WARNING: underage prostitution, implied rape/non-con, self-harm, drug use, ableist language, suicide

The cat does not trust her.

It is too weak. She can smell the pest and the pus and dirty blood. And urine. Everything smells like urine and infection, here.

But it is smart. It knows a predator when it sees one. Its fluttering heartbeat betrays its silent demeanor. Cats are interesting creatures. Graceful, Laura supposes, in face of imminent danger. People scramble and scream; cats, not so. She finds them curious. How a tiny thing could maintain such control. She moves forward, slightly. The cat mirrors her movement in reverse.

It knows a predator when it sees one. Takes one to know one, is it? Maybe if she shows it her claws, they could be friends. See, I'm just like you. I have sharp knives, she thinks.

Laura nudges the opened can of tuna further, with the tip of her finger, slowly. The aluminum bottom scrapes the ground with a pitiful, gentle sound. She waits. The kitten looks at her, she looks back; a staring contest. And then it bolts away.

She stands up from her kneeling position, slowly. The cat did not leave; it's up there, in between pipes and exhaust fans, a gleaming eye. Its other eye is missing, having been violently yanked, from what it seems. Smart cat. Knows a predator when it sees one.

"Eat," Laura calls, to the dark. The one eye blinks. She goes out of the alley.

She leaves the can there.

Pain is trite, and she understands addiction. Masochism is not a sickness—unless sickness is defined by pleasure, and she does understand pleasure. She does understand pain. She does understand love. Correlation, in this case, is causation.

She unsheathes her claws. Adamantium. Virtually indestructible. And skin.

She touches it, the skin, the slope of the man's chest, down in the middle, to the tender round of his abdomen. Skin, flesh. The man shivers, and moans—see, she understands pleasure—and writhes, like he's dying. Oh, no. Not yet. Indestructible object, meet skin.

The first push is barely noticeable. The tip is like a needle—a scalpel, perhaps. Surgical. Maybe that's why she does this; never have these knives brought anything other than pain, never.

Once the pain hits the nerve, however. His body trashes, futile, under the weight of her, under the hold of her. Pain, pleasure—what's the difference, if the impact is identical? His mouth opens, a string of wordless keen; the same old song that lulls her to sleep. The writhe, the tremble, the accelerated beat of his heart. The roll of his eyes. The spasm of his toes. One reacts to pain like one reacts to pleasure. Pain, pleasure. Maybe that's why she does this; the familiarity. She recognizes this, this pattern of behavior, this ruin form of a man. She made this.

She cuts. Blade splits skin open, as gentle as she can, like a—

"Kiss," the man sobs. The man asked her to call him Adam, fifteen minutes ago, when she'd walked in and stripped her clothes. "Kiss me," he says, and she obeys.

She has kissed before. More now than she ever did, but she has. In the missions. There was a man who called her beautiful before she gutted him. And a woman who—

No one touched her in the labs. Not like that, not really. Kimura, she—

Her mother kissed her. Twice. Twice, and no more. The brush of her lips, on Laura's hair, the first time, the breathing of her—barely there. And the second time, met the skin of her temple. That's when she knew what gentle was. After her mother, kissing is never like that anymore: not gentle, nor kind.

She understands pleasure. She understands want and possession. Ownership.

(The way Kimura looked at her. The way they all look at her. The way Adam is looking at her right now.)

Adam's fingers are cold and clammy around her hips, gripping at the bone in that proprietary way they all do. "Deeper."

The skin. How tender. How breakable. Blood wells gently to the surface, beads of shimmering red on the soft pink flesh. His erection grows under her.

"God, you're so good, baby," and then wordless again, and then, "more," and then, "call me good. Call—call me a good boy."

"Good boy," she says, she slits. Sinking, sinking.

Laura retracts her claws. The bathroom door slams open.

"Hey," Nina says, and then her gaze flickers to Laura's arms, and her smile falls. She closes the door with the bottom of her heels. She tears her eyes away, takes a bag of coke from the back of her underwear. "He won't be happy if he sees those, you know. Want a bump? It's the good stuff, you know?"

Laura looks down. Nina shrugs. "More for me, then," she says, some guy's business card on her right hand. She bows down. "God, yeah," after a few silent seconds, "you sure you d-don't want some? It'll make you feel better. So much better. T-than c-cutting, you. You know. You just finished, right? Me too. Always feel like shit after, after fucking a John, you know what I mean? I know you do. 'S why I always got a bag with me," Nina giggles. Her eyes are black, like tar. "Don't tell Daddy though. You sure you don't want some? Hey, what's your name, anyway? Everyone calls you Baby but that can't be rig—"

A knock on the door. Jade's face peeks out. "Oh, you're here. Daddy's lookin' for you," Jade says, and then her gaze moves to Laura. "What the fuck, is that blood?"

"Shit," Nina says. "Now? Fuck," she looks at Laura. "Find me if you want some, 'kay?" she closes the door.

The bell jingles when she walks in. She doesn't like that; but she doesn't have to be so silent anymore. Everyone tells her so.

"Joe, I'm telling you—"

"C'mon, man, y-you know I don't have nuthin' else, yeah?"

"I can't keep doing this, alright? I'm sorry, but you gotta go, man."

She walks to the cashier. The sick man on the front of the line is holding a can of pringles and a gatorade. He smells like rats and shit and urine and cocaine and expired pizza. The cashier, a chubby blond guy looks at him exasperatedly—and then his gaze moves to her, momentarily. "C'mon, Joe. You're holding up the line."

"Man, Danny, 's the last time I promise, man, on my mum's grave, Chrisssakes—"

The cashier sighs. "Joe," he starts. He sighs again, rubs the bridge of his nose. "Shit. Fine, alright? Just go."

"God bless you, man, really, Jesus loves you, man—"

"Whatever, just go." The bell jingles again, as the man leaves. She glances at the wide angle mirror. The seven-eleven is empty.

"Damn. Sorry about that," the cashier says, sighs for the third time. "Is that all?" she places her purchase—a single can of tuna. Starkist. Then takes three packets of condom from the nearby shelf and puts them together.

A momentary pause. She knows he's taking a second look at her, now, her clothes, her messed up hair and smeared eyeliner.

He starts scanning the items. "How old are you," he says, almost a mumble. She looks at him. She places a couple of shriveled dollar bills on the table, wordless. Another pause. And then he takes the money.

"You need a bag with that?" she nods. He gives her a plastic bag. She takes it, but he doesn't let it go. "Hey," he starts. "I know it's none of my business, but—"

"Your name is not Danny," she says, out of the blue. Her voice is rough, like sandpaper, unoiled cogs. "The sick man called you Danny."

He blinks; like her, he didn't expect her to speak at all. And then he looks at his own name tag, stupidly: Matthew. He looks at her again, but she's already at the door. The bell jingles as she steps out into cold night air.

"Your mascara is all fucked up."

She knows. She raises a palm to wipe the excess under her eyes, but Nina stops her before she does so. "Don't do that—Jesus, that's not how you do it." Her fingers are scrawny around Laura's wrist. "Here, let me. C'mon, sit down."

She does. Nina fumbles in her shiny glittery purse—it's new, she said so last week, Daddy bought it for her, it's Louis Vuitton—and produces a small pack of crumpled tissue. "Aha," She starts dabbing them around Laura's eyes.

"You're so fucking creepy," Nina comments. "You and your big green eyes." Laura says nothing. She moves her gaze down, though, no longer staring unblinkingly at Nina's dark eyes. Laura thinks they look like the earth. Nina puts the tissue away and takes out an eyeliner that Laura knows she shoplifted out of drug stores. They all did.

"You're pretty, you know," Nina says, with a tone of something Laura doesn't understand. "Like, actually pretty. Don't waste that. They're going to treat you better cuz you're pretty. So don't waste that." The tip of the eyeliner is ticklish on her eyelids, but Laura stays deathly still. She holds her gaze down, staring holes into Nina's tore down stockings, her warm thighs. "You really don't speak, huh?" and then she kisses her.

Nina's lips are glossy and chapped and taste like cherry. It lasts short, just a tiny, soft peck. And then Nina takes out a lipstick and puts it on her. She tastes like Nina, now, she thinks. She observes how Nina's cheeks are reddening, up to the tip of her ears, and how she can't seem to look at Laura in the eye.

"It looks good on you. Better than it does on me, anyway," Nina mumbles. Laura doesn't think so. On Nina, the red looks like a lantern, glowing. On Laura, like all reds do, it looks like a wound. "Anyway. Daddy wants to see you. Said you did a good job. The John paid extra, he said." Nervous fumbling. Nina tucks a strand of her curl behind her right ear. "You're gonna be his favorite soon, you know."

That's not true. Nina is Daddy Zebra's favorite. She's been with him the longest, and Laura can see it in the way he looks at her. When Daddy looks at Nina, he looks like Kimura. But Laura does not say this. What she says, instead, is: "you're pregnant."

Nina's gaze flicks up to her face. Eyes wide and round and dark like earth. "What?"

"You're pregnant." Laura repeats.

Nina looks at her for a while. Opens her mouth, and then closes it again. She takes Laura's hand in a tight clammy grip and brings her through the hallway.

The music is sickeningly loud and they race with Nina's heartbeat in a disconcerting rhythm. Nina brings her to the backdoor and they step into the dark of the back alley.

"How did you now?" she is afraid, Laura observes. "I didn't fucking tell anyone."

"I can hear it," Laura answers. It's tiny, but it's there. A second heartbeat.

Nina stares. And then realization dawns on her. "You're a—a mut—" she closes her mouth, suddenly, can't bear to say the word. "Shit," she says, finally, and she's crying, now. "Fuck."

Nina stumbles, like she doesn't have knees all of a sudden, back against the grim graffitied wall. The beat of EDM pulses through the air. Laura looks up. There are no stars.

"It's been two months since—" Nina takes a sharp breath. "I don't know who I—doesn't matter, right, doesn't fucking matter which fucking John. I found out, but I can't tell him—I can't, you gotta fucking know, he's going to—so I didn't—" she hiccups, and wipes her eyes furiously, smearing black all over her eyes. "I don't think Daddy n-notices, yet, but when he does, he'll. Fuck. He's not going to have me l-lose it, and I—I don't—"

Nina's shoulders shake, like they're crumbling; Laura imagines how it'd feel to be so fragile. So close to a shattering. "I knew he would, I knew he wouldn't let me, he's my—I knew him since I was thirteen, you know, he's all I h-h.."

The exposed skin of Nina's shoulders are cold under Laura's hands. A neon bra strap is caught under her ring finger. Laura does not know what she's doing; a poor imitation, of what a touch should be. Nevertheless, she holds Nina like she's keeping her from shattering apart. Nina makes a strangled sound: pain, Laura thinks, this is what pain looks like. She's seen it a million times. Nina's forehead slides underneath her chin, as Laura's collarbones start to soak in her tears. It feels like Nina is melting against her. She smells like smoke and sex and sadness. "Please don't tell anyone," Nina says, when she can speak. Laura's hands are around her, awkward and stiff; they both pretend it's a hug. "Please don't tell anyone."

Laura nods, and looks up to the empty sky.

Sometimes she pries herself open, so she can crack, and spill, like the sky.

It's not a need; it's an indulgence. Pain is a luxury packaged neatly as a punishment, as a justification. Justifying her pain, justifying the pleasure of pain. See, she understands.

Body is a body is a body, and hers is perfect. Constructed, furnished, man-made. Her skin is warm human and untouchable machine. She counts the ribs underneath her breasts with the gallows of her knives. And she is beautiful, for they tell her so.

When the men and women touch her she can see that they think of her as a trinket, a luxurious item. A touch is to unwrap her, like a present, the big strip tease. She tries too, sometimes, as she peels back her skin and sees the flesh underneath, ripe red, saccharine sweet, blood bliss. She is a wonder, a miracle, the perfect specimen.

She imagines her skin is made of glass and she can see all the fingerprints of everyone who's ever touched her, imprinted on the surface of her. She imagines her skin is made of glass and when she jumps off all the skyscrapers she shatters to a million pieces.

But she is the perfect specimen: dying, like everything else, she does very well.

The second cut is always deeper. The third one is even deeper. Her skin heals by the fourth and unblemished by the fifth.

She places the can of tuna at the cashier along with a five.

"Anything else?"

She doesn't answer. He looks at her. "I'm a new guy," he says. "The guy who worked before me, his name is Danny. I think he—" Matthew nods in a vague direction outside. She follows the direction. She can see the sick caucasian man from before across the street, sitting under a broken down umbrella. "He, Joe, I mean. He just. Can't see the difference." A pause. She notices that he hesitates a lot, when he speaks. "He's got some kind of memory defect, I hear. I don't know." She says nothing. He slides her change, and gives her the bag.

She takes the bag. And then she says, "I did not buy the sandwich."

Matthew looks at her for a moment. There's that hesitation again. He's an anxious person. "My treat," he says, finally, unsure. "Just. Uh. Just take it, alright."

She turns, and leaves. She doesn't unwrap the cold sandwich until two blocks later.

"The fuck is the matter with you? Ohmygod, Nicole, are you—"

"'M not fucking pregnant," Nicole snaps, and then she throws up again. Karin is holding her afro behind as she vomits out whatever little thing she had for lunch earlier today. "Shit, I'm not."

"You said you're running late this month!"

"God, Karin, you're freaking me out. What the hell are you looking at?"

She's scared, Laura can see that much. Laura moves her gaze down. "Mute freak," Nicole spits at her, and then barfs. "I'm not pregnant, I'm not." Her voice trembles; very slightly, but Laura hears it.

"Are you keeping it?"

Nicole flips a middle finger. "You're a fat cunt, Jade," she says, when she can speak again. Jade flips a middle finger right back; her right one, as her left one is holding the glitter pink nail polish.

Nicole punches the flush and shoves Karin's hands away from her hair. "Where is Nina, anyway? Hey, you—you know where Nina is? I don't know why I bother," Nicole looks down at Laura with disgust. "You're like, fucking retarded or something."

"Don't say that," Karin says, sparing a careful, pitying glance at Laura. Nicole rolls her eyes. "Whatever," she takes a pack from the vanity and lights a smoke with trembling fingers. "Nina's probably doing coke off someone's dick," she exhales, smoke curling underneath the neon light. Her eyes glimmer into slits, girlish and contemptuous. "What a crackwhore."

Laura stands up and leaves. She ignores Karin's call—where are you going? Daddy doesn't allow…

She goes out, climbs a building and jumps.

She dreams, sometimes, of the snow and the red and the black of her mother's hair. In her dreams, when the blood spills, the snow stays white and clean. Untouched, like Laura's skin. Dreams leave no trace when they kill and when they are killed. Dreams never happened.

Sometimes Laura thinks everything that has happened to her never did.