October 2, 2020, update: This story won the suspense category in Los Angeles Public Library’s Short Story Contest! Yay! That means I can finally stop tweaking it.
Author’s note: This story first took form as a 250-word exercise exploring the idea of “stranger in town.” Over time, it has gained some, lost some, tripled in length. It holds the distinction of being my most popular reading, for its simple yet delightfully gruesome narrative. It is also the first piece of flash fiction of mine that was published (by a now-defunct literary magazine). If I could, I would continue to tinker with it, swapping words and punctuation, but I needed to move on to other tales. (Who am I kidding? I just revised it.) What I love most about this piece is the gosh-darn literalness, which reflects my mind fairly accurately, I’m embarrassed to say. But ultimately, it’s a story about self-nurturing and holding on to ourselves.
I take one hurried sip before I head to work, and coffee the color of old blood creeps down my brand-new scrubs. That’s when I discover her, crouched atop my uterus, tiny toenails digging into my sigmoid. My skin barely contains her as she hugs herself from deep within my viscera.
Excuse me, I say, flinging my top to the floor. Care to explain what you’re doing? I tap the bulge convexing my belly button until it retracts.
A long yawn, then—Nothing, she says, elbows on knees. I wanna play. She piles my small intestines upon her head like curls, and beams. Pretty.
Play? You can’t play inside me. There’s no room.
She presses my stomach. It growls and gives. Room, she says.
I can’t take care of you. You have to leave. Or I’ll lose my parking spot.
She drags a finger across my beaded lymph nodes. Can’t, she mimics. Have to. She squeezes my diaphragm with both hands, pulling air deep into my lungs.
Inhale. Exhale. The clock Dopplers as it fades.
Can I have this? She holds up a golden pebble from my kidney.
I know! I say with false glee. Let’s hide somewhere. Want to play hide-and-seek?
My pelvis tilts under her weight as she shifts her balance. Her voice bubbles up through lobes and mucus. I was hided, but nobody seeked, she says. Pain balloons in my solar plexus where her forehead lands.
I remember being young. Rather, I am remembering. Do you like swings, then?
She takes a seat on my transverse colon while I steady myself against the wall. Swing!
No, please. The whole of me throbs as I rummage through brain, body, and bone for things I had loved—the tide stealing sand from underfoot, Chinese jump rope with my sisters, cheating time in the library. What about … reading?
She pulls herself up by my clavicle. Her head finds space by my heart. Her little legs dangle through my pelvic girdle before she erupts, molten. I like stories, she says, as she puts my arms on like sleeves, my legs on like pants. My spinal column shudders as she pours upward till she can breathe with my nose, smile with my mouth. Her feet wriggle into mine till she can stand.
Dry lightning flashes, and all colors jump. The pounding of blood in my ears quiets, and I let go of the wall. I, no, we flex our fingers and take in the world through new eyes.
We dump my purse onto the rug. A stethoscope, hall passes, the Tide To Go stain remover. Fragrance-free lip balm, a vegan wallet, a half-eaten roll of Tums. A hairbrush, Post-Its, an emergency tampon. Underneath it all, my cellphone. As we dial, a giggle escapes from our larynx.
“Hi, it’s Jia,” we say. “I’ve come down with something. Please get the other nurse to cover for me today.” She digs our elbow into our side. “Better make that five days to be sure.”
We hang up, shoulders lighter, eyes brighter.
Read! my inner child says, jumping back into bed.
Read, I say, grabbing a thick library book from the nightstand.
© 2018 Karen Yin. All rights reserved.