Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
Priya’s drawing lotuses with chalk on the driveway, unhappy with each blossom’s symmetry, when a shadow lurches across her designs. She digs her nails into her palms, fists set to clobber her older brother, Videsh, who’s probably come to drag his heels across her picture again.
But when Priya stands to confront Videsh, he isn’t there.
She decides to trace the undulating shadow on the blacktop in yellow chalk. Its bulk encompasses her flowers and, as she closes the shape, a spot begins to ripple at its center. The blot has depth — it’s darker than any other part of the driveway. She watches, wide-eyed, as it devours her lotus petals. One by one, each flower vanishes into the asphalt abyss.
When the mouth oozes towards her, Priya drops the stub of chalk and bolts screaming into the house.
“It’s just your imagination, Pri,” her father soothes. “There are no Rakshasis now. Even if one still existed, she wouldn’t live in our driveway.”
Priya promises herself, that night, never to mention the creature again.
Priya’s sitting on her bed, tears soaking the pages of her sketch pad. She hasn’t been invited to Emily’s pool party — the social event of tenth grade.
“It’s because you’re hideous and awkward,” a disembodied voice rasps from underneath her bed. She tries to push the words from her head but they stain her dreams — their bitterness coating her tongue when she wakes.
“What’s it like to be a social outcast?” Videsh says in the upstairs hall. His laugh is clipped, ape-like.
“Shut up, loser,” she responds. Though what she wants to say is: It’s lonely. I don’t fit anywhere and I hate myself.
Their father makes Videsh leave for school with her that morning. He dawdles a few feet behind, pretending he doesn’t know who Priya is.
“Freak,” someone calls as they cross onto school property.
“Say that to my face,” Videsh shouts. Priya doesn’t look back to see the fight.
“Why do you need to move hours away to study art?” Their father’s voice is suddenly calm after an hour of circuitous arguing.
“I need to get away, Dad. Not from you guys, just… to find out who I am.”
“What do you mean who you are? You’re Pri—”
“She should go,” Videsh cuts in.
“Why is that?” Their father’s jaw clenches like a nut cracker as he leans back into the arm chair.
“She’s kinda good at this art stuff. Spends all of her time in her room anyway. What’s gonna happen to her alone in her dorm?”
“Heh,” their father laughs. “I’ll think about it.” He stands and climbs the stairs to his bedroom.
Priya opens her mouth to thank Videsh.
“I’m gonna set up a triple monitor and play Red Dead in your room,” he says before he slips off into the kitchen.
The Rakshasi materializes a month into fall semester.
“You look delicious,” she growls at Priya, brandishing her incisors in a wet, lurid smile. Priya looks at the other students bantering between sips of pumpkin spiced latte in the concourse. No one else has registered the ten foot colossus looming over her. She collects her sketch pads and pencils and marches straight to her dorm.
“You don’t belong here,” the Rakshasi repeats every night for the next week. Priya fills an entire book with studies of the giant’s face. The Rakshasi’s eyes are textured whirlpools of thick cadmium red and sidewalk-chalk yellow. They bore deep into Priya’s chest, leaving an aching, internal wound.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she asks the Rakshasi, teetering on the edge of exhaustion.
The Rakshasi lowers her bulbous head so close to Priya’s face, her hot breath condensing on Priya’s cheeks. “I’m helping you suffer for your art.”
The Rakshasi’s roar rattles Priya’s ribs and vibrates her organs, unbalancing her from the inside out in the greyhound bus cabin. “Let me swallow you,” the Rakshasi sneers. “No one will notice.”
Priya tenses her entire body and doesn’t flinch, even as tears drip down her face. She leaves the overhead reading lamp on well after they the reach the lighted outskirts of the city and the Rakshasi has recoiled across the aisle. The giant, she’s learned, is stronger in the dark.
Videsh is waiting for her at the passenger pick up. She tosses her bag into the back seat of the beat-up minivan. The Rakshasi forces herself inside before Priya slides the door closed.
“Hey, los—,” Videsh’s greeting hangs in the air as Priya flops into the passenger seat and massages her temples. “Uh, you okay?”
“Say you’re fine.” The Rakshasi cackles from the shadows behind them. The words bloom on Priya’s lips. She bites them back before they can steal her breath.
“No.” She exhales. “I’m not.” She casts her eyes downward, anticipating one of his rapid-fire barbs.
Videsh is sitting silently when she gains the courage to look at him. He puts his hand on her shoulder. “Okay, Pri,” he says. He’s quiet as they leave the parking lot.
The Rakshasi rages, battering the back of the seat; screaming in a frequency only Priya can hear. Priya buries her nails deep into her seat cushion.
They pull up to the house, the windows aglow with diyas for Diwali. Priya climbs out of the car and stands on the blacktop. The Rakshasi lumbers out of the back and towers behind her, occupying the space above the long-vanished lotuses.
Priya remembers the morning she drew them, her hands steady and her strokes fluid. It was the last time she could distinguish where her thoughts ended and the Rakshasi’s began.
“You’re nothing without me,” the giant snarls. The Rakshasi’s glare is intimate, penetrating. She’ll be there every time Priya picks up a pencil.
Priya doesn’t run this time. Instead, she turns and invites the Rakshasi inside the house. Tonight, she’ll introduce the giant to her family.