An inch and a half from my jaw line I first felt the pain. Like someone had pressed the back of an earring into my skin over and over. When I started to feel it on the other side, that’s when the vague worry grew into a concern. It wasn’t my concern, but I knew it was there next to me, pressing its tongue to my shoulder blades. This was not going to disappear on its own. Something was breathing at my hairline.

Where you press two fingers to find a pulse I looked for signs of some other kind of life. Flat worms, maybe. I stopped wearing jewelry and turned my collars up. These things happened. That’s what I’d heard.

Mark and I met right before all that started. During a citywide power outage. I watched him pour a carton of milk into someone else’s garden.

“Why didn’t you put it down the sink?” I asked.

“Because, that would be wasteful. This guy’s flowers smell terrible and he always blocks my car. So I’m doing a public service.” He said. I wrote my name in perfect block letters on his wrist before he paid for our coffee. His apartment didn’t have any furniture unless you count cinder blocks and folding chairs. I didn’t say anything but he explained anyway.

“No, I didn’t just move in,” he said. “I’m just not sure how long I’m staying and I don’t want nice things because I don’t want to pay to have them moved, when the inevitable day comes.”

“I didn’t ask,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess you didn’t.” Then he made me listen to several songs he considered to be important in terms of music history and culture moments. I liked him already.

His tongue tasted like Vietnamese coffee and orange tic-tacs. He held the tic-tac at the side of his mouth until it made a rough spot. His teeth were coated in sugar and my palms felt like dust. I brought them to his mouth and waited for them to burn off his lips. But they didn’t. Nothing happened. I hid under my hair, pressed my forehead to a table. I told him I made a stop-motion movie about my spine and my pelvic bones. This interested him, brought something to collective table. He drew a blueprint of his apartment on my stomach. It took days to come off. I sat alone on the bathroom floor scrubbing at it with a yellow washcloth. When my skin was raw I stood with my face almost touching the mirror and tried to look at both of my eyes at once. It was still only pain.

Mark had made me almost forget. I had a hard time keeping track of days in that early part. Meeting him, the start of this condition, when it escalated, all of those things ran together. You meet someone pouring milk in a garden and suddenly they’re in your life, taking up space in the house and questioning you about what could be aberrations under your ears.

I could have been making it up. The physical evidence was inconclusive. Words like psychosomatic were thrown around. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel it, they said, we just can’t give you anything to help. They said this until a line of red bumps formed. Then they sent me home with calamine lotion.

When Mark moved in he put his boxes in the corner and lay on the floor where the shadow of the blinds striped his face. We knew it was too soon for this step so we used the excuse of convenience and finance to justify our decision. Mark was soft spoken, and attractive in a way that is a little bit sad. Easy for me to be around. He left the boxes sealed until he needed something. He rummaged through them for days, looking for plaid shirts or chipped coffee mugs. He pulled out four crème brulee pans. Neither of us had ever tried crème brulee. We spent the evening eating chocolate chips out of the pans and watching reality TV. We lined our feet up with each other’s. He filled the pantry with mixed berry cereal bars. All our things were in neat stacks forming the border of each room. Shoes standing on top of one another, books with their spines inwards so they looked more uniform. I hung my jewelry on the blades of the fan we never used and on stray nails. This may have been part of the problem. Rust and mold. An allergic reaction. It’s hard to say looking back and wondering what could have been done differently or not at all. Our things become mixed up, neither of us remembered what belonged to whom.

“How’s your neck?” He asked each night before we fell asleep.

We bought a fish. A little one from the pet store. I pulled it from the bowl and watched its gills vibrate and its eye—I could see only one—get bigger. I threw it back just in time. Fish don’t experience trauma. They don’t remember anything. Mark watched it flail with distant curiosity. It took me a long time to understand the difference between scales and skin cells. I am bothered by the lack of tongue and lips. But I like how their fins look like the plastic grass that comes in my box of sushi. And no, that irony is not lost on me. It is lost on the fish, for better or worse, as he circles the same bowl without realizing how many times he’s been there before. Mark and I cut thick slices of maguro with chopsticks and slid them into our mouths. He moved closer to me on the floor, placing a hand on my knee.
Sometimes I get a feeling like someone is walking their fingers up my back and that as soon as I open my eyes nothing will be the same as it was. Mark snored softly next to me. His eyes trembled from the circadian rhythms. I closed my eyes and waited for mine to begin. I like the idea that in another world I took a step to the left instead of to the right. That I actually cut off all of my hair instead of just thinking about it. Would I still have met Mark? Would he still like my habit of holding the ends of my hair between my lips, would he still push it behind my ears and run the blade of his finger down my cheek? At night I felt something crawling up me and nesting in the hair at the base of my neck and behind my ears. And then it was gone. I slept for fifteen hours. When I woke, he was sitting at the foot of the bed waiting, a look between concern and boredom spreading between his ears. I don’t know how long he sat there. I hadn’t asked him to wait or to wake me. My feet were clammy. His hands were cold and calloused. My eyelids felt like sliced almonds.
I always stop and turn after I walk away from something. I breathe into the phone three times before saying hello. I like the echo. Mark turned over his wrists and pressed them together to cup my face. We were already made of water or maybe from the green parts inside of branches and twigs. You have to peel back the bark to get to the wetness it holds. I sucked his fingers and my own until they were wrinkled and raw and my mouth was dry. My mouth was always dry in those days, when the redness formed parallel lines pointing to my throat.

He ran his thumbs over the bumps on my neck while I pretended to be asleep. They formed on the sides of my ribs too, in little rows slanting downwards towards my back. I knew what they were but I didn’t want to say it out loud. My breathing hadn’t changed yet. For now these gills were only a minor embarrassment. An inconvenience at most. People deal with much worse. That’s what the newspapers say.

“It could be anything,” he said, offering me a cup of coffee and turning the books around to find his physician’s desk reference, “maybe shingles? Or just hives?”

“It doesn’t hurt like that,” I said. “And the lines are almost straight. When have you ever seen a rash like that?” He didn’t respond.

My teeth hit the stone of every peach or plum I tried to eat. It was like my mouth could only turn inwards. My lips wrapped over my teeth and I pressed my tongue to the roof of my mouth. My gums and tongue were stitched together, adhered with waxed thread and dots of glue. I found it difficult to call up sounds and words. So I moved my shoulders in small circles and felt the cracks on my ribs open. The ones on my neck were still only pulsating, waiting for the right time to fissure and take it in. We lived in a small, quiet space then, sheets hanging from the walls, tiny drops of my blood dotting our pillows. Our blankets were stiff and too warm. We burrowed under them, pretended I was not growing gills next to my esophagus and lungs. But they were still there in the morning when Mark pulled me up by my sides. I felt his hands balk at the touch.

We made pancakes and ate them groggily. The plastic spatula made a dull noise against the soft food. I let my eyes sink back into my head, let my posture slacken and my palms fall to the ground. My skin felt painted over. Tightly wound with yarn tied off at my feet. This is the part where I should have turned back and continued. Should have donated my hair to someone who needed it. I left my things sealed in boxes: a set of flowered bracelets, a pair of foam flip-flops, one hand knit scarf. They came out smelling like sandalwood and burnt frying pans. Other people can draw things from their stomachs. They can pull thread from the bags under their eyes. I can only stare through things until I’m sure I’ve made them move.

Maybe if we could have traced their formation to a specific event. Or to a moment where I blinked too long. I’ve never even jaywalked. Mark and I dug through the archives of archives to find something small to run through our fingers, to examine for future reference. But its tentacles had lost their suction. We had to deal with the problem as it was, not as we wished it to be. A thing in motion will continue in motion. I know I read that somewhere. I thought Mark would leave. That he didn’t should have been proof of love but I had a hard time seeing it that way. Always a skeptic, even as the impossible stacked up around me.

Mark used a fork to figure out how deep they went, sliding the tines in between. It isn’t that it didn’t hurt. But the pain was far way and I refused to take ownership for it. I tasted metal when I licked my teeth. Metal and wooden coffee stirrers. The gills weren’t fully formed, he decided. They didn’t look quite the same as what he had seen when he gutted and cleaned trout scraped the salty scales and pulled out the flimsy bones. I wanted my bones to be clear so I could see the marrow.

“We need to do something.” Mark said.

“I don’t have any ideas.”

“I might have a few.” And with that Mark made a list, drove to the hardware store and came back with a new ac unit and paper bag filled with supplies.

I didn’t want to do it but Mark insisted. The first thing we tried was rubber cement. But it peeled away too easily. Also it stayed sticky even when dry and caught on my hair and collected old skin cells and pockets of dust from our bed. We thought wood glue might work. Mark painted it on with a foam brush. But it splintered and tore at the rest of my skin. Maybe if I could have buttoned them closed like a shirt. Duct tape was too harsh and too hard to change. So we settled on gauze and medical tape. I wore loose clothes. I kept my hair down to shroud myself.

The stacks of books formed extra chairs and we used the sweaters to soften them. They faced a tattered tweed couch and an overstuffed armchair. We moved the kitchen table to a corner. I pressed dry oats into the rivets and cracks. I sat next to Mark and mimicked his posture. Folded my hands on my lap and looked straight ahead, trying not to blink, waiting until I could feel my gills murmur. My chest no longer rose and fell; I could no longer hold my breath for very long. Mark noticed that my hands looked older. They were dry and cracked, even on the palm side. The skin clung to my bones like shrink-wrap. I could see the veins and arteries. Especially at points of tension the skin was brittle. I took to carrying a bottle of lotion with me. I held food under my tongue and on the sides of my teeth. Let it melt into my lining and ligaments.

“What about swimming?” Mark asked. “Should we try that?”

“No,” I said, “I don’t think it works that way.” Air opened them, sustained them. I was still too much a woman to submerge myself without drowning. My skins cells were still just that. They hadn’t yet crusted over and fallen off. All the parts of myself still fit together, invisibly sewn and made for heavy use. Mark pressed his fingers over them, holding them shut, forcing me choke down air through my mouth and nose.

“Practice this way,” He said. “And maybe they’ll heal.” They had already smoothed into scar tissue on my neck. I was in the habit of holding two fingers against them. This served the dual purpose of obscuring them from view while also making me look thoughtful. But healing is not the word. Rather, they were nearly done growing, casting themselves in carbon and oxygen and iron. The red of an open wound could still be seen if you glanced the right way at my ribs. I grew around them, and with them. Felt them flutter and sigh. They hardened into something like cartilage, stiffer than the rest of my skin, but pliable, with fewer nerve endings. A part of me but separate too. When I couldn’t sleep it was because I feared they were plotting a way to rid themselves of their host. After all, in terms of ages and epochs it was only recently that bodies were crudely cobbled together from the primordial sludge that preceded us. Time is much longer than we realize. Surely, improvements could be made; parts could fit together more neatly. More wind resistance, or waterproofing. I wasn’t expecting it but I wouldn’t have be surprised if it turned I was not the one in charge of these pieces, these carpals and meta-carpals and organs and blood.

Mark set a bowl of cereal on the table in front of me. Corn flakes. Skim milk. I brought my face so close that it was kissing the rim of the bowl. Lowered my gaze straight down. There is a difference between seeing a thing and knowing a thing. Smelling it and eating it. The ceramic was cold against my lips, which were dry and hardened. I felt the skin underneath my shirt catch on the fabric, just for a second. And for that second I felt carved out, opened up. Like these things were eye pieces to a pair of binoculars, like they were each a peephole into the things I had left. Throbbing, pulsing things that looked raw and open and smelled like the water left over from poaching an egg. My skin was shrinking, drying out, but everything it bound together was wet and heavy.

“I think we’ve run out of options,” Mark said. I stared at the cereal. His voice was behind me. Quiet. It made its way to my shoulders and neck to find my ears, making the soft hairs around them twitch.

“I think this milk is sour,” I said. I spoke to the void of the bowl. Waited for the soggy flakes to respond.

“We have to move forward. Stop thinking about changing it.” He walked into the kitchen. I heard him open the fridge and then close it without getting anything. The milk was still on the counter with the lid next to it. My cereal was a thick paste. Mark was trying his best. He cared enough that I didn’t have to.

“The thing is,” I said. “The thing is, I already knew that.” This time I turned to look at him. He brought his hands to the back of his head then lowered them. That was all we said. Mark put on a jacket and walked out the door. He was gone for most of the day but I knew he’d be back. There is no leaving when the water has risen this high. I wouldn’t have felt abandoned. I would have understood. But Mark carries a sadness in his hips for a long time. It settles around the bends of his knees and arms. Quietly, he will keep it at the back of his throat. I may only be a distraction from that but I am a distraction he needed. My sides are braided like the seams of a baseball but he knows that when he undoes them there will be more thread than he could ever have expected.

He came back with dirt under his nails and little twigs on his jacket and kissed the top of my head. I had put the milk from that morning back in the fridge and he drank it standing in the light of the open door. No one spoke. I could hear the light bulbs whistle and the upstairs neighbor sigh and collapse on a couch or a bed. Mark held his eyes closed for longer than a blink, letting his heavy hands rest on my scalp.

I chose my palms, the lower half of his neck, the blade of each finger. These parts were important. Kneecaps and the arches of feet. I looked at him and added it up in my head. I’ve never been one for math, but it amounted to more than I could carry.

“I’m going to bed.” He threw the carton in the trash and dropped his coat on the floor.

“I’m coming too.” I finished the dishes in the sink and accidentally broke my cereal bowl while trying to scrub it clean. It made a gash in the middle of my hand. I wrapped it in a paper towel and an old dishrag. I didn’t care if it wasn’t sanitary. Blood is only red because of the oxygen added after it spills from flesh. It’s clear in the body.

I lay prostrate on the bed. Tried to be in perfect parallel to Mark. Once his breathing deepened and I knew he was asleep I inched closer. He was turned on his side, legs bent like he was running. I pressed the side of my ribs to the small of his back. Let his skin suction the gills closed. If only, I thought, if only I could close them all at once. I didn’t rely on my nose or mouth to breathe anymore. But if each gill was sealed. Not just obscured, but pressed tight against me. Mark jolted to the side, but he was only dreaming. I touched the tips of my fingers to his eyelids. I pushed my hips into his side. I needed to breathe the old way, needed to stop the smell of everything from entering my whole self and making my organs taste like coffee grounds. I pressed my palms to my neck. Only the gills on my right ribs murmured, doing extra work now to pull in as much air as they could. I wanted to hold them closed too.

If I did that I could pull them back into me. I would gasp and choke. The dry air would fill my lungs like water until I swallowed it all and finally exhaled. Then only the scars might remain, fading over time, and with changing explanations of how I got them in the first place.


Meredith Luby

Meredith Luby lives and works in North Carolina. She holds a MFA in fiction from Brown University. Her work can be found in, or is forthcoming from StoryQuarterly, The Collagist, Fields Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Banango St, Redivider, and Alice Blue Review among others. She is currently at work on a novella about parallel universes.

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