Clara watches as the doctor unwraps the small creature from its plastic womb. Its smell clings to the porous walls of the office. She expected it to smell like urinal cake and aftershave, but it is sweet like honey. Disarmed, she falls back on the white paper and feels the prick of the needle, the cold of the amorphous creature sneaks under the sheets of her skin.
“Put your pointer and middle finger on your arm like this and seesaw your fingers back and forth.”
Clara does as she says, and the little creature reacts to her touch. A comfort.
“You should periodically check that it doesn’t move. Tell me if you feel any sudden changes.” The doctor is nice, her makeup is thin on her face, and her glasses rest on the small crook on the bridge of her nose.
“Will anything change about my body?”
“That depends on you and your relationship with the little guy in your arm. If you’re hostile, he can be hostile. If he’s well fed, those scars will clear up on your face and maybe your back.” The doctor peeks under Clara’s shirt.
Clara smiles at the doctor. She feels new. The creature has infused her blood with beautifying serum. At least now she’ll be less bland. After two weeks they’ll be a couple, a balancing act, a parasitic pair, and she’ll no longer have to eat those chalky amoebas for breakfast. She won’t think about her hungry womb and the slimy eels that tinker around and settle into the very bottom above her uterus once a month. The creature in her arm will tie them up and keep them from slithering around until they suffocate in hormonal waters. This little creature, this little soldier. What is the reason for her hostility toward those generous eels—parts of her own body? She can only think about her biosphere and the life she is taming.
A month has gone. Clara stares at her face in the mirror. She uses her pointer finger to better view the angle of her jaw, the bumps on her chin and forehead. Her complexion is poorly mixed pancake batter.
“They’ve gone down,” she says and taps the mirror.
Clara swivels and pulls her shirt over her thin shoulders. The skin has turned from a slimy green to a pale green, a green she finds almost pretty. She lays a hand on the back of her neck. The bumpiness that was once there has faded to rough patches.
“I am going to buy a strapless dress.”
In the harsh light of the dressing room, she sees that lizard green, that ogre skin, more clearly and places the dress back on the rack. The rest of the day, Clara sifts through the city. The sun is not too hot. In her favorite coffee shop, she worries for five minutes before shifting her attention to the people walking by the window. She finds the young ones and studies them like insects. A girl wearing a tight skirt and a tucked-in white blouse clicks by on the sidewalk. Professional. Put together. No discoloration or texture imperfections. What creature is in her arm?
She avoids her boyfriend as she has done for the past two weeks as she gets used to the growing pains of the creature in her arm. It wriggles when the sun shines on it, and coughs in the early morning. She fields texts from him as the eels stop churning and flicking tails of blood into the lining of her nice underwear.
I know you have been saying goodbye to your friends before we leave, but couldn’t you spend one night with me? I miss you.
Connor knew about the appointment. They had talked about it; he agreed with Clara’s decision. It seemed like the safest option to stop her metamorphosis, and it had meant that they didn’t have to worry. Or at least he didn’t have to worry about Clara’s condition. Or the eels and the blood it tracked into his small apartment. How nice it would be to push her up against their bedroom wall in a new city, and not have to think about touching her clammy, green skin, he thought. What if he somehow contracted it? Connor knew it was impossible, scientists had debunked the myth years before the injection became widely available, but the suspicion was still there.
Clara sends back: Dinner tonight then?
They meet at the restaurant and order the same tacos; tinga, al pastor, and redfin. The tinga tacos make her want to cry. Why don’t we rename them? All feathered creatures had evolved past the point of recognition. She feels silly, stupid even. She eats a taco in one bite and wipes the grease from the sides of her mouth. The eels bump up against her rib cage.
“I’ve started packing. I need to move stuff back to my parents’ before we leave. Next week! We’re leaving next week.” Connor touches Clara’s hand.
Clara looks up; there is too much taco in her mouth, so she reaches for the margarita.
“I’ve sort of packed.”
Connor nods and takes another bite of his taco, “You know it’s just going to be you and me out there.”
Clara feels a slight tug in her arm, a little pulse, not hers. She tells it to hush.
Clara stares at her packed bag and the faded bedspread she’s leaving behind. Her anxiety dissipates, and her insides feel strangely balanced. It’s at the airport where she feels the deluge in the pit of her stomach. The amorphous body seems to slip from her arm into her throat, then into the back of her eyelids where light is diffused through the dirty-brown screen of her eyes. Nausea attacks her in the security line, where faceless guards turn in her direction, the smooth hollows for eyes unblinking. She seesaws her finger back and forth before surrendering her fingerprint to the scanners. The creature settles down, seduced by her attention. Feeding on her fear, it vibrates soundlessly.
On the airplane a dream: a sea so big and dark. She floats by the soles of her feet and sees the pattern of the waves breaking. Returning, breaking. Squinting, a slither of black, a dart of green under the waves. An old word travels through the murk of her mind—was it called a leech? She can’t remember. She worries this thing will take a toe. She worries it will climb up by the fine hairs of her skin into that wet place. Into that dry place. Into that place. An entrance where she keeps the eels muzzled. Where she shaves away the evidence of her wildness. The sea grows swollen until it is up to her neck. Her chin rests on the water looking at a never-ending line, the leech swimming and circling, waiting to dart inside.
Two weeks in this godless place. She walks to class with Connor, learns with Connor, trudges to lunch with Connor, touches Connor, Connor maybe touches her, Connor leaves, and Clara stays in at night to watch the ripples on the wall. Clara smiles in class and swallows the phlegm in her throat, promising the universe that if she is not sick tomorrow, she will be eternally happy. Tomorrow she will be strong and study for the civil exams in one of those underground coffee shops. Tomorrow she will be out with her classmates who will become her fellow factory line workers, picking apart and putting back together endless rows of radon radios. Tomorrow she will forget about the pollution. Tomorrow she will wipe away the blood that leaks from her arm where the little creature was inserted. And she does.
Connor looks warmly at Clara across the table as she charms Rachel, as he charms someone else. Is he proud that Clara is out past dinner for once? He turns to a pretty classmate seated on his other side. He’s “wingmanning” for Jake. Clara leaves after the first round of drinks. She slips unnoticed from the table into the dripping neon of the big city. The streets are too narrow. This new place built for overpopulation is poorly constructed. A paper cutout. She passes by a woman hawking fish with three eyes, jumping shrimp the color of violet, and riding goggles that cut through the morning’s soot silos. “Riccceeeee,” she hisses, pulling stunted grains from her pocket. Clara almost gives in but sees a hollow-eyed guard on the opposite corner. The woman snakes her hand safely into her pocket. A motorbike filled with piglets, snouts removed, whips by the pool hall Connor attends. He plays carom billiards there and loses to the vets with puckered scars.
Back in their apartment, Clara spreads her back on the floor for the coolness. When Connor comes in, she peels each vertebrae from the floor in a serpentine motion to ease the pain in her lower back. Clara undresses, and Connor follows. She is falsely warm. She slips off her shirt. Her shorts. Her underwear. Connor stops, looking at the mess on the floor.
“I thought you stopped bleeding,” he says.
“I did last week, and then it started again.”
He keeps his boxers on and stares at her. He has a drunk flush on his face. “I thought the appointment would fix this. The thing you have, it’s supposed to stop that.”
Clara feels a sudden rush of thumping in her chest, a bubble of hotness in her throat. She excuses herself to the bathroom and turns on the shower.
“Keep it short. I’m trying to go to bed.” He turns off the lights.
She knows he means nothing by it, but she can’t tamp the frustration. The little creature makes it hard for her to discern her own feelings from the swish of its mucous body.
Clara looks at herself in the mirror. There is no more green on her back, no more scaly debris and rough skin. She touches the white scars and feels a hollowness in that place above her uterus. The creature knocks on her ribs. Blood drips like a faucet. She wears her pajamas to bed for the next week. She decides that going out is too hard. She worries that she is becoming a different person with the little creature in her arm. What has she been feeding it? She worries that Connor will stop loving her because of the honey smell when her arm bleeds. The blood dries on her side of the bed like a warning.
Her little creature is four months old. It is fat and hard in her arm. Fever makes her taste colors and feel noise. The confines of the city close; she shuts the apartment door to everything. Connor is tying his shoes.
“I’m heading out with everyone. I need the key so I can get back in later. I assumed you ate,” he states without inflection.
Clara nods and swallows the hunger. It sits with the eels. What she would give for the smell of rice.
“I probably won’t be back till late.”
She watches his back go out the door she just entered. The door closes, locks, and is silent. Almost immediately the room feels small and stuffy. The fluorescent light stings, so she turns it off. The darkness is even more suffocating. Her throat closes up as if she were allergic to herself. It’s the eels she’s allergic to. No, it’s the creature. It’s herself. Her newself. She sits to watch a movie. She lays down to read a book. Her clothes are too tight, she rips at them, her head feels even hotter. Three pain killers. Four more for good measure. Then a click, his face in the sliver of the door. She is in bed, sweating and not asleep, and she knows that he knows. He pads across the room and lifts the playing cards from the desk, slipping them into his pocket.
She needs him. She needs him to tell her the creature is only a phase, a blip. She steps out the door before it closes and watches him walk down the stairs. A tightening grasp in her arm, it goes numb. Her vision blurs and fever drips along her hairline. She only manages, “Are you coming back?”
Clara shakily returns to bed. To lay down, to count cleansing filaments in the air. To be okay with how the creature has stretched out her skin, removed its natural green glow, and replaced one deformity with another. Only one is visible to Connor and the other is misconducting her insides. To hate her despair like it is a person. The room contracts, and the eels swim around. They have left that wet place and slide around her head. Her headache worsens. She sees things. The leech reappears, slouching across the bed and up her leg, into her mouth. She cannot scream despite the panic. She can only cry hot tears. She can only accept the newself. The little creature who has introduced anger to her bloodstream.
In the morning, Clara gets up early. Behind her eyes is tender. As she crosses the street, she sluggishly watches for cars. She understands her sadness in the way the city stretches up and up, with thick cables like snakes on either side of the street. The smells choke her: the sour stench of the meshed fruit, the streetsweepers crawl the canopies of dying trees, spraying trash pesticide across the streets. She takes a deep breath to wrest the crisscrossing currents in her body, and the pollution rushes in. The little creature bites back and hisses as the smog sinks into her skin, and she feels sick and cramped. In the middle of the street, she wonders what she has done. In a place that either stares with open-faced confusion or derision, she wonders why she came here. Why did she leave the comfort of her family? Defeat drives her even farther from the city center. She walks steadily toward the peninsula on the far side of town. Her limbs sag in the humidity; the vivid colors mock her. She tries to expel that little creature, to push him into the overflowing street gutter. It just burrows farther in.
When she unlocks the room, Connor is sitting up in bed, scrolling through his phone. She quietly watches him. His hair has gotten longer, and his clothes are starting to fade from the constant intensity of the sun. He neither looks happy nor angry. At this moment, he looks like himself, his shirt off in the crumpled sheets. Her own body’s absence visible next to him.
“Hey,” he says softly, voice still sticky with sleep.
He pats the bed next to him. She fights with herself. Why can’t she be easy and forego the stubbornness? She sits on the very edge, back to him.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking all the time, Clara. You have to help me out. I can’t keep guessing.”
“This city is too ripe. There’s no moon, they couldn’t give us that one decency.”
Connor shifts on the mattress.
“We had to make the decision to move without seeing it. That’s the deal with these jobs. You need to try making friends. To do something.”
She is misunderstood. A sudden flush of anger, then sadness, pulls up from her arm. The creature must be wrapped up in the muscle. She used to be able to see clearly through bursts of emotion.
She rattles her arms, almost expecting it to jingle. “It’s the creature, it’s this leech,” she trails off. “I did this for you.”
“The what?” He’s confused, angry. “The injection was for both of us. To feel safe. Don’t blame this on me. Where are we anymore? It’s hard to guess how you will react to things. It’s like I don’t know you.”
And she leaves.
Clara moves to the beach. Her studio is in a shared building with other metamorphically stunted women. She left Connor in the rotten city and took the little creature with her. She seesaws her fingers back and forth on her arm, and it lets out a cold sensation to her fingertips. It is 5:30 in the morning, and she goes for a run to the northern most point of the peninsula before the sun is overhead. In her back pocket is a knife. She has a few matches in the other. As she sees the big lady buddha on the mountain, just above her head, she stops running and takes her shoes off for the sand.
The sun lights the knife on fire first, and the flame follows it, moving back and forth over the blade. She waits one second and finds the little scar where the creature was first inserted into her arm. Digging the knife just beneath her skin, she tries to control her face. This she can do, physical pain is easy. She sees the small green tail. Pinching it between her fingers, she pulls it out from a tangle of tendons and holds it in her hand. On the sand at her feet is a pretty murex shell. She funnels the creature into the shell, and it shrugs inside as if knowingly. She places it on a rock and dives into the ocean. The sea wrestles the eels and sighs as if in relief. She floats until the sun is hot on her face. She does not feel better yet, there is still residue in her veins. The ocean under her body is not cold. Millions of murex shells pierce the water.
Anna Suszynski graduated from Colorado College in 2016 with an English major, Creative Writing track, and recently completed her MFA in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She received second place for the Adelaide Bender Reville Prize for short fiction, was a finalist in the F(r)iction Spring Contest and a top 25 finalist for the Glimmer Train New Writers Award in 2017. She can best be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter, @anna_suszynski.
© Variant Literature Inc 2023