Masquerade by Tabitha Potts

You practice twenty kicks against the punchbag, sweat pouring into your eyes. Teeps, the high kicks, up to twenty. Usually used to gauge distance, so you can follow up with a side kick or some other form of attack. But they can be lethal on their own if you judge them right and use enough force. Then you work on your punches, jab-cross-jab-cross and the occasional hook. You don’t bruise any more from the kicks, you used to when you started training and your shins were patterned with tiny purple marks, like little love-bites. They’ve hardened up now.

It’s time to go home and you get into the shower. The other women are getting changed, chatting about the class. You close your eyes and let it all drift away into the hot water. When you finally come out, they’ve left the changing room, so they won’t see the fingerprints on your arms, branded there from when he shoved you up against the wall that time. He’s at work now. He won’t be back till dark.

Your phone rings as you pull your expensive trainers on, it’s your mother. You don’t answer, you flick the switch to ‘Busy’. Last time you visited her, she was colourless and subdued as she crept around the tiny house, like an insect that had camouflaged itself to match its surroundings in order to survive. He kept up a constant stream of criticism, a subdued rise and fall which only emphasised how diminished he was now, confined to his armchair after that second stroke.

The vein in his forehead throbs when he is angry, once a signal to lock your door and block your ears. You watched it on that last visit with detachment, wondering when that rise and ebb, those tidal waves of arterial blood pumped around his body and then returned to their hidden source by tributaries of veins, would finally wash him away. You watched her as she fussed about making his tea with a mixture of pity and contempt.

Busy is what you are, busy is what you will continue to be as far as she’s concerned. Even if most of your days are spent in the tower, idly watching nature documentaries or shopping online. You like to learn about animals: how they warn off or evade their predators, how they sometimes resist them. Some creatures masquerade, pretending to be to be something else, a leaf or a twig. Some use distraction techniques, displaying unusual colouring or adopting strange poses, to give themselves a chance to escape. A bird will fake a broken wing.

The first time he broke you, he was sorry. Dozens of red roses appeared, nightmare spots of colour in the bland surroundings of your private hospital room. You’ve never liked looking at them, since then. ‘He’s so wonderful’ simpered the nurses, as he sat at your bedside holding your hand. You didn’t blame them. His good looks were something that you’d come to accept, the way they deflected criticism or blame. People said you and he made a beautiful couple. Only one of the doctors seemed a little more sceptical. ‘Are you sure this was just an accident?’ she’d said, frowning at her notes, on a rare occasion when he was not at your side. You’d nodded, silently.

He texts to check that you are home. You reply with red hearts and lipstick kisses. You’re high enough to see the other towers sparkle in the sky through the huge glass windows and the river coiling silently, gleaming in the rapidly growing dusk. The apartment is quiet now.

He won’t be home yet. He felt like home when you first met him, his kiss as familiar as electricity. You didn’t realise that he could sense your tender places, the damaged areas under your smooth surface, and it drew him towards you. His fingers sought out your bruises until they blossomed on your skin like secret, poisonous flowers.

White wine on your tongue cold and smooth as silk, you get the steaks out of the fridge. He likes them bloody and rare. The knife in your hand is Japanese steel, wavy patterns etched in the metal below the inscribed kanji. You remember how he pored over them in the Tokyo store, rejecting knife after knife until the store owner finally fetched this set from the back of the store, balancing them on his hand to show how easy they were to hold, slicing through a piece of paper effortlessly. You are holding the chutoh knife, whose only purpose is to cut through meat. Quickly, you trim the fat. He watches his weight, and you do the same. That’s why the gym is allowed. He doesn’t care what you do there.

You were one of their top girls when he found you. You partied with the best, or the worst, depending on one’s point of view. Your platinum credit card, and your expensive underwear, and your designer shoes with the spiked heels and your flashing jewels, were all part of you. You’d adapted to your environment, creating a shining, impervious exoskeleton to match your unaccented voice, your unshockable gaze. For him, you were willing to set it aside. And he brought you here.

The apartment is immaculate. You sometimes wonder if any of your neighbours in the towers opposite ever look across, perhaps with a telescope or binoculars, and see what goes on in here. If they do, they’ve never done anything about it. A hypothetical observer would be impressed by the glossy efficiency of his marble kitchen island and the smooth perfection of the poured concrete floors. Everything in this apartment, from the chrome and leather chairs to the bright, carefully chosen artwork, screams ‘Taste. Money’.

You, his prize possession, were also chosen from an exclusive catalogue. He doesn’t let you forget this. The observer would note that you are wearing high heels with your silk dress as he prefers you to do, even in the comfort of your own home. They would not be able to hear the pounding of your trapped heart, feel the dryness of your mouth that even the cool white wine will not soothe.

The surveillance system lets you know he is on his way up in the lift, pinging your phone. ‘Giles is here’. The name is camouflage. He’s from nowhere, just like you are. But like you, he knows how to hide it. Luckily, the system is always disarmed when you are at home, cameras set to ‘Private’. He doesn’t want anything recorded, ever. Neither do you. Not tonight.

He smiles as he enters the room, sees the tableau vivant you’ve created for him. His woman waiting behind the marble island. Red lipstick, high heels. Candles, lit, on the large glass table. The table is laid with sparkling glasses and fine china. He comes towards you and you hand him a glass of white wine, chilled to the correct temperature. He sets his glass down on the marble counter top, lifts your hair up to kiss the back of your neck. You shiver.

He showers and changes his clothes before coming back. You have prepared the steaks, wagyu beef, a salad chosen for beauty as well as taste. A decanter of red wine waits on the table. You sit down to eat with him. You have put the cloth napkins next to each plate, ironed and folded precisely. You are sitting where you always sit, to his right. He sits with his back to the wall, looking out over the river, the sparkling lights hung in the dark sky. He smells of cologne. He is relaxed, on his own territory, eyes half-closed. Your right hand toys with your napkin.

You’ve mapped out his secret territories – his lungs, heart and liver. Bodies are your stock-in-trade, after all. So when the chutoh knife slides into him, it does so with the precision and inevitability of the last step in a dance. He doesn’t even have the time to react, apart from his widening eyes. Slowly, he slides to the floor, and you kneel down to watch him from a safe distance. Thanatosis – playing dead – is a trick played by both predators and prey. Is he still breathing? Red wine drips from the table, where his arm knocked the decanter. It mingles with his blood.

Some prey animals secrete toxins in their body to repel others. Toxins lurk in their spines or scales. Sometimes as a last defense, a bite of their flesh can kill. One lizard squirts blood from its own eyes into the eyes of its attacker. This weakens it so much that it is a desperate act. You feel drained by your own exertions, yet strangely calm.

You fetch a mirror from your handbag and hold it above his lips. Is there a faint mist? You text a number on your burner phone. The other man will be here soon. You know the price he will ask for this. It is one you are willing to pay. On an impulse you hold the mirror up to your own face. Your skin is faintly flushed, your nostrils dilated, your eyes shine. At last, you look like a predator.

This short story was Highly Commended by the Booker Prize at Birkbeck competition and eventually published by the brilliant Elixir Magazine