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sink into my skin

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They keep Sun isolated, in her dark cell, but they don’t know that she is never alone anymore.

Like beads of water running across a pane of glass, her mind joins with the others. She never stays in one place for too long. The others have gotten used to her flitting through their minds, just catching glimpses of sensation and then leaving.

She opens her eyes in Nairobi and flexes her fingers on the sun-warmed leather of the steering wheel. She listens to the sea in Reykjavik, feels pinpricks of cold on her skin and the distant sound of a piano. Once, she found herself in Mexico City, and a man pet her hair, fingers warm against the curve of her ear.

Sun hasn’t spent more than two hours in Seoul since she was put in isolation.

“The skin on your hand is still broken,” Kala says. She is holding a cup of chai, and Sun can taste cardamom and star anise on her lips. “Make sure you keep it clean.”

Sun doesn’t say anything, but miles away in Seoul, she opens her closed fist and feels the scab pull at her skin. Kala winces.

They go to the window, and watch rain fall in sheets on the streets outside. A forgotten line of clothing hangs on the roof of the building across from them, the rich colors of a dupatta soaked with rainwater. The air is muggy and hot, and Sun pulls Kala’s long, thick hair away from her neck.  

Suddenly, Sun wants to go outside.

Kala laughs to herself. “The rain feels like warm soup. It is not very pleasant.”

“Please,” Sun says.

They sneak through the restaurant where Kala’s father is frying a fresh batch of poori and leave out the back door. The warm rainwater immediately soaks through their clothing.

“It feels like the rain at home,” Sun marvels, and she turns her face up to the sky. Kala stretches out her arms and they spin in the rain.

“I haven’t done this since I was a little girl,” Kala says.

“Me too. It rained like this on the day my mother died,” Sun whispers, and the memory is enough to jolt her back to her cell, where it is cold and dry.

She is alone for only a few seconds, and then Kala is there. The phantom sensation of rain-soaked arms hugging her shoulders drives everything else away.

-

The day they finally let her out into the yard again, all seven of them join her. Together they feel the sun across their skin and the fresh wind stirring the hairs on her head. Sun’s heart lifts eight times, and that is the day she thinks she knows what pure joy must feel like.

-

“What are you painting?” Kala asks. Sun has been moving her paintbrush idly through a cup of bluish water for almost ten minutes now. They have given her the blank stretch of wall in front of her to paint what she wants, but it is as empty as it was when she first sat down.

“Perhaps my dog. I miss him.” Sun closes her eyes and remembers his soft fur in between her fingers and the warm weight of him across her belly in the mornings.

“Oh, how cute!” Kala says, cupping the memory in her mind and playing it over and over again. In her eyes, the memory becomes real again, like watching a friend watch an old familiar movie for their first time. Sun feels Kala’s joy echoing within her own and she smiles. It gives her an idea.

“Why don’t you paint something for me?” Sun says.

“I am a pharmacist, not a painter,” Kala protests.

“Nobody here is a painter,” Sun says, looking around at the other paintings on the wall. They are childish in their simplicity, but the vibrant colors make them beautiful all the same. “I want to see what you paint.”

“All right,” Kala relents. “But do not laugh.”

She dips the brush into the red paint and begins to paint Ganesha.

The feeling of someone else moving her hand is something that Sun didn’t think she would ever be comfortable with. She does it to the others all the time, lends them her rage and guides their fists. It does not matter to her who they fight, as long as they win. And as soon as the last punch is thrown, Sun retreats back into her own mind and revels in the adrenaline still singing in her veins.

But when it comes to the other way around, Sun doesn’t have much experience. At first, she resists it, and Kala’s hand jerks across the wall, leaving a smear of paint.

“Sorry,” Sun says, ashamed.

“It’s all right,” Kala says patiently, and paints over the mistake. After a while, Sun is lulled by the movement. Kala makes small, careful strokes, different from the broad, reckless strokes that Sun made when she painted. She has the image so clear in her mind that Sun can see what she will paint before she paints it.

“Perhaps he will bring you success,” Kala says.

-

Kala calls her one night, pulling Sun from her sleep.

She immediately has her fists out, feet settling into a defensive position and eyes scanning for danger.

All she finds is a dog.

“What’s wrong?” she asks Kala.

“Nothing!” Kala says, forcing her to relax. “I found him outside. He looked so sweet. I’m sorry to wake you up.”

Her voice trails off, but Sun doesn’t need her to finish. “Don’t be sorry,” Sun says, and crouches in front of the dog, patting his head. He is underfed and dirty, but his eyes are friendly and he noses against her hand and whines.

“He’s not feral. He must have belonged to someone,” Kala says. “I know you miss your dog.”

“Thank you, Kala,” Sun says, surprised to find her voice thick with emotion. She can no longer tell the difference between what she feels and what Kala feels.

They go inside and fill a bowl with water, laying it out for the dog. He drinks the water, and then lays his head on their knee, tail wagging happily as they scratch his chin. After a while, his ears twitch at some inaudible sound, and he gets up with a tired whuff and runs off.

Kala stands and dusts off her hands. “You probably want to go back to sleep,” she says.

Sun thinks about the mattress in her cell, how it digs into her back and is never comfortable. “I want to stay, if that’s all right with you.”

“Of course,” Kala says.

They go to Kala’s room, and Kala goes back to reading the paper that she had been reading before she saw the dog outside her window and rushed out. Sun marvels at how the scientific words, foreign to her, make sense when she reads them through Kala.

Hair falls in front of Kala’s eyes, but Kala doesn’t notice, her focus unbroken. After a while, Sun smooths it back, tucking it behind one ear. Her fingers trace to Kala’s earlobe, gently touches the earring that hangs there.

“This must be so boring for you,” Kala says, catching Sun’s attention once again.

“Right now, the only thing of interest I have is the spot on my wall that looks like a rabbit,” Sun says drily.

Kala laughs. “Point taken.” But she puts away the paper.

They go to the mirror, and Sun marvels again at how she expects to see herself, blue prison uniform and short bobbed hair. Instead, Kala is there, wearing a blue kurta and white capris pants. The marks of her wedding mehndi are fading on her skin, but Sun traces along the intricate designs, pushing the sleeves of the kurta up. The tattoos go all the way up to her elbows.

Kala shivers. “It feels like you’re here, but you aren’t.” Together they feel goosebumps prickle on her arms.

Then they are back in Seoul, and in the dark cell, Kala traces her fingers across the inside of Sun’s wrist, across her brow, across her lips.

“If your mattress is too hard, you can sleep in my bed,” Kala tells her, and they burrow into the covers. Sun sinks into the soft mattress and breathes in deeply. It smells like Kala.

Kala wraps her arms tightly around herself, and it feels like being held. In her cell back in Seoul, Sun curls up on her side on the hard mattress and falls asleep smiling.