CW: vomit, pica
After her first apparent spell of involuntary sleep disruption, he tells her a story about a spider crawling into his mouth. Pulling her close to him across sweat-drenched sheets, he describes how the legs tickled and scratched their way through the dark tunnel of his throat, forcing him awake one hot night in July. He says it tastes like chicken, crispy and brittle until you drown it down with a swig of cold water.
“And I didn’t think it was anything alive,” he says, “until I felt its leftover leg stuck to my tongue.”
She pulls away from him and groans, her voice scratching the back of her throat.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Just saying,” he says. “I mean, people consume an average of eight spiders a year in our sleep. It’s a perfectly normal thing.”
Yet all she can picture as she shuts her eyes and feels his arms slip back around her in the dark is a parade of all the things she could possibly consume crawling up her lips, slipping blindly into the warm, wet darkness, unaware of their own acidic end at the bottom of the pit.
On the first warm night of spring, they decide together to sleep with the bedroom windows open. “To air out the house,” he says, at the same moment she says, “To let the bad spirits out.” The two press on with their work, shaking out blankets and opening windows, as if they haven’t heard each other.
Gurgling frogs and wispy night insects begin the evening’s springtime sonata in the thicket of trees and pond just beyond their bedroom window. The ceiling fan whirs above the bed, circulating the cool pond air sifting through the window screen. Just as she leaves her body to sleep, a black dot dances around the fan overhead. She moves a lazy arm before her, swatting at the air. It slinks closer, diving down, so fast she’s lost sight of it. She closes her eyes, awakening other senses. A tickle of little legs across her cheek. His hot breath on the back of her neck. She cranes her head into her pillow, brushing away dust crawling along her lips.
At dawn, the symphony switches players. A mother bird chirps in the bushes under the open window. A tinny ringtone chimes from the phone on her nightstand. She stretches an arm out from under the covers to tap the alarm into its own nap and sits up in bed, uncurling cramped limbs as far as they can reach. A yawn builds in her chest and lodges, stuck, in her throat.
Every attempt to gulp down saliva hitches at the back of her mouth, the cavern closing shut around something small. Beady. The more it begins to take shape, the more she wants it out. Gulps become gags, coughs turning into empty retches. He jolts awake and gives her back a hard slap. The force of it dislodges the bead and she spits it out onto the bedsheet.
A ladybug, trailing saliva across the duvet, stretches its legs in salty drool. She prods it with her thumb wrapped in the sleeve of her sweater. It jitters, faltering in place as it tries to open its parachute. She counts out the black spots on its back until they begin to blur.
“Bug number one,” his voice cracked with morning dew, its sound bouncing off the walls before landing in her lap. She makes a mountain with the ladybug at its summit by lifting her knee under the sheet, angling the slope to give the bug a tumbling start. They watch as it rolls off the sheet, wings glued shut, falling like a rock until it vanishes in the carpet.
She receives her pink notice later that spring. They are still called that, to her perplexity, despite this one’s disguise: an email against a white background detailing her value as an employee, but unfortunately, downsizing is an inevitable part of the process. She groans loud enough for him to hear. The toaster dings. He strides into the living room and peeks over her shoulder at her computer screen on his way to the kitchen.
“Damn, that sucks,” he says. He swabs each piece of toast with butter, snaps off a paper towel by its perforation, and wraps the toast into its own paper pouch.
“But, I mean, you always said you wanted to leave. Right? Now you can focus on getting back on track.”
She watches him slip into his shoes and bend down to tie the laces, listening to his mumbles about his work schedule and when he’d be back that night. Staring down at the thick part in his hair, she assures herself that leaving wasn’t the problem. It was being let go that mattered more.
A summer rain encroaches on spring’s full bloom, stretching endlessly across day and night. She sits before her computer screen in silence, striking through job titles on her digital list each time she submits an application, then doubly fast when the rejections roll in. The fatigue of carefully curating every cover letter to say the same thing as the one before as if it was something new settles in around her, a haze with no end in sight. In the news, she absorbs reports of wildfires soaring across dry brush, killer wasps hopping over oceans, while just outside the apartment, a pulsing rain pounds puddles into soft ground.
She takes advantage of the next possible break in the clouds to slip away from her nest for a walk. In the rising steam of hot summer rain, her eye catches little white patches dotting the grass by the pond. Curious, she plods her way to the pond’s edge, boots squelching through grassy mud, drawing up brown puddles with each footfall. A stench gathers around the pond, a fungus giving off bad breath. She crouches over a patch of white and parts the taller blades of grass. Her hand brushes against the foreign object’s dry surface, its rough pillowy contour releasing a shudder down her spine.
The stink of mushrooms clogs her nose. On glancing up at the pond, she sees from her worm’s eye view a field now flooded: thick, white-capped mushrooms poking their heads out above the green, eager to be touched. She despises mushrooms, that violent smell lingering in the back of her throat that, once invited in, will never leave. She grips the mushroom head and tugs it from the ground by the neck of its stem. With it, a web of thin, white roots vaulting out of the grass, clinging tight like vipers to their severed friend. The mesh of spores she wrenches from the earth draw up others, a network of heads that, were she to lie down and give in, could easily cover her whole. She can hear the screaming as she trips over loose spores, the blanket of fungus creeping, cap by cap, past her voice and gathering in her stomach, where another family of spores can begin to take root, blooming a tree of them inside her that swells up her warm wet belly, growing and growing and—
She wakes to the sound of a door slamming shut. Her computer screen had gone dark, her head resting on the coffee table in a way that felt numbing in her sleep, but causes sharp twinges of pain as she tilts her head up.
“You okay?” he says from the front door. A pizza box balances delicately along his outstretched arm as he locks the door and slips out of his muddied shoes.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m positive,” she replies.
He shrugs and moves to the kitchen, setting the pizza box down and turning to the fridge for a drink. “Just checking,” he reassures the fridge’s interior.
She pulls herself out of her pretzeled position on the floor and follows him to the kitchen.
“What’s for dinner?” She lifts the lid of the pizza box. The stench tells her before he can jump out of the fridge, pulling the box away from her nose.
“Sorry, that’s for me. I didn’t know you wanted pizza, or I would’ve ordered you something.”
She turns and plugs her nose, waving a hand at him to show that all was well, and makes her way to the bathroom, declaring she needs a shower.
As she sits over the toilet, lid closed, waiting for the running water to grow hot, she releases the fungus breath held in her mouth into the clean clouds of hot steam. The scent of mushroom is stale and heavy, spilling from her lips into the muggy heat as she turns her lungs inside-out.
To keep herself busy in between job interviews and short-form follow-ups, she turns to gardening. It is only in-house plants at first, little succulents needing next to nothing but a little attention every once in a while. She adds a squat spring cactus, its bright pink flowers blooming within the first week under her caring eye. In a dopamine rush, she takes home a peace lily, misting its leaves every time they feel dry and crinkly on the tips of her fingers. She falls in love with the guesswork of it, how she can measure out a different weight of water to feed into each pot by pressing her finger into the soil to test its dampness.
The days grow hot and clammy. She decides to dig out a garden in the open field near the pond. She discovers great satisfaction just sitting on a low-length stool and pulling with all her strength at the stubborn weed-like things sprouting out of the earth. It’s a never-ending task—one weed begets another, their real work taking place underground, away from her eagle eye.
The wrist pains come soon after: short, unobtrusive twinges at first, small spasms in the nerves where her wrists bend inward that usually subside after a morning stretch or a hot shower. She doesn’t think much about them until their roots start to swell and reveal themselves on the surface—the green veins running under the skin of her palms fading into a sickly eggplant purple. An inflamed blush blooms around the base of her thumbs. As she folds laundry, she observes with equal parts suspicion and wonder at how the edges of her palms begin to curl in on themselves, her thumbs folding toward her pinkies like crustacean claws or clamshells.
He takes notice of them when she takes up the clumsy habit of dropping pots and ladles while prepping dinner.
“Show me,” he says. He is skeptical.
She holds her clamped hands out to him, thumbs-side up. He becomes her doctor, a breathing WebMD, turning over her hands to assess the damage, running his index finger and thumb along the muscle and bone connecting her thumb with her arm. He tilts her hands at several odd angles, pressing his thumb against the red part of her wrists. She winces every time he stretches her hands in any direction but forward. He seems to take pleasure from testing her newfound limits. For her final exam, he presses her hands, palm-side up, flat against the coffee table’s even plane, then releases them from his grip. Both watch as her fingers curl away from the glass-cold surface, the slow death of a spider drowning in insecticide.
With fumbling delicacy, she continues her work in the garden. The weeds shoot up in her brief time away, soaking up the sunlight meant for prettier plants. Their roots grow back tough, making them harder to pluck free with her two clam-hands. She considers spraying a healthy dose of weedkiller. As she lifts the spray box’s nozzle to the first batch of crabgrass, she stops. How does it know which one is the weed, the thorn; which one the rose? One blink and they all begin to look like roses, weeds by another name. So she puts away her shovel and stool, lets them all grow.
She begins calling them “artifacts,” odd foreign objects excavated in her sleep. Every morning yields something new on the tip of her tongue, hooked to the corner of her pillow, or lodged in the back of her throat that she will have to hack out into the toilet, or, if it won’t flush, the kitchen sink.
Most of it is food; all the half-digested, half-assed TV dinners he heats up for them whenever she makes a careless mistake, overcooks it or skips a step, measures something out with the wrong spoon. He resigns her to clean-up duty, which she doesn’t mind doing. As she cleans the toilet, scrubs the sink, rubs burnt grease off pots and pans, sandpapering salt and sugar crusted to the counter, she repeats her sanitation routine under her breath—
Check the olive oil. Read the sell-by dates. Smell the milk. Crack the eggs. Filter the water. Wash the fruit. Bleach the cutting board. Disinfect the counter.
—hoping any part of this ritual might be the cure.
The artifacts that aren’t food fascinate her the most. Some of them she recognizes: a button from his cable-knit sweater that vanished from their laundry basket, the B-shaped metal backings of earrings she never wore, wads of blonde hair in the light shade and texture of the girl’s from the apartment upstairs. She wonders how, why, how, how—whether she is human at all, or a vortex of everyone else’s missing things.
At the first sight of human hair, the purging of lost objects stops. Other hairs come back up every night after, long soggy locks in every color and texture but her own. She plucks them out of the sink basin and pats them dry before taping them to the pages of an old notebook she had put aside, hoping to make good use of it, one day.
He asks about her condition, once, how she is holding up, given that this seems to keep happening. She lies, says there is nothing left. He nods, quick to believe her, or that the problem no longer needs his concern or attention. The next time they reconvene after 5 P.M., they don’t hesitate to focus their conversational energy on other pressing matters, like the weather, or the job hunt, or whose turn it is next to take out the trash.
Weariness sits with them, arriving on red coattails of autumn. His pillows and blankets have migrated to the living room, where he would fall asleep on the couch at night to avoid waking each morning to the sight of all the things she surfaced in her sleep.
On these nights, she tucks her blankets tight around her like a cocoon and wishes for anything, everything but another stranger’s hairs to bubble up from inside her. She counts them like prayers, like sheep as she wills herself to sleep: Ants. Cockroach bellies. Feathered moths. Paint chips that fell from the ceiling, shaking flakes loose like snow. Lipstick and wine from another night spent alone, waiting for him to come back, only to find him wrapped in someone else’s arms, their tangled bodies golden and warm in the morning sun.
She wakes the next day shivering on the far side of the bed, a corner of the blanket lodged tight in her mouth, her hands spooning their soft folds up for breakfast. A scream the shape of his outline she had carried in her sleep burrows its way through the fleece, piercing the empty bedroom. She pulls the fabric from her mouth and gasps for air.
It is just a dream.
It takes her a while to get out of bed. By the time she enters the living room, he has already gone. A nest of blankets is all he has left behind, long cold to the touch.
Midnight in the dead of winter. She discovers she can sleep soundly through the night by downing a few glasses of wine. She has taken to picking up whatever drinks are on sale at the corner store that she hasn’t tasted yet, or a short bottle of whiskey after a particularly long day. Tonight, she finds an apple-red Lambrusco tucked behind a row of Barefoot.
She samples this new bottle in bed while bingeing on a pre-packaged platter of peppered meats and cheeses and watching episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the settings stuck on autoplay. The bold new taste of fizzled grapes energizes her the more she consumes it, the more she gives in to another tight twenty-minute script of missed connections and crossed signals.
The man and woman—an attractive pairing—kiss on screen, an affectionate affair once considered too racy for its time. How simple it must have been, how clear-cut to be coupled just so: Rob and Laura, bonded by the world they were trapped in, two color tones and a syndication. No, “trapped” isn’t quite right. She runs other options along her tongue, ruminating on each word’s mouthfeel. Stuck. Repetitive. Routine. Predictable. This one with a savory lick of a piece of meat. The trap of predictability probably isn’t so bad. She grasps for another cube of cheese, her palm sweeping the bottom of an empty tray. She hobbles out of bed and meanders to the fridge, plucking a second platter from the shelf. She doesn’t wait to sit down; she tears the plastic cling open and folds a pair of meat and cheese in her mouth, bitter in their pairing but satisfying once it goes down.
The front door opens. His familiar frame lingers at the threshold, frozen at the sight of her plucking out cold cuts by hand, a bottle of wine tucked into the crook of her elbow. A sigh seeps out from his shadow in the doorway, loud enough to be heard over the laugh track in the bedroom.
His sigh is Pavlovian. She drops the bottle on the kitchen counter and runs to the bathroom, slamming the toilet seat against the tank and expelling all of it, everything. It all comes out, a heavy growl full of dark and gravel coming up from deep within her.
Footsteps behind her. His hand stretches out over her head, pulling the lever to flush the toilet. Flecks of wine-soaked meat and cheese spit in her face as water carries the slush down the drain. His body, cool from being outside, leans in close around her. She braces herself for his touch. He doesn’t feel her flinch, doesn’t see her shiver as he smooths down her vomit-damp hair, gripping her body tight against his. She twists the words she has long prepared in her mouth, churning them over and over until they become just letters on her tongue, jumbled up and churned into mush. She watches as they fall from her lips, plinking piece by piece into the toilet bowl before sinking in silence under the surface, flowing, going, gone.
Nicole-Anne Bales Keyton (they/she) is a Filipinx-American writer based in Boston, MA. Nicole is a Kundiman Fellow. They received an MFA in Creative Writing in Fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a BA in Film from Virginia Commonwealth University. Nicole works in book publishing and is assistant editor + fiction editor for Vagabond City Lit. Their work can be found in RESPONSE, Breakwater Review, and at hintoflibrary.com.