she couldn’t do it.

‘I want you to bring my sister back,’ she said. ‘Put her in my body. We can share. I don’t mind. I’m happy with that. We shared everything when we were little.’

Marienne had gone off on another tirade—‘For Christ’s sake, woman, this isn’t like taking turns with fucking bikes and Barbie dolls’—but Gina had refused to back down or go away. And eventually, whether it was because Marienne felt sorry for her, or wanted to get rid of her, or because Gina finally offered the amount of money Marienne couldn’t say no to, she agreed.

‘She won’t be the same,’ was Marienne’s final warning. Her final attempt to make Gina change her mind. ‘Even if it works, what comes back won’t be the person you knew.’

‘I don’t care,’ Gina insisted, wrapped snugly in her ignorant self-righteousness. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

It did, of course, but Gina didn’t understand what that meant until Stacey’s rage was in her head and the knife was in her hand.

Even now, she doesn’t know what she was hoping would happen. Some kind of reversion to the days when they’d been close, maybe, when it had all seemed so easy and full of promise. But there can never be any going back, and she should have known it. No atonements, no do-overs, no second chances. No more bikes and Barbie dolls.

Gina sits in her latest apartment with the lights off and watches television with the sound too low to hear. Her phone rings intermittently, and she knows it’s Marienne even though her name never comes up on the display.

She should answer it, she knows, because that’s what normal people do when the phone rings, and she’s been trying hard to be normal again. She thinks she’d quite like that, although she’s having a little trouble remembering what it looks like.

Maybe if she watches enough TV, it’ll come back to her.

Stacey used to like cop shows—the formulaic, murder-of-the-week kind where the detectives are brilliant, the bad guys make mistakes, and justice is served by the end of the hour. I like fantasy, she used to say.

Gina watches these shows through the night on an endless loop, but it doesn’t make her feel any better. Justice, fantasy—she doesn’t even know what those words mean anymore.

Does Stacey still enjoy watching TV? Is there anything of her left, behind Gina’s eyes? She doesn’t know that, either.

The old guy behind the bar nods at her, and the flare of recognition in his eyes almost makes Gina turn around and walk out straight away. But then he starts pouring vodka over ice before she asks for it, and she realises it’s the acknowledgement of a regular, nothing more. He sets the drink in front of her, takes her money and gives her another quick nod with the change, then moves on to another customer. He doesn’t look at her again.

She relaxes and swipes a plastic straw, using it to swirl the ice cubes around; watching them gradually melt in their own little whirlpool.

‘Is this seat taken?’ Marienne says.

Gina doesn’t bother answering. She’ll sit anyway.

They watch the news on a TV mounted on the wall above the bar: political scandals, corporate profits, cancer warnings. Business as usual.

Marienne orders another drink. Gina doesn’t. She carries on playing with her straw with one hand and leaves the other lying flat on the bar. Marienne covers it with her own and squeezes, fierce and hard.

‘Good,’ Gina says, after a while. ‘Fine.’ She looks at her hand and thinks about pulling it away. Thinks about leaving her drink and slipping away.

She doesn’t. She tries a smile, instead. It doesn’t feel entirely normal, but perhaps that’ll come back to her too.

‘Maybe,’ she finishes, and squeezes back.

-END-

Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her stories have appeared/are forthcoming in over seventy different venues, including Strange Horizons, Interzone, and Black Static. Click here for links to her published stories, many of which are free to read online.

She loves zombies, Las Vegas, and good Scotch whisky — not necessarily in that order — and her favourite author is Stephen King (sadly, no relation). She’s been a mortgage underwriter, supermarket cashier, makeup artist, tarot reader, and insurance claims handler before having the good fortune to be able to write full-time.

Her first short story collection Transient Tales is available as an ebook and paperback now. See Books Available for full details and links.

She is currently working on her next collection of stories, a paranormal crime novel, and a comic fantasy.
Feedback on any stories is always welcome. Contact Michelle at michelle3791[at]gmail[dot]com
Visit her official website: www.transientcactus.co.uk
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