CANDIDATE • by Kevin Tasker

Shelby agreed to the surgery only after the two biggest narcissists in her life, Dr. Schrodinger and Dr. Elks, advised that her weight had reached an apocalyptic level.

In truth, she had always been obese — unrepentantly feasting — or so her first husband Earl had never stopped saying. Only lately, however, had she begun to feel winded when she hobbled even a few feet. Only lately had she become so obsessed with staving off starvation that she not only ate in preparation for eating, but consumed pre-preparation meals while cooking her preparation meals themselves. She would eat a club sandwich with one hand as the other plated the bone-cold mac and cheese soon to be ingested as she listened to This American Life and prepared her real dinner of blood sausage, greens, and a quivering flan that had been her psychotic second husband Duke’s grandmother’s favorite recipe. 

She was also paranoid she was eating the right amount of food, but not the right foods themselves. Once, she ate raw pork chops for an entire day. The next day, she ate only fruit cups. Bowl after bowl of icy mushroom soup dominated the day after that (Shelby had a reoccurring dream wherein she was being drowned in soup and a carnival barker kept chanting somewhere out of view, “We’re really in the soup now, aren’t we?”).

Was she doing enough to stave off the irritability, decreased sex drive, preposterous swelling, and inevitable organ failure that accompanied total starvation? The organ failure, she’d read, could result in as little as eight weeks without sustenance.

In her rancid daydreams, Shelby saw herself eating preparatory meals in advance of preparatory meals and still falling over into a rictus of total starvation. She pictured her body ballooning out in all directions like a sagging circus tent as her arms dangled hose-like at her sides.

It was easy for Shelby to imagine Dr. S — all hundred and ten pounds of her — bending over as she administered the solution of 42% dried skim milk, 32% edible oil, and 26% sucrose plus electrolytes, all her withered intestines would be able to stand under the circumstances.

Shelby studied the cuckoo clock she’d been given by Duke’s godchild, Nelly. In the horror of her daydreams, she saw the cuckoo clock’s cuckoo on its extended pedestal as not a bird at all but as an attractive, bone-thin, regal woman like the one Duke had left her for: flinty-eyed yet bewilderingly beautiful Amy Bistro, YouTube celebrity. Amy, as far as Shelby knew, couldn’t fathom having anything like her disease.

In her worst moments, Shelby understood that the squawk of little Amy on the cuckoo’s pedestal did not mean some grim climactic hour had been reached, but that Amy was actually orgasming somehow through Duke’s distant touch and wanted everyone in the vicinity — especially Shelby herself — to know it.

***

Shelby crossed herself, cringing at a sadistic television sequence in which a replicated human was blood-let in Westworld and ruminating about the surgery, called a Sleeve Gastrectomy. It would be performed by Dr. Elks, a man that was, as her own dead mother had put it, “of that charming age when all vampirism has been washed away.” The surgery, as Shelby understood it, would remove 85% of her stomach through a nifty port incision, and would be capital-I Irreversible.

She had two helpings of caramel cheesecake followed by a half jug of black rum as she wrote Duke grandiose letters the guards sifting his mail would no doubt read before he did, chagrined by the generational decline of penmanship which drove them to drink and blaspheme.

There were risks to the procedure, Dr. Elks explained and Shelby explained again to Duke, mirroring Dr. E’s tone as she wrote: perforation of the stomach or the small bowel, deep vein thrombosis, hernia (yawn), plus bowel obstruction!

Shelby could see her body being split open and molded like dough — the most disturbing part of the macaroon recipe Duke’s grandmother had given her flashing through her mind: “using the spatula, fold until incorporated…”

***

A vision of Cuckoo Amy arrived just before the anesthesia took hold. Cuckoo Amy had evidently undergone the sleeve procedure herself and was now trying to eat, but feeling tremendous pressure as her already tiny stomach filled and what looked like a lot of chocolate drops cascaded out of her mouth.

Shelby then thought she saw Duke in the room, watching her, his face blank, cement-like, arching his neck in a way preferred by carrion birds. His weight was substantial over her, his breathing rhythmic to the point of seeming darkly yogic.

***

Dr. S and Dr. E hovered over her when it was done, their faces indistinguishable in the blur of post-surgery drugs. One of their hands was on Shelby’s shoulder. One of them was saying, “We have triumphed, Shelby. We have triumphed.”

Later — as the real pain began — Shelby lay in the hospital bed looking at an unopened letter very likely from Duke. When she closed her eyes against the pain, she saw herself as a twirling husk on YouTube, sentient and wise but also so light as to coast up and down on the breeze.

She was butter-slick but clean, feeling zero shame, as a thousand acolytes crowded around to record her.


Kevin Tasker‘s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Vestal Review, Lunch Ticket, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives in Cleveland.


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