It was small and unimportant and by her own estimation it was the greatest thing Katherine had ever done. It was a table, one foot wide and one-point-five feet long—or it would be as soon as she finished it. Big enough to eat at. At six months, she’d been working on it for five months and twenty-seven days longer than expected. In her opinion, the problem wasn’t that she lacked commitment to the project. The problem was that she kept being distracted by something she saw, or thought she saw, out of the corner of her eye, and something she felt, or thought she felt, on the hairs of her skin.
On Sunday morning, the crows outside her window cawed her to waking and she yawned her way to the half-bathroom four feet from her floor mattress. Over the sound of piss hitting the bowl, she noticed that for the first time in a long, long time her panties were splattered red. She imagined herself God creating Adam when she strutted out and pointed her middle finger at the checklist taped to her front door. There were only three items left: Screw, Sand, and Dye. There was another list on the other side, the side pressed to the door, and that was the side that could choke. That was the side that officially did not matter anymore. She had her whole period back.
It struck her when she least expected it, the seeing and the feeling. It snuck up on her just when she picked up her saw, reached out and softly encircled her wrist while she was sprawled out on the floor with her measuring tape. That particular Sunday, it flickered around the corners of her computer screen, grabbing her attention from a misspelled comment about sturdiness. For three hours, she compared the merits and drawbacks of two competing screw companies. She could have spent even more time. The carpentry forums had no rules about how long an interloper could mill around, parsing reviews. That was the great thing about making a table, as opposed to some other tasks. The minutes were free things, subject to her whims and her whims alone. There was nothing to add or subtract, nothing was wasted in wasting, and in no time at all four legs would hold up a surface she could put plates and bowls on.
What she saw, or what she thought she saw, was a mass of grey things, moving quickly in no direction. What she felt, or what she thought she felt, was a gentle pull.
Her pencil was too dull to write down the name of the screw company with the fewest angry reviews, so she sharpened it. The wood shavings succumbed to the pull, floated through the air and stuck to the wall of her apartment facing the street, where the storage closet was dug in. There was grey movement in the space between the door and the linoleum tiles underneath. She could have put an end to it right then and there, looked the contents of her storage closet dead in the face and escaped the nauseous uncertainty which had so far thwarted her nascent table. Instead, she closed her eyes shut as tight as she could, and when she opened them the only thing beneath that door was lint.
At the home goods store, she bought the right brand of screws and she splurged on a glossy red dye for the top of the table. On the bus ride back, she crinkled open her plastic bag of goodies and ran her index finger over the side of the dye can, her chest thrumming with excitement and pride that only faltered a little when she saw that she forgot to buy sandpaper. In the bag, she saw wisps of grey unfurling in the space where a sandpaper packet should have been, and then she blinked and they were gone.
In her building, Cherry was in the hallway. Katherine waved. Cherry paused to adjust her messenger bag and unclip her bike helmet.
“Did you know that the cause of most power outages in the U.S. is none other than the humble squirrel?” Cherry asked. Cherry liked collecting facts and bestowing them on others when she felt the moment was right. When the moment was right, her eyes got wide and glittery and the Did you know happened breathlessly, like she was about to burst from the pressure of a salacious secret. Katherine liked this. She also liked that Cherry never wore two of the same sock. That particular Sunday, it was one maroon and one teal. Looking at them made Katherine happy. She pictured Cherry in the morning, rooting around the drawer for a matching pair, throwing up her hands like fuck it, there are more important things. This was the other great thing about making a table, as opposed to some other projects. It challenged, but not so much that the intricacies of other people were impossible. Katherine thought that Cherry lived a very interesting life, meaning that the two of them probably had little in common.
“By the way,” Cherry added, “You’re looking better these days. Healthier. More life in the eyes.” Katherine counted to three and sucked in a long breath. The space behind Cherry’s head went grey. Although Katherine’s fist sat perfectly still around the bag handle, its contents shifted, the weight leaning a little bit towards the front door of her apartment. She knew it was the pull.
“I did not know that about squirrels,” she said, and to prove to herself and to Cherry that she was perfectly content with being described as Healthy, she walked into her apartment and baked a tray of chocolate chip cookies and she wrapped it in aluminum and brought it to Cherry’s door. If she spat out the single chocolate chip that found its way to her mouth in the making, it didn’t mean a thing.
The corner store sold everything. Everything likely included sandpaper. She hadn’t been there in six months. She’d prefer not to go there for another six months at least, but that preference was more faint than her patience for another bus ride to the home goods store.
Outside there was a girl, or rather a woman, maybe a year younger than Katherine with unwashed hair and the smallest waist she’d ever seen, besides her own six months prior. Katherine watched as under-fleshed bones made pointed edges of a ratty, oversized tee shirt against the breeze. Katherine wanted to grab a spiderleg arm and say either that she used to be even pointier, or that it didn’t have to be like it so obviously was, that whatever the girl – the woman – was afraid would happen if she softened, it wouldn’t be nearly so bad as making a table was good, and maybe there was something even better in store for her than that. She stopped herself when she saw that the arm had a very important task: clutching a sugar-free iced tea. It was just like the kind Katherine used to buy. She knew what it was for. The eyes looked at her and Katherine looked back at the eyes and like recognized like and breaths hitched over that yellow-toothed scar-knuckled smile exchanged by people with equally bad judgement and something moved, she’d swear to God and all the angels that something moved in the girl’s mouth, something soft and grey, and then they passed one another.
The windows to the corner store were all boarded up with thick splintery wood, but the sign on the door said
OPEN. SHOES REQUIRED.
It made sense to Katherine that there’d been break-ins. Of course, it was nobody’s fault that her strongest memory of the time before the table was of pacing the aisles behind that sign and triple-checking the calorie counts on Chef Boyardee cans. It had happened, though, and it had happened there. She thought that maybe places where bad things happened attracted more bad things, like spiderwebs glittering with mosquito guts.
Everything did include sandpaper. She had a hard time believing the placement was coincidental. She knew that there were only so many shelves. Still. There was an obvious pattern to the bottle-shaped shadows cast by fridge light on the haphazard pile of red-stickered home repair items, and if only its meaning would reveal itself to her she might let go of the breath she’d been holding since she passed the girl—the woman.
She stooped down to pluck the packet off the shelf. Her back was cold. She turned around and looked the drinks machine up and down, and down and up.
She was going to hold one. She was not going to buy it. She certainly was not going to drink it. She put food in her stomach and she kept it there until it left naturally, and she was almost done making a table. She just wanted to feel the weight of the alternative sloshing around her palms for a second. For old times’ sake.
She felt it on her face again, that gentle pull, almost indecipherable from the sensation of fridge air and fluorescent light, but only almost. It was there, whatever it was, tugging at her from underneath the blanket of toilet paper, cheap toys, and shelf dust. It was there.
The bottle was exactly the same size and shape she remembered. She closed her eyes with the plastic under her thumb, thinking that she wouldn’t pick it up after all, that she wanted to turn around, go to the counter, pay for her sandpaper, and leave. Do not pick up the bottle she told herself.
There was nothing underneath the bottle. All around there was something—condensation, other bottles, air. Then: a perfect circle of total blankness, a grey fuzzy nothing. Freed from its bottle-capping, it did not pull gently, no, she was yanked face-first into it. Only the fat deposits on her hips kept her from blinking out of existence right there in the corner store.
The Nothing was a complete hunger. In the time before the table, she’d come to know hunger intimately, studied its rhythms beat for beat, wrote dissertations on the subject in the language of macronutrient ratios in the corners of all her papers, but never before this had it made itself a place for her to be in.
All around her were grey things, clear as day and no longer peripheral. They looked like slugs, but worse—stickier and shinier. They brushed her face with their hideous sheen, her neck, her eyelashes, and she wanted to die.
We bet the good stuff is on the other side. The hollow, collective voice of infinite Nothing creatures reverberated between her ears, giving her a terrible headache. It’s all skin and bone about the shoulders bring the hips in the thighs the tummy.
“No.” The second she opened her mouth, she wished she hadn’t. The Nothing had an aftertaste like vomit.
Hips thighs tummy hips thighs tummy hips thighs tummy hips –
She closed her eyes and tried to picture the color red. It didn’t come to her. In its place came the shock of cold air on her legs, and with it the memory that she had legs, that these legs were at that very moment in the corner store and out of the Nothing. She pushed her thighs against the machine until her left shoulder and arm came free, and used that to pull the rest of herself out. She fell unceremoniously on the floor, bruising her flabby ass and sending the iced tea bottle skittering. She crawled on hands and knees to retrieve it, stood up, opened the fridge door very carefully, and dropped the bottle on top of the Nothing. The pull relented. Mostly.
The fridge whirred on. A man argued with the cashier about the price of lottery tickets. A sequined scrunchie slithered into a preteen’s pocket from between her fingers. There was just one thread out of place in the fabric of an afternoon at the neighborhood corner store, and that was something soft moving around her mouth, something that got in there when she was halfway to no place. She bought the sandpaper, pushing a few crumpled bills at the cashier without speaking, and thinking of the unfinished items on her checklist with a new urgency.
Cherry was in the hall again.
“Hello! Did you know that the human brain is almost 60% fat?”
Katherine didn’t stop, even when the words We did not know that interesting very interesting thickly caked her mind.
The drill drove home the screws, attaching the top to the legs. The wood smoothed under her furiously moving palm. She worked in a concentric circle until the surface was totally even. Dragging her knuckles across the perfect smoothness, it occurred to her that she’d forgotten dinner. There were snacks in her fridge and in her pantry and she was allowed to eat them.
All that appealed to her was a bottle of mayo. She set it down on the counter and stood there cracking her neck, trying to decide what to squirt it on. The creature in her mouth sped up, bouncing on her tongue like a kid on a trampoline. The stale bread in the pantry would have to do.
A glob of fat seeped past the mouth of the tube, and the creature rammed hard into her front teeth, pushing her mouth open by the overbite. Soon there was no more mayo, in the bottle or otherwise. The creature slurped it all. It flew over to the pantry next, and the next thing she knew all of her cashews had disappeared into its rippling grey flesh. When it was done with those, it darted around, stopping to sniff the baggies of chips and containers of dry rice.
Instead of either, it devoured the wooden shelf, sending the rest of the food thereon toppling to the ground. She caught a glimpse of shining silver teeth, sharp and moving horizontally, and then it burped a cloud of sawdust and flew back into her mouth.
We don’t do carbs give hips thighs tummy hips thighs tummy hips –
To drown this out, she got back to the table. The flesh of her hand caught on the jagged edge of the dye can when she pried it open. Blood mixed with artificial coloring and her apartment got heavy with the smell of the dye. Her stomach roiled. She rushed to the toilet and put both knees on the floor. The bleeding hand bunched her hair away from her face and the other braced on the seat. Déjà vu and nausea swirled around one another. When her lower lip wobbled, though, she felt the creature moving again, so she kept her mouth shut and she swallowed her stomach acid.
A knock at the door. She groaned from the ground, but the knock only got louder, and louder, and louder still, and she had to put a stop to it.
It was Cherry, holding her tray. The scents of cocoa and sugar cut through the dye vapors.
“Thank you for the cookies. I wanted to return the favor.” Katherine nodded. Behind her tight-lipped grimace, the creature writhed. Cherry held out the brownies. The creature leapt up with enough force to swing Katherine’s whole face up toward the ceiling, but she kept her teeth firmly gritted. She pushed against the pressure as hard as she could, which was just hard enough to look directly at the top of Cherry’s head. She remembered the most recent Did you know, about the fat content of the human brain.
She grabbed the tray from Cherry’s hands and lifted her arms. There was something sacramental about the pose, the metal sparkling dully in the fluorescent hallway light, the slight bend of her elbows. She did not get to contemplate the aesthetics further, though, because in a heartbeat it was over and the pan was upside down on Cherry’s head. Its contents slopped onto her shoulders. A fleck of chocolate landed on her teal sock.
Just to be safe, Katherine reached out, scooped up a handful of the carb-protectorate, and smeared it across Cherry’s forehead. The nothing creature went still. Through her nose, she heaved a sigh of relief.
“… Not a good time?” Cherry asked, blinking through the crumbs cascading into her eyes. Katherine walked backwards through her door and slammed it shut.
She managed to splash a layer of dye on the top of the table before the creature decided it would have more wood in the absence of hips, thighs, tummy, or brain. She was too tired to keep it in. It pushed her teeth apart, flew out, ate the whole table, and slung itself back into her mouth.
She didn’t expect Cherry to come back any time soon. Even so, it seemed prudent to double check that she’d locked the door. When she went over, she saw that the checklist had flipped. She found herself looking at the old checklist, the one she’d tried to send to hell where it belonged six months before.
The inventory of pounds to lose needed some updating. The scale was deep in her storage closet, but not so deep that she couldn’t find it, not so deep that she couldn’t strip down and learn just how much updating, exactly, was needed.
She didn’t like the number. The creature was getting antsy again, moving around. Sooner or later, she knew it was going to take something more substantial than mayonnaise or cashews or shelf or table. Unless she took it home first. She didn’t like the number. They wouldn’t fit in the Nothing with all the flesh on her sides, the two of them. She didn’t like the number. The creature flung itself at the roof of her mouth again and she didn’t fight it. She let it fly out and eat the skin and fat from her hips, and she watched the number get more likeable. It did her thighs next, then her abdomen. After this, it hovered in the air, grinding its silver teeth. She could tell from its posture it was thinking about her head.
“Can I keep it for just a little while longer?” She asked. She was neither begging nor demanding with the question. She was negotiating.
Hips thighs tummy wood wood wood do satisfy us for now we have already taken one of the pink thing we can wait for additional.
Back into her mouth it went.
The girl was outside once more, although the moon was high and the corner store was closed. In her haste she’d forgone shoes. Gravel and bits of broken glass studded her bare feet. Katherine’s sides and legs were red and wet. The girl didn’t mind. She herself was red and wet at the shoulders. Katherine did not look at the back of her head. She knew what she would see if she did. They opened their mouths wide and from within twin creatures emerged and ate the window boards. The girl entered first, then turned, and extended a veiny hand. Katherine traced the bruises above the fingers and placed hers in it. The only light inside was that of the refrigerated drinks dispenser. Bottle-shaped shadows grew on their faces as they stumbled, bleeding and bony, to the sugar-free iced teas.