by Valerie Kemp in Issue Sixteen, July 2024

Amber has been dead three days when she wakes up in her boyfriend's bathtub. It isn't the scritch-scratch of the tattoo needle that brings her back—although that sting is strange and unexpected. No, it's the cold that shocks her back into the world. She's buried up to her neck under bags of melting ice.

"Holy shit," Cash, her supposed-to-be-ex-boyfriend, shouts at the sound of her involuntary gasp. "I did it!" He's crouched beside the tub, tattoo pen in one hand, her wrist in the other.

Of course. Amber can barely hold back her sigh. Of course.

Never underestimate the power of an entitled man with a fragile ego and too much paid time off.

Amber doesn't know how she's back, but she realizes her mistake immediately. Rather than vodka and Xanax (and a dramatic letter now entirely wasted since, currently, she is seeing his face again) she should've blown herself up, or thrown herself into the ocean, something that made her body unsalvageable, or at least undesirable.

Cash sits back on his heels and stares at her in wonder. "Amb," his voice is surprisingly thick with emotion. "You came back to me!"

The statement is wrong on so many levels she can't process it. Instead, she inspects her inner right wrist. A poorly drawn dollar sign the color of dried blood is etched just below her palm.

Her mind says don't panic, but her newly revived body has other plans. With a lurch she grabs the lip of the old clawfoot tub to pull herself out.

"Stop," Cash says.

Amber's body jerks to a standstill. She wills her limbs to move. They hold fast.

Cash laughs and claps his hands. His glee is sharp-edged, ruthless. There's the Cash she knows.

Her skin prickles. The tattoo. His mark. It can't be. Her voice is a rasp. "What did you do?"

"I told you. You don't get to leave. I decide when I'm done with you." Cash stands, his grin vicious. "Actually, I decide everything you do now."

Rage has never been in Amber's repertoire—she's a good girl—but the emotion burns through her like a fever. In the last three years, Cash has taken away her friends, her family, her autonomy, even one of her teeth.

Now he's stolen her death.

Behind him, the small bathroom is littered with open spellbooks, a laptop with a "tattoo how-to" video on pause, and vials of powders and liquids—some she recognizes from her own stash. A bloody syringe sits in a shot glass of tattoo ink. Her breath hitches. Blood-ink?

"You can move." Cash laughs when her arms collapse and she slams her chest on the tub's edge with a hiss. He tosses the tattoo pen into the sink, smug. "It's been a long three days." He twists his head, cracking his neck in that way she hates. "Thought I was gonna be stuck here again. But now," he checks his watch. "I can catch the game at Brad's."

Amber is incredulous, and yet, not surprised. "You're leaving?"

He shrugs, already pulling out his phone. "Not like you're going anywhere." He strolls out of the room, texting, then spins back to say, "Don't leave the apartment. Don't talk to anyone. Don't text."

Stiff and slippery, Amber hauls herself out of the ice. She studies her face in the mirror. Her skin is more grey than brown, but gaining color. The scab on her split lower lip, Cash's last gift to her, is as unhealed as it was the last time she saw it. She tugs at the tangled knot he made of her curls, grappling with the reality that she's actually there in the room she thought she'd never see again.

She's supposed to be free.

Amber examines the detritus of Cash's spell. Blood magic. It has to be. But Cash isn't that smart—he didn't even think to tell her not to undo his spell. He mocked her "weird goth shit" anytime she tried to teach him about witchcraft. How did he manage to pull this off without catastrophic results?

Amber shivers in a towel, pouring over the spellbooks spread across the sink. She has no doubt that Cash—who once punched her for suggesting he read through the instructions before attempting (and failing) to assemble a bookcase—has missed something.

Cash's voice drifts in from the hallway. "Nah, just me. Amber's still sick." He's on his phone. Amber straightens, pretends to be detangling her hair. He winks at her as he passes the bathroom.

Sick. Of course that was his excuse. Amber had been "sick" a lot in their relationship—every time she had a black eye or split lip or he was just tired of seeing her face—until, finally, she really was sick of living that way.

Death has given Amber clarity. She sees the way Cash chipped away pieces of herself so gradually she hardly noticed. Can see the trail they make from who she was to where she is now. The way he kept her off-balance and focused on his needs, his moods.

Cash made her despair so deeply that she believed death was her only escape, but he killed her long before she swallowed those pills.

She stares into the dull brown eyes of her reflection, uncertain now if the lifelessness is new.

The apartment door slams. Amber throws on the robe hanging on the back of the bathroom door. She heads to the kitchen to put the kettle on. Although she moved in two years ago, she has only ever thought of the place as Cash's. Her clothes are in the bedroom but she can't bring herself to enter the scene of her death. Lying on that bed, "fuck you" letter in hand, had felt empowering in the brief queasy moment before consciousness faded. Now, the room is a reminder of the lightless prison her life had been. Still is.

Her epiphany is a hard punch to the stomach. By choosing death she punished herself for his behavior. She takes a shuddering breath. Never again.

Amber drops a stack of thick spellbooks onto the breakfast bar and starts reading. She cups her steaming mug with both hands and holds it close to her chest. She can't get warm despite the fire burning in her. Her heartbeat is sluggish, her senses dull. She feels... not dead exactly, but not alive, either. She wonders if it's a side effect of the magic or the ice.

The summer night sky shifts from pink to deep red. Cash likely won't be home until late, but she can't take any chances. She keeps searching, her urgency and the green tea spiking enough adrenaline to clear her head, increase her focus.

In the addendum of the third spellbook, Amber finds what she's looking for.

CAVEAT, the note reads. Reanimating the dead requires irreversible transfer of the caster's life-force. While it is possible to control the reanimated once they are bound with the caster's blood, if the binding is not balanced by using the dead's blood in a reciprocal tattoo, the reanimated can syphon off the caster's life-force unchecked.

Pulse thrumming, Amber strips. Cash never did understand the concept of reciprocity—why give when you've already taken what you want? Aside from the tattoo, she finds no fresh marks on her body. Her blood hasn't been taken.

A bubbling lightness fills Amber's chest. Her lips curve into a shape she thought they'd forgotten how to make.

Cash fucked up.

It's time they both get what they deserve.


Cash sloshes into the apartment just after 2 a.m. Amber waits on the couch in her favorite sundress—the one Cash always complained was too short. He flops down next to her, sour breath reeking, eyes bleary. "Ssssup."

"Hi," Amber says, her voice sweet. She slides off the couch and drops to her knees in front of him. She does her best to mimic the doe-eyed expression she wore when they first got together.

Cash is too focused on her current location to notice. He licks his lips and grins down at her. "Hell yeah."

She places a hand on each side of his face and looks him deeply, sincerely, in the eyes. "Thank you for giving me my life back."

He leans in, his words slurring. "Aw, what's this? Gratitude?"

"No," she whispers against his lips. "Reciprocity."

Amber inhales.

Cash stiffens. Eyes wide, he tries to speak, but Amber is stealing his breath and his life. Warmth floods her body. Colors brighten, her senses heighten. Cash's heartbeat stutters and falls off. Amber's builds to a crescendo. Her wrist stings as the blood-ink tattoo turns to ash. She vibrates with an unfamiliar, joyous hum.

Cash slumps in Amber's hands. His face slack, his chest still. She releases him to gravity. The thud his body makes is the clang of a church bell announcing the new day. She is the sun, rising to greet it.

Amber is alive.

© 2024 Valerie Kemp

Valerie Kemp

Valerie Kemp writes speculative and contemporary fiction for all ages. Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Cast of Wonders, Voyage YA and the anthologies Just Above Water and Defy the Dark. She is a 2022 graduate of Viable Paradise. Valerie is also a recovering academic whose research focused on the importance of media representation, something she cares deeply about. Find Valerie @valeriekwrites on Bluesky, IG, and Twitter, and at

Fiction by Valerie Kemp
  • Reciprocity