“Don’t be Scarred” by Kristen Roupenian, is the Grand Prize winning story for the Eleventh Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, besting 1,300 entries across six genres: crime, horror, romance, science fiction, thriller, and young adult. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with Roupenian and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Twelfth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Roupenian’s winning entry.
Don’t Be Scarred
by Kristen Roupenian
I found the book shoved behind a shelf in the library. Hardly a book at all, really. No covers, just a bunch of Xeroxed pages stapled together. No space for a card in the back, or one of those little scanner strips, either. I rolled it up, put it in my pocket, and walked straight past the librarians. Rebel rebel.
When I got home, I opened it to the first page and I did exactly as instructed. I drew a circle in chalk on the floor of my basement, crushed together basil and blackberry from my cupboard like I was mixing up a fancy summer cocktail, then added a burnt lock of my hair and a fresh drop of my blood, which I gauged out with a pin from the ball of my thumb. Not because I believed it would bring me my heart's desire—I wasn’t even sure I had one of those—but because I've read enough books in my life to know that when you find a mysterious book of spells hidden behind the shelf of your local library, you have to try at least one.
To my disappointment, but not my surprise, nothing happened. I flipped through the rest of the book, curious about what else I could have conjured: wealth, beauty, power, love. It seemed a bit redundant: at least some of those must have been covered under the category heart's desire. Frankly, the whole concept was a little too New Age-y for me.
I got up to go. The thought of summer cocktails had made me thirsty, and the basement reeked of burnt hair.
He wasn't there, and then he was; there was no time for falling. Still, he looked as though had. His knees were scraped bloody on the concrete, his palms splayed out, his head was bowed. Shaking like a dog just come from the bath.
I almost laughed. That was the part of my brain that started working again first, the part that thought, A naked man, what a literal definition of desire. Then the rest of me caught up and I scrambled up the basement steps shrieking, tripped, and fell against the door.
As I blubbered and pawed at the door handle, he stood up. Swayed. His ankle turned, in a way that made me wince. He stumbled, righted himself again.
He lifted his head and looked at me. “Don't be scared,” he said.
Only, he had an accent, Scottish, maybe, or Irish, so he swallowed the 'a' and the 'r' came out long and burred: “Don't be scarred.”
I forced the door open and fled into the kitchen. I slammed the door behind me, locked it, and ran to the knife block on the counter. I grabbed the two largest knives and whipped them out in front of me. I had expected him to chase me, to try to kick down the door—it was flimsy—but thirty seconds passed, and the basement stayed quiet.
Keeping my knives at the ready, I edge over to my purse and knocked it over with my elbow, so that my cell phone skittered out across the table.
I could call 9-11 and I wouldn't even have to explain.
“There is a naked man in my house.”
“How did he get there?” “I don't know.”
That would bring them, sirens wailing. Even if when they arrived he had vanished—even if I were hallucinating all of this—I could tell them he had escaped through the window. Calling the police was a low-risk solution.
If my sense of the absurd was the first chunk of my brain to recover from shock, and my fear the second, my curiosity was coming in a slow third.
I had done magic.
Sometimes, when people in stories encounter the paranormal, they react with horror as the fabric of reality shreds and they are faced with the dawning recognition that everything they once believed was a lie. As I stared down at my cell phone, I had that exact feeling, except the opposite: not horror but a giddy, mounting joy. This was what all those books had promised. I knew it, I thought. I knew the world was more interesting than it was pretending to be.
I put my phone in my back pocket, double-checked that I knew exactly which button to push to make an emergency call. I shoved one knife in my waistband, its metal cold against my thigh, took another knife from the block so that my hands held two again. Finally, I put on my black leather jacket, partly for warmth but mostly for psychological reinforcement.
He was still in the middle of the circle, right where I'd left him.
I guess now is the time when I’m supposed to tell you what he looked like. Can I say instead that if I describe him to you in terms of hair, eye color, shape of face, the effect will be all wrong, because he was the living, breathing embodiment of my deepest desires, not of yours?
So you must imagine your own naked man, and I will tell you only this: he was larger than I would have expected, more fully embodied, and that is only partially a dirty joke. There was no prettiness about him, and nothing effeminate. And nothing angelic, either, so if that's what you had started to picture, start again.
I sat down on the top step of the stairs and jabbed my knife at him.
“I can't,” he said. “Look.” To demonstrate, he took a half-step forward and then stumbled back a little, as though he'd walked into a glass door.
It looked real enough, but I supposed the universe could have sent me a naked, duplicitous mime. I poked the knife in the air again in warning.
The spell book was lying half-open a few steps down from me, and I swiped for it. Quickly, I scanned the page of the spell again, looking for clues, but I saw nothing, only the title at the very top, in blurred, old-fashioned typeface: Heart's Desires.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He opened his mouth, closed it, and wrapped his arms around himself. “I don't know,” he said. “I don't remember.”
“You don't remember your name? Or you don't remember anything?”
He shook his head. “Anything,” he said sadly. “Nothing at all.”
“Do you grant wishes?”
“No,” he said, and then his mouth curved up into a small, rueful smile. “Not that I know of, at least. I guess we could try.”
“I wish for a cat,” I said. It just slipped out. I was trying to think of something small and not dangerous, something which I'd know immediately if it had arrived. “No. Stop. I take that back. I don't want a cat, that doesn't count. I want a hundred million dollars. In dollars, not coins. In hundred dollar bills, I mean. Right here in front of me. Make it appear.”
The man looked at me with a slightly amused expression, and when no cat or money appeared, he turned his palms up and grinned. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I didn’t think it would work.”
His smile sent a rush of blood to my face, but I forced myself to not to smile back. That was how I always responded to beauty, both in women and men: drawn to it at first, and then recoiling. Ruled by my own shallow impulses, then angry at the trick.
“It's a bit cold in here,” he said gently. “I wonder if I might have a blanket?”
“I'll think about it,” I said.
Upstairs, I paced around anxiously, flipping the knife back and forth in my hand. Part of me thought, okay just give the naked guy a blanket! But another part resisted, and here was my reasoning: this spell was not straightforward. If it wasn't black magic, then it was slippery magic at least. Because if he'd said, “I'm a pediatric oncologist, but I write poetry on the side,” all right, maybe, heart's desire. But what good was a handsome amnesiac to me? Also, historically, chalk circles contain devils and demons, not potential boyfriends. Giving him anything might mean bridging the circle and setting him free. I probed my heart carefully. If I screwed this up now, I might not get another chance to make it right. I decided it was a time for a little more reading.
He’d be fine. After all, the basement wasn't that cold.
When I made my way downstairs again several hours later, my guest was looking rather pale. He was sitting on the ground, his arms wrapped tightly around his legs. There was a damp spot on the far side of the circle, and the basement smelled now not only of burnt hair, but of piss.
“I'm sorry I kept you waiting so long,” I said. “I've got that blanket for you now. And I'll run upstairs and grab you an empty Gatorade bottle or something in just a bit.”
The man looked up at me. “Listen,” he said. “I know this must seem strange to you, but I swear, it's even stranger to me. I'll do whatever you ask me to do, and I won’t hurt you, I promise, but please, at least try: if you were to smudge this circle up a bit, or wash it off entirely, maybe I could get out, and we could go upstairs and talk this over?”
“Yeah...” I said. “I'm not going to do that. I'm sorry, it's just, you could be a demon or something, and I can't take that chance. But I think I've come up with a way to figure it out. Listen, I'm going to hand you the blanket, assuming I can reach through the circle. I want you to take it, but then I want you to leave your hand right there, at the edge, where I can reach it. Don't try anything tricky. Got it?”
He sighed. “I've got it,” he said. He sounded tired.
I thrust the blanket at him. He took it, and keeping his hand outstretched, as I'd told him to do, and I slashed the blade of my knife across the back of his arm.
“What the fuck?!” he shouted, stumbling back. He fell against the other side of the chalk circle, and it was dizzying to watch, the way the empty air seemed to catch him, the way he slid down the invisible barrier as though it were a glass wall. I'd cut him more deeply than I'd meant to, and a thick line of red was welling from his forearm. He was staring at me with a mixture of horror and disbelief, jamming his back against the far edge of the circle as though if he pushed hard enough he might be able to break through.
“Give me your arm again,” I said.
“Hell no,” he answered, cradling it with his other hand.
I took a wad of gauze out of my back pocket. “I need your blood,” I said. “I'm sorry. I just need to test something. Once I do, I'll let you out right away, I promise.”
He actually snarled at me. “Get the fuck away from me, you crazy bitch,” he said.
The next morning, I came downstairs with a tray laden full of every delicious thing the coffee shop next door had on offer: a steaming mug of French roast coffee, thick with cream and sugar; a buttery, flaky croissant, a yogurt parfait jammed full of red berries, a sliced onion bagel slathered with cream cheese and draped with slabs of bright pink lox. The basement itself stank even worse than before, but the aroma of the food cut through it, even so.
I set it down on the floor, averting my eyes from the worst of the mess in the circle. The man in the middle of it eyed me with loathing. If the spell had intended to fix me up with my dream man, I'd lost that chance now, for sure.
With gritted teeth, he shoved his arm at me. The wound had closed up, black and crusty. “Give me your other arm instead,” I said, taking the knife out again. He glared at me, his lip curled up, and didn’t move.
I know, I know, but listen: I'd read it all wrong. Heart's Desires, printed at the top of the page; not the name of the spell, but the name of the book. That first spell was nameless like the man I'd summoned. But the next spell, Wealth, contained, on its long list of ingredients, along with silver and juniper, green candles and rosemary, not blood, but heart's blood, written in that same blurry font. I'd tested the spell myself the night before, pricking another small hole in my thumb, and nothing had happened. It was his blood that I needed. And so I had to take it from him.
I pointed at the food, still well outside his reach. “I'll wait as long as it takes,” I said. “Dried blood's no good to me.”
I did the spell in the basement, while the man in the circle gobbled his breakfast. It ended anticlimactically: no wads of bills fell out of the sky. I was about the call the police and ask them to come arrest the crazy squatter who’d broken into my house when my phone rang with a call from an unknown number.
A laughing heir, is what you’re called, when the relative who dies and leaves you everything is so distant you don’t know them well enough to mourn.
I gave him a pillow to go along with the blanket, a pair of shorts, one of those little camping latrines, as much water and good restaurant food as he needed, as long as he cooperated. “Please, don't,” he said when I came back, but what would you have done?
After a week of this, he tried to wrestle the knife away from me, drag me back to the circle with him, but he was a day too late: I'd already done the spell for strength.
I swear, I treated him as well as I could.
I stopped cutting up his arms; I drew the knife as lightly as I could across his back and bandaged him up afterwards. They healed as well as could be expected in the dampness of the basement: no more ugly, crusty wounds, just a web of thin pink lines, fading prettily to silver.
It wasn't easy, doing what I did; even after weeks had gone by, it still caught me at sometimes, and I would feel as though my heart had gotten snagged on a nail. It was only when I'd finished the third spell, intelligence, that I could articulate my defense. Nameless, history-less, a body tailored precisely to my desires...even his lilting, accent had come from somewhere deep in my dreams. I hadn't just called him but created him. And therefore, since I'd gathered him together out of herbs and blood and magic and desire, that meant he wasn't quite real. He was another part of the book, like the spells themselves, or the lists of ingredients that prefaced them. Not a person, not really, but an idea, brought into being by the play of my mind and the words on the page.
Intelligence was a good gift. I should have conjured it first, because I slept a whole lot better, after that.
“You look different,” he said to me one morning. It was true. Sometimes, it took a few hours or days for a spell to unravel its thin skein of logic, winding its way towards my inheritance, or my lottery win, or my astonishingly rapid promotion to CEO. But other times, I just woke up different: that’s how it had been with strength and intelligence and now beauty.
“Yes,” I said. Given that I had myself fairly well convinced of his fundamental unreality, it came as a surprise, how much I enjoyed the look he gave me then—desired it, desired him. Now that I had my own beauty—my own set of tricks—I could let down my guard a bit.
I started to spend more and more time in the basement, talking. He didn't say much back, but at least he listened. We were both lonely. I couldn’t talk to anyone else about all the astonishing things that had begun to happen to me, and after long days alone in that cramped, dark little circle, he couldn't help but crave my company. At least, he did a good job pretending that he did.
One night, late, more than a little drunk, I promised him that when I was finished, when the book was done and there were no more spells to cast, I'd let him out of the circle and share it all with him. After all, I'd slurred, it's as much yours as mine. I wasn’t naïve – I knew I couldn't trust him. But he was still so lovely I couldn't help but want it, and I was starting to get into the habit of getting what I wanted. Of course, I knew he wouldn't be able to forgive me. Not without my help. Still, I'd only glanced at the remaining spells, strangely superstitious, but I knew the title of the last one was love.
And then a new ingredient appeared on the list.
By then, we'd established a kind of equilibrium, so when I came downstairs, carrying the knife, he offered his back to me without objection. I looked at him and felt sick. I saw how his once-perfect muscles had softened into loose, unhealthy flesh, how his skin was pasty white from days spent crouching in the dark. I saw how, despite the care I’d taken, the newest cuts were still raw, weeping through the bandages, and the way each of the knobby bones of his spine cast its own distinct shadow. I felt the stinging guilt of it, and I thought about stopping, scuffing over the circle and setting him free. I had never desired him more than I did now, broken and undesirable and needing me. Besides: given everything I already possessed– wealth, success, luck, intelligence, strength, beauty – what more could power offer me?
I spun the knifepoint in my palm, torn. We were only halfway through the book.
“I'm sorry,” I said, still spinning the knife, spinning it until my hand burned and bled. “We have to do something different today.”
It took a year. Every night, the tears became harder and harder to wring out of him. I screamed, I begged and pleaded, I cried myself. I even said, in a moment of weakness: don't you realize I'm doing this for us? But I also became creative, and not only with the knife. He cried from pain, he cried from fear, he cried from loneliness, he cried from exhaustion and confusion. And he cried for me. Some nights, I crept into the circle with him and held him as he wept, and I whispered to him about how it would be when we were together at last, when all of this was done.
He cried, I collected every salty drop, and the world cracked open like an egg my feet. I didn't just have everything I wanted, or though I wanted, or had imagined wanting; I had everything that could be wanted, that and more.
On the day I reached the last page of the book, I gathered up all the other ingredients and carried them down to the basement. Other than what he gave me, none of the spells had ever required any ingredients more exotic than the first: herbs from the farmer’s market, trinkets from the dollar store.
He was curled up on the ground, unmoving, pale and still, and when I saw him, I let out a little cry. But when I did, his eyes fluttered open.
“Shhhhhhh,” I said, and smiled. I reached into the circle and stroked his arm. By then, there was no place on his body unmarked by a crisscrossing of silver, shining scars. I wondered if they’d all be erased by this last spell, if he’d come to me fresh-skinned, as good as new.
“My love, my love,” I crooned.
He hadn’t formed coherent words in months, but he groaned and twitched, and I gently squeezed his shoulder, stroked what was left of his hair.
I flipped open the book to the last page, folded it open. I planned to burn it once today was done. I glanced at the list of ingredients, and looked back at them again. I’d read through them that morning—I knew I had—but a new one had appeared.
I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed. It always happens that way, doesn’t it? You can’t have everything your heart desires, because what would be the moral in that?
I stared back at the spell, willing it to rearrange itself, but it did not.
So I entered the circle and dragged him out. I remembered, a year ago, screaming and scrambling away from him. How tall and intimidating he’d been. Now I had strength, and he weighed next to nothing. I unfolded his limbs, peeled off his tattered shirt. I took my knife, straddled his chest. I bent down to kiss his dried, cracked lips and placed the tip of my blade at his breastbone. I would find some other love, my own heart’s true desire. The promise was right there on the in the book.
“Don’t be scared,” I whispered.