We were seven and nine when we first saw it. Alex was playing doctor, I was the patient, and when she shone the flashlight down my throat, she caught a glimpse of its slippery black head. She pried my jaws open without telling me why and tried to stick her pudgy fingers down my throat. She said it darted back before she could get her knuckles past my teeth.
We didn’t tell our father. He and our mother were in the living room, his voice shaking the house, the stacked china tinkling like a wind chime. We didn’t tell our mother either. Her hands were always trembling. Alex said I would be okay and I trusted her. Sometimes, when I would feel it move inside me at night, I would sneak into Alex’s room and curl up with her in the bed under the watchful glow of the stickers on her ceiling.
As I got older, the house rules multiplied. Be home by seven, wear dresses to church, don’t talk about the family, don’t eat so much, you’ll make yourself sick, you’ll eat us out of house and home, good god girl, have some self control. I didn’t know how to explain to them that it was hungry too. Alex would sneak me leftovers, bring me bags of chips or chocolates which she hid under baggy t shirts that my father insisted weren’t feminine enough.
My body changed shape, grew heavy breasts and hips, and it grew too. Alex checked on it occasionally, gave progress reports on how thick it was now, how healthy its eyes and teeth looked. She’d bring the flashlight into my room with a sticker book. We’d sit together after she was done with her examination, adding butterflies and stars to the scratched mahogany dresser and chipped walls. She would toss some pilfered candy and I’d open my mouth. It would too. We gave her double points if she got it down both throats.
It got hungrier. Sometimes, when I was alone in my room at night, it would slither out far enough to turn its head and stare at me, my throat gagging from the heavy muscles and concertina motion. Its gaze was reproachful. We were both suffering. It left cuts along my esophagus where its scales dug into my skin and sometimes, when I spit, the mucus was traced with blood that smelled like rot.
I was hungry constantly. My parents started putting me on diets. “It’s for your own good,” my dad said. They tried everything — low carb, high fat, unprocessed, even liquid. My hair started to thin. When I was sixteen and Alex was eighteen, she moved out. She lived with a skeletal girl with bright red hair who carpooled with her to cosmetology school. I used the family car to sneak out to the gas station and bought peanut butter M&Ms and Hostess cupcakes with money I pilfered from my mother’s purse, getting thigh sweat on the leather seat cover and listening to music for hours until the sugar rush faded. I drove home in a stupor, my companion heavy in my center, motionless.
One night my father followed me to the gas station and watched me eat. I saw him, conspicuous in the bright white light and bare concrete of the empty filling station. I knew that my secret was out but I couldn’t stop myself. When he finally got out of his car, it was a relief. His face was a familiar beetroot red. He was yelling, but my blood rushed into my ears and I didn’t understand a word. When I opened my mouth to respond, it shot out.
He caught its neck in his hand, reflexes still sharp from his time in the military. He looked at what he held, then back at me. His eyes were cold, black like mine, black like the creature he was tightening his grip on. Suddenly, he began to pull on it.
I wanted to tell him to stop. I wanted to tell him it hurt, that I could feel his hands on its throat like they were wrapped around my own. Instead, I gagged and choked.
“It’s for your own good,” my father said. I realized he was crying. He kept pulling, the long form slowly revealing its mass, slicked in my bile and blood.
“Why can’t you just be good?” he asked. “Why do you have to have this strange thing inside you? Why didn’t you tell me?” He kept pulling.
When the last of it finally slid out of my mouth, we looked at it together, a stinking, oil-black pile of twisted scales and flesh at our feet.
“I’ll die if it dies,” I said. I don’t know why I said that.
“I can’t put that back in you,” he said. “I can’t live with you, knowing it’s there.”
Then with one swift motion he crushed its skull under the heel of his boot.
I picked up its limp body and walked away from him, away from our cars, into an abandoned field across the road from the gas station. The long grass stung my legs. I didn’t know if I should bury it. As I carried it I noticed a heaviness in the middle, a round hardness. I bit it open, my teeth the only knives I had with me, and found a round white egg, the size of a moonstone. I pulled it into my mouth. Inside there was a pulse, an exact mirror of my own. I swallowed. The tightness, half-choke as it went down my throat, almost felt good. It was one thing I could control.
When I turned eighteen, I moved in with Alex and her girlfriend, Rose. I was learning sign language at the time, resting my throat. In the depths of my body, a small black rope was coiling and uncoiling itself, like a secret, waiting to grow.
Ariana Fletcher-Bai is a writer and artist currently residing in Houston, Texas. Her work has previously appeared in the Trinity Review, High Noon, and Bathtub Gin. She is interested in the intersection of femininity and morbidity.