Snakeskin by Kyle Tam

The studio was too bright, dazzling with a hundred stage lights so intense they felt like white hot blades flying in every direction. If Madison were Madison, she wouldn’t have come here. Not to this manufactured menagerie of bleached smiles, skin-tight dresses, and tanning oil slathered pecs, where the people were large and their egos were larger. No, Madison would have been terrified.

But Madison hadn’t been Madison in a very long time. Gone was the chubby face packed with baby fat, as well as the faint freckles sprayed across her nose. In their place were the high cheekbones and sharp-edged eyeliner of a huntress on the prowl. Soft, stuttering words had been replaced by poison-tongued barbs and unforgiving proclamations, all courtesy of the woman who had taken her place: Bella. 

Dean: Welcome to Mega-Fight Tonight! I’m your host Dean Bryan, and joining me for an exclusive interview is Legendary Pro-Wrestling’s Bella Maquia, the Sicilian Stunner! Would you say hello to our audience at home, Bella?

Bella: Bunch of nobodies watching this stream from their mom’s basements? No thanks.

There was a ripple of speech bubbles across the studio wall, ranging from the creative to the profane. Expletives peppered the screens, calling for death. Calling for justice. Calling for sexual acts ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary. Bella’s lips curled into a blood-red smirk, as much of her lower half as possible snaking its way onto the couch and coiling over the faux leather. This was how a heel should be greeted. The host swallowed ever so slightly, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down and practically asking to be bitten. He hadn’t wanted to do this, which Bella only knew because she’d been able to hear him. Begging on his hands and knees to avoid interviewing the Sicilian Stunner, imploring his boss with cries of “I’ll do anything else”. Perhaps she needed to tone things down, just a little. Infamy wasn’t worthwhile for LPW if it made talent unbookable.

D: Seems like our audience is getting kind of riled up, but I guess that’s to be expected. After all, you’re-

B: Gorgeous? Perfect? Beyond reproach?

D: I was going to say a strong presence. In matches, interviews, and even social media, you always come across as strong-willed. Why is that?

B: That’s a stupid question, Dirk.

D: Dean.

B: Dave, that’s what I said. “Why do you come across as strong?” Because I AM strong. I’ve toppled gods and felled demons. I’ve taken my hard knocks and given them back twice over. I talk a good game because I’m good at what I do.

Bella remembered the first meeting with Creative, that sterilised room with its beige wallpaper and rickety monoblock chairs. Back then she’d had spindly, gangly legs with knobbly knees and awkward bruises. She had swung them back and forth under the table, fidgeting as she heard everything explained to her. The procedure. The pacing. The story structures and requirements.  The life that was and wasn’t hers. Every signature and every document that required understanding that what she was signing over was her face, her body, her voice, and her state of being. That nervousness had been Madison’s, the uncertainty of who she was, and the desperation to be someone she was not. That was gone now, just like those stick-thin legs and watery eyes. Right now Bella’s movements were calculated. Scripted. Every flick of the wrist, every snaking of her coils and smirk just wide enough to expose her fangs. Every thought that flitted through her head, and every reminder that her current form had been a choice. This was Bella.

D: Alright, let’s move on. The reason we have you on today is to discuss your upcoming match at LPW’s Apocalypse How with Leilani Lee. Now, just as a recap for our viewers at home, all of this started months ago at LPW’s Wrath and Glory special, where you and Leilani had decided to team up just for the tournament in order to snatch the tag team title from its previous holders, the Fox and the Hound.

B: So you’ve finally gotten your facts straight.

D: Then you-

B: Claimed exactly what was mine.

D: Pushed Leilani off a roof.

There was a locker room in the LPW offices, now filled with cobwebs and dust. It had had sixteen lockers, and Bella could remember the interiors of each and every one. Number 4 had a broken slat, which didn’t let enough light in. Number 8 had been home to a particularly ornery spider, one who hadn’t been too happy about having its slumber interrupted. Number 12 was special, because Ashley had filled it with eggs beforehand, and Madison had spent a good half an hour stewing in runny yolks and cracked shells before someone had managed to unblock the door.

Bella had remembered those lockers when they were planning Wrath and Glory, and had considered how little strength it takes to shove someone if they were teetering back and forth on the edge of an office building, beneath a stormy grey sky. If their knees were shaking and you loomed three feet above them, their tiny bat wings flapping uselessly. If they remembered all the hurt, pain, and misery they inflicted on you that would be returned tenfold. Ashley as Leilani’s face had gone chalk white at her suggestion, and the words “psychopath” and “lunatic” had been thrown around liberally. Not that it mattered. Creative had eaten it up. Edge of your seat, daring content they’d called it. And when the person pushed could handle the impact of the ground, it didn’t really matter whether they had a complaint or not. You had to give the people what they wanted.

B: Some people just need a little shove, don’t you think? To remind them of their place.

D: Sure, let’s roll with that. Thankfully she’s alive and in recovery, while you’ve been looking absolutely dominant. Now, since then you’ve been at each other’s throats outside of the ring, with a constant back and forth between the two of you in interviews, in promos, and all over social media.

B: If by at each other’s throats you mean her desperately attempting to stay relevant and me laughing her off? Yes, we have been.

D: There’s been a very strong push from the LPW community, not just fans of Leilani in particular, against you. A lot of folks have had some very strong words about your actions and behaviour, particularly your lack of sportsmanship. You’ve had competitors mugged outside the arena, held loved ones hostage, and even brought weapons to every competition venue. All this means there’s been a lot of vitriol out there.

B: Was there a question in all of that, or did you just want to tell me the obvious?

D: How does it feel to be the most hated woman on the planet?

Most hated woman on the planet… there was a good ring to it, and Bella hadn’t had to come up with it herself. It wasn’t that wrong, either. Every day the feed was the same. Every day there were twenty thousand death threats in her inbox alone, never mind the hundreds of thousands of other lesser insults visible to the public. Wave upon wave of messages and videos, calling out Bella for this or that perceived slight. Perhaps Madison would have crumbled beneath the weight. Madison would have seen the constant barrage of hate and cowered in fear, or felt pushed against the wall. Not Bella. Every day Bella opened the messages and had an autovox read them out loud while she did her makeup. Go kill yourself. Go jump in a hole. Nobody loves you. Nobody cares about you. Sometimes, just before going to sleep, she’d put on musical accompaniment and allow herself to be serenaded with the words of everybody’s hatred, dreaming of the day to come.

B: It feels incredible, Darien. Every day I get to wake up, snake my way over to my full-length mirror and think to myself thank God I’m not like these keyboard warriors who spend all their time talking crap about a lamia they don’t know on the internet. Boo hoo, I don’t play “fair” or “nice”. You look at Hannibal, or Sun Tzu, or Alexander the Great. Those were men who knew the score. News flash: battles aren’t won because two people played very fair like good and honourable chaps. They’re won because someone’s stronger and smarter than somebody else, and they leverage it. And if everybody else hasn’t figured that out? Tough tits.

D: Let’s try a different tack. It’s been three months since Leilani has actively been able to wrestle. In that time she’s seen an outpouring of support the world over, although nowhere near the amount of hate that you’ve conversely received. What do you think of it, and of her?

B: What do I think of her?

They never shared the same room again, after the procedure. Not a green room, not a practice room, not even interviews. Initially, Madison had thought it was accidental. Scheduling conflicts, perhaps, and they were often booked in very different fights. However, it soon became clear that someone had decided the two needed to be kept very far apart. Not until the tag team. Leilani’s ratings were tanking, her matches generating minimal buzz. Bella, on the other hand, was rapidly gaining speed. People loved having someone to hate. A younger Madison, or even Madison as Bella, might have felt offended. However, she wasn’t Madison, small and frail and weak. Madison had been stripped clean, stretched out, and shed away to reveal Bella.

B: She talks up a good game online, but if it weren’t for me nobody would know or care who she was. She was fighting LPW’s bottom feeders before I decided to do the one nice thing I have ever done in my life and take pity on her lapsed career. Now she’s flinging “villainous” and “unjust” and saying that everyone’s spirit will bring her to victory. It’s enough to make me barf.

Oh, there had been complaints these past few months. Of course there had been. Why was Bella suddenly set up to win left and right? Why was every match coming out in her overwhelming victory? There had been a few in the company vocal and stupid enough to say that Bella needed to lose right now, to seem human. Relatable. It had been easy to shut them up. Allowing a Bella Maquia loss before that inevitable matchup would kill all forward momentum that she had. So instead, she trounced her opponents. With speed, skill, and the occasional bout of cheating. After all, there was no need for competitors at LPW to pretend at humanity. Its appeal was the clash of titans. The trial of beasts. The bouts of gods, chief amongst them the Lamia revived.

D: Our time’s almost up, so I’ve just got one last question. Why do you do it, Bella?

B: Do what, exactly?

D: All of this. All of you. What do you get out of playing the villain? Of making people dislike you?

Bella remembered. She remembered seeing the notice online, on a sketchy job posting site that had been her last defense against the cold wind coming through her broken window and the inevitability of ramen running out. [BE PAID TO BE WHO YOU WERE MEANT TO BE], accompanied by an address and a number to call. She remembered waiting for what had seemed like an eternity without food, water, or sleep, close to death when she was selected for LPW. She remembered years of sitting in the back of the classroom, praying for the next eight hours of the day to pass so she could be alone by herself instead of alone surrounded by anybody else. She remembered coming home to empty rooms and cold meals, listening to the rain against the roof and hoping for a miracle. She remembered being Madison.

B: Another stupid question, Dom. Isn’t it obvious? I do this because I’m meant to be. I was put on the planet Earth to utterly dominate at LPW, and to make sure every person in the universe knows my name. Anybody who tells you they got into pro wrestling for any other reason, they’re a filthy liar. Me, Leilani, all of us. We’re in this because we want to be famous. We want to be rich. We’re titans. Gods. And I’m at the top of the pantheon.

D: Some might say it’s a little obn-

She loomed over the host now, to her full height of seven foot ten. She was larger than the studio, larger than life, a mythical creature reborn into the modern day. Her top half was a human woman’s, all sinewy muscle and broad shoulders. Her bottom half was a snake’s, slithering and moving, the muscle completely controlled.  Her scales shimmered red and gold in the floodlights, her pupils thin slits watching the fidgeting host quietly relieve himself on his seat.  When she had been Madison, she would have been dwarfed by this man with his gelled up hair and cut-rate suit. But Madison was dead now. Dead and buried beneath a scalpel and contracts signed in triplicate. If she hadn’t died on the table, then she had died in the months afterwards, in the endless days training to the bone and endless nights gritting her teeth and willing the scars to heal.

B: Stop hiding behind some might say, Dom. I’ve seen you glaring daggers at me for the past ten minutes. If you think I’m annoying, or obnoxious, or a massive bitch, then have the balls to say it to my fucking face.

Bella gave the camera a one-fingered salute, and watched as the wall refreshed with a new outpouring and wave of comments and threats. Still, hidden in the boxes here and there were cheers. Commending her villainy. Relishing in her energy. Wishing to be like her. To be her. It was a very strange thing, something that still weighed on Bella’s scaly shoulders. Bella Maquia was hated, by her colleagues and by the world. And yet.

And yet.

Madison had read once, when learning how to better be Bella, that it is better to be feared than loved, but never hated. Even so, part of her knew that it is better to be hated than to be nothing at all. So those were the comments she kept closest to her chest, not just now but in everything. Bella Maquia needed that hate. Needed that outpouring of anger as fuel, and the faint praise as a reminder of everything she stood to lose.

D: W-When we uh… when we come back, we’ll have Leilani Lee on for her take on the match!

The lights dimmed as the show cut to commercial break. The crew rushed to the aid of their host, completely ignoring Bella’s looming presence as they moved as one to get Dean changed into an unstained suit. Normally, Bella would raise a fuss about being ignored in a “how dare they” way, but all of a sudden she felt the energy sapped from her body. Instead, she stifled a yawn and mentally prepared herself to leave, slithering her way backstage away from the studio lights and digital audience. She was greeted by the same dingy lighting, table of chips, and headless chicken crew that had been there the first time around. This time they were joined by a new arrival, a petite girl with massive feathered wings sprouting from her back and polished talons for feet. It didn’t take eagle eyes to notice that her nose hadn’t set yet, still squashed flat from landing face-first onto New York’s unforgiving pavement, or that the scars along her shoulders beneath the wings were still red and raw.

Tomorrow the two would get into another spat on the internet, culminating in a series of impromptu filmed promos where each denounced the other. There would be riots on the streets protesting the match in the week to come, and one protester would even throw a firebomb through Bella’s window. Tensions would escalate as the curtain rose on LPW’s biggest event of the year, enough to whip the masses into a frenzy out for blood. Enough for the whole world to tune in to Apocalypse How with bated breath to see whether good would triumph over evil, or whether Bella Maquia would reign supreme.

But that was tomorrow.

Tonight, for just a few brief moments, two ordinary girls passed each other in the backstage of a studio. One was still proud, her chin tilted upwards and eyes an imperious icy blue. She was small in stature, but her aura was larger than life. The other’s shoulders were slumped, her eyes watery and legs covered with bruises. In the dim light behind the stage she shrank into herself, attempting to disappear. Their eyes met, gazes locked in recognition of the path ahead of them. Each acknowledged the other with the faintest of nods, expressing the words they weren’t allowed to say. One moment, they existed: in the next they were gone. All that was left were the faintest whispers of their dreams, leaving only gods and angels behind them.

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Kyle is a transport planner by day and author by night, based in the Philippines. Her work has previously been published in Monstronomicon, Cabinet of Heed, and 100 Words of Solitude, and is soon to be published in Rejection Lit and Murder Park After Dark Vol. 3. She’s a recent convert to wrestling, with her favourite promotion being All Elite Wrestling, and a less recent convert to Greek myths.


Twitter: @PercyPropa

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