Today we’re excited to bring readers an exclusive excerpt from Paper Tigers, the forthcoming novel from Damien Angelica Walters (due out on February 29 from Dark House Press). The early word on the novel is that it’s “…a hauntingly elegant portrait of loneliness and longing for healing…” (author Bracken MaCleod) and “Wonderfully creepy and heartwarming…” (editor Sarah Read).
If you want to know more about the novel, check out our recent interview with Walters. For now, we hope you enjoy this special peek inside its pages.
Once inside, Alison stripped off her scarf, sunglasses, gloves, and coat and fetched George’s photo album before she sat down on the sofa with a soft sigh. She stretched out her hand, nodding at the truth in the shadow—three fingers and a hand with an odd, sloping edge.
With the edge of the paper held between the tip of her index finger and thumb, she flipped the page back to the inscription and traced her fingers over the letters.
“Paper tiger, paper tiger, swallow me whole,” she said, her voice a soft near-whisper.
Her vision blurred. The ink smudges turned into amorphous blobs of violet. High-pitched music notes trilled, like the tinny sound from a child’s wind-up jewelry box. Phantom music. Smoke music. Dusty music motes floating in the air, bereft of a sunbeam.
Her shoulders slumped. The tune played on and on, soft and sweet. A spinning ballerina, moving round and round. And in between the notes, a soft murmur of voices. Children’s voices—a nursery rhyme.
“One, two, three, tigers at a time.”
Little girls twirling, their pink-yellow-white-lavender skirts flying up and out, all ruffles and eyelet.
“Four, five, six, tigers in a line.”
Chubby hands linked together and the children sang and laughed and sang.
“Seven, eight nine, stripes in the night.”
Hair like spun silk, gold and dark. Cookies and talcum powder.
“And when it’s ten, the tigers bite!”
Laughter, laughter. Rising.
Alison turned the page, her hand a heavy weight, and the laughter slipped back into the page. George’s eyes stared at hers, good humor in the dark depths. A teasing sort of humor. A feline sort of humor. She blinked. Once. Twice. The music shifted and changed. Piano notes replaced jewel-box. A mournful song of love and loss and empty rooms. Tree branches rattled against glass windowpanes; the sound of bones tap-tap-tapping “let us in.”
“Let me in,” Alison said.
The notes paused.
“Let me in and make me whole.”
The notes resumed, laced with melancholy. They slipped in between her thoughts and hovered in her ears. She held out her right hand, covered George’s face with her palm, and closed her eyes. The song vibrated through her bones and prickled her skin.
Voices again. Speaking, not singing. Adult voices engaged in quiet conversation, their words slurred at the edges. Glasses clinked together. Footsteps. Sturdy men’s shoes on a dark wood floor, their soles clicking in-between the music notes. Pins and needles exploded into life beneath her skin. The warmth traced spirals in the places where fingerprints used to hold their shape. The music swelled to a crescendo, all the notes blending one into another. Her hand lifted, pushed by the secret heat, and then dropped back down.
A cool breeze wafted over her fingertips and palm, and rough callused fingers curled around her own, stroking and tugging.
“Come in,” a husky voice said.
The hand tugged harder, pulling her in? Down? A thumb stroked her palm, a soft, tiny arc of movement. The edge of a fingernail scraped against the side of her pinkie finger.
She opened her eyes.
Her hand no longer rested on George’s photo. Her hand no longer rested on anything, but in. Inside the photo. Inside the album. In with the laughter and the music and the nursery rhymes. Inside with a hand wrapped round her fingers. She yelped, jerked back her arm, but neither the album nor her hand budged. Her skin held no indentations. It sat atop the photo as though severed at the wrist and glued to the surface of the paper.
She wiggled her fingers—five fingers, not three, magicked into existence in a paper world. The hand around hers tightened, pulled, and the album swallowed another inch of her arm.
“No, oh no,” she said.
Her forearm slipped in even more; she yanked as hard as she could and the unseen fingers let go. Her arm came up and out of the album, away from the paper, into the real. As she fell back against the sofa cushions, her teeth snapped together with an audible click. A narrow band of smoke rose in the air. Every bit of moisture in her mouth vanished.
With a wordless shout, she frantically waved her hands to disperse the smoke, seized the album with both hands and hurled it across the room, severing the music in mid-note. The album hit the wall with a dull thud and a ruffle of pages, and fell, landing with the cover and pages open. She squeezed her eyes shut tight. A single note, one piano key pressed down for a final goodbye, so long, sorry we have to go, broke free from the paper. She covered her ears.
“Stop. Just go away. You aren’t real.”
A thin trail of low laughter…
She stumbled from the sofa, her socks slipping on the wood floor as she gave the album a wide berth, and lurched up the stairs to her bedroom. Slammed the door behind her and sank down to the floor with her back pressed against the wood and her face in her hands.
Had it been a hallucination or a daydream? A ghost in the pages? A tiger in the pages to swallow her whole?
She dropped her hands onto her thighs. The scars on her right arm ran down in stripes of pink and red—too pale to be normal skin, all the way down to three inches above the lines on her wrist. And below? Healthy skin. Whole skin, with not a scar in sight. Delicate blue veins peeked through the skin, lines crossed her palm, and prints whorled and looped on her fingertips, visible even in the dim light. She turned her hand (still two fingers short of normal) over. Her fingernails gleamed pink.
Something is wrong. Something so very wrong.
She flipped her hand again and traced the lines on her palm. Then she tightened her fist. The flesh didn’t pull, like ill-sewn fabric, but gave and flexed. A skin glove of perfect.
“What could possibly be wrong with this?” she said.
She splayed her fingers. The fragile bones rose and fell under the thin veil of skin.
How was this even possible?
She smiled. It didn’t matter how. It didn’t matter at all.
A tiny patch of skin near the base of her thumb pebbled and turned dusky. Then another, on the back of her wrist. And below the fingernail on her index finger. More spots appeared, polka-dots of melted wax, expanding and replacing the healthy and whole with ugly.
Her fingers curved, forced into arcs by the tightening skin. On her palm, the scar tissue swallowed the lines, recreating familiar patterns. The changing skin made its way up her arm, a dreadful film running backward to ruin. On her forearm, pink edges rose like strips of ragged leather and joined together with the old, leaving no trace of a seam. She moaned low in her throat.
The prickle of pins and needles under her flesh returned, and then disappeared. She thumped back down the stairs, sockfeet whispering discordant madness on the wood, and grabbed the photo album. She dropped it on the coffee table, sank to her knees, and flipped open the cover. Placed her trembling hand flat on George’s picture.
Nothing happened. Tears fell from her eye, blurring her vision. She pressed her hand harder. Still nothing. She slapped her hand down once, twice, three times, each thud a painless meeting of unfeeling flesh and old paper. The album skittered across the coffee table and hung over the edge, wobbling slightly.
“Give it back,” she sobbed, reaching for the album. It toppled over and landed on the floor between the sofa and coffee table with a dull thud. A wisp of smoke curled up from the pages, followed by a faint laugh, then the cover slammed shut.
Alison scrambled back, breathing hard.
Crazy girl. Seeing things makes you crazy.
“I. Am. Not. Crazy. I know what I saw.”
A magic photo album that heals scars, crazy girl?
“It did. It took them away. I saw it. And when I touched it before, it gave me feeling. Real feeling.”
Then touch it again.
Why not? Are you afraid?
Holding the wall with one hand, she made her way into the kitchen. She called information and wrote down the number for the shop, her hands shaking. A sick feeling nestled in the pit of her stomach when she dialed the number. The phone rang once, twice, ten times. A young voice with the barest trace of an accent picked up on the twelfth ring. “Elena’s Antiques.”
“Hello, I purchased a photo album a few days ago and wanted to find out more about it. Maybe who brought it in?”
“Elena isn’t here. She’s the one you’ll have to ask. Call back later.”
Alison sat down on a kitchen chair and rested her head on her forearms. Which was worse, crazy or afraid?
Damien Angelica Walters’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in various anthologies and magazines, including The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2015, Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One, Cassilda’s Song, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu: New Lovecraftian Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, and Apex Magazine. She was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award for “The Floating Girls: A Documentary,” originally published in Jamais Vu. Sing Me Your Scars, a collection of short fiction, was released in 2015 from Apex Publications. Find her on Twitter @DamienAWalters or on the web at http://damienangelicawalters.com.