They were walking past a Fernwood gym one day while out shopping when Shannon uncharacteristically sighed, “I’ve put on so much weight this year. If only I had time to get to the gym!”
Nick responded by getting overly excited: “Hey, why not? Maybe we could go together.”
“Together? You do know that’s a women-only gym!”
“Oh, sure. But I mean, we could go somewhere else. You could do your cardio and I could do my weight training—or whatever . . .” He trailed off, knowing that it had been a faux pas to sound as though he were prescribing a specific course of exercise. He always said too much when nervous.
She gave him a suspicious look before apparently thinking better of it. “I could never go to the gym with you, sweetie. No offence, it’s just I’d be too embarrassed, you know, sweating and . . . bending over and everything, not to mention with all those strange men around! Other women would be bad enough!”
So Fernwood it was. When some weeks later he presented her with the membership voucher on her birthday, her face went grey with shock.
“Thanks.” Was all she said, so faintly it seemed as though she had been winded.
“I remembered what you said, you know, the other day, when we were walking past the gym, you know, about wanting to get—wanting to join . . .”
They had agreed to wait until after the working day was over in order to celebrate Shannon’s turning twenty-five, and had met up in the city at a favoured eatery. She had said she wanted something to look forward to during the day. Now they were in a Vietnamese restaurant, and just at that moment their meals arrived.
The silence continued some moments longer. “Right,” she muttered as though to herself, “I see.” Then she dropped the cardboard slip on the table with trembling hands, stood up and, very awkwardly, commenced to extricate herself from the booth where she was so tightly wedged in, all without so much as looking at Nick. It was warm in the restaurant, and she was as usual overdressed, but she definitely had not been so red a minute before.
“Shanny, are you alright?” He began to reach out towards her, then withdrew his superfluous hand.
She did not answer, but lost her balance slightly, standing back up after remembering to turn around and retrieve her bag. She twisted around in the narrow space, her flank, garbed in a colourful abstract print beneath her cardigan’s hem, pressing into the table’s edge and causing ripples to appear in her steaming bowl of phở soup as Nick watched in dismay.
She managed to get out without either spilling her soup or looking him in the face, then left the restaurant. Fortunately, when he got up to follow he was not waylaid by any of the busy wait staff. Shannon was not immediately to be seen out in the street. He felt panic.
Nick wandered up the street and back, unable for some time to focus his mind on any notion of probability or proportion. At length he found her in the driver’s seat where they had parked across the road from the train station. A billboard interposed a black rectangle of nothingness between them and the nearest streetlight. At least she had not driven off without him; but then this was not a safe area, and Shannon would have known better than to invite a carjacking had she returned to her right mind as yet. There she sat, staring ahead, tears running down her pretty, pudgy face, smearing the tasteful makeup she was wearing for the occasion.
He tried verbal and physical blandishments. “Just don’t!” she snapped, pushing him away as he pawed at her frigid form, loathing himself. At length she turned to face him and asked, “Why would you do something like that? I mean just how fucking insensitive are you!”
Again, he reminded her of their conversation of a month ago.
“Well obviously you thought it was a great idea!”
“Honestly, Shan, I thought you’d like it; I just went off what you said that day on Green Street.”
“I can’t believe you, Nick. You obviously don’t know anything about me! Sure, you were listening when I said I wanted to lose weight, but you sure as hell weren’t listening when I told you about what happened to me at school, for my sixteenth birthday . . .” Here fresh tears burst forth, and sobs took over. In fact, Nick knew very well what she was referring to. A group of girls—none other than the “cool” ones—had pitched in and bought her an exercise DVD, a suit of workout clothes two sizes too big, and a box of meal replacement shake powders. Shannon had been naïve enough to take their prior efforts to befriend her at face value. The worst part, apparently, was their insistence that the gesture truly had been one of friendship, and that she was simply ungrateful.
“I never want to eat again! I hate this body, it’s disgusting!” She cried, beating her broad chest with those dainty little hands.
Still, Nick felt in his bowels that something must be done. And there was nothing he could do but attempt to vindicate himself with a return to the “lead by example” approach he had tried in the past. Unfortunately, this was complicated by the fact that he himself was naturally skinny, so presumably the example would have to be taken on a fairly abstract level. “You’re so lucky, you can eat what you want,” Shannon would regularly say. “You eat what you want anyway,” Nick would think in reply.
She always maintained that she had tried every kind of physical exercise known to man and that all had failed. He had never known her to do much, however, although she had once gone through a phase of daily jogging paired with conventionally healthy eating, to no discernible effect. Nick wondered if secret junk food binges might not be the problem.
So he went ahead and worked out three to four times a week, over several weeks, increasing his calorie intake accordingly. Unfortunately, his hope that Shannon would follow his lead in the intended respect was frustrated, while she followed it readily enough in the other.
In terms of his own fitness, the results were coming along; he felt stronger and more confident, even if no one would yet mistake him for a body builder. He had even begun to toy with the idea of speaking frankly to her, perhaps even presenting an ultimatum. Meanwhile, she began to nag. He left his clothes in the bathroom; he was late home and failed to tell her; and worst of all, he tempted her with food she “shouldn’t be eating.”
She seemed so glum, staring at her fully trimmed baked potato one night and sighing, that he had to ask what was wrong.
“I’ve put on . . . I’ve gained so much weight lately!” There were tears in her eyes. Shannnon never used numbers when talking about her weight. “Just about every night now you come home from the gym, and we have a big, rich meal like this, and I can’t help myself, even though I know I shouldn’t be eating like this.”
“Sweetheart . . .” he commiserated, holding back.
“I know it’s my fault. I should have more self-control,” she added unexpectedly and with emotion. Ordinarily Nick would have interpreted this admission as a dangerous lure, but tonight seemed somehow a likely candidate for a significant occasion, a turning point in their relationship on which their much improved future selves might look back fondly someday.
“Shanny, I didn’t realise you were feeling this way.” He took her hand across the table. It was limp and clammy with resentment and distrust, as well as self-recrimination. Still, he carried on. “Maybe you and I have different needs.”
“What do you mean?” She flinched, and stared him in the face with prosecutorial intensity.
“What are you saying, Nick?”
He took a deep breath. “I’m just saying that carbs, like that potato there . . . I mean, if you want to lose weight—and that’s your choice entirely, which I respect either way. But if you do, maybe you need to be on a different diet to me. I’m not saying go hungry, right? Just maybe base your diet on foods that lower blood-sugar and fill you up, like meat and non-starchy veg. You know the thing about carbs and insulin?” It was a topic he had been reading up on with great avidity.
“Well it’s nice to know how you really feel about me, what you think our relationship should be based on! Here!” she stood up, “You might as well have my dinner too, since it’s no good for me. I hope it makes you big and strong so you can leave me and find someone you’re more attracted to some fucking gym bunny with a gap between her thighs!”
He could not eat another bite, as it happened. And his attendance at the gym began to suffer permanently after he skipped it to come home early with a tub of ice cream and a bunch of flowers the following day.
It was a month or two later that Shannon decided suddenly to return to university. Following a chance meeting, she proceeded to properly catch up with an old friend whom she had not seen for years, and who was now doing a PhD in gender studies. “Milly’s out there learning and doing stuff she believes in, and what have I done since then except get my degree and stay in the same crappy job I’ve been doing for the last five years?” she exclaimed in the course of a debrief with Nick.
Got fatter, he thought lethargically.
She toyed with a few options. Her first degree had been in media and public relations, a field in which she had never worked (or, for that matter, really wanted to), instead winding up in her current job performing data entry for an importer-exporter. There was an option of going part-time in this role, however, and as it was Nick’s job as a mid-ranking student services officer at Barton University that paid the majority of their bills, the impact on their standard of living would be minimal. While Shannon was deliberating over a range of vocationally unfocused options, from philosophy to visual art, she was also seeing more of her friend Milly and being introduced to the latter’s circle.
This Shannon’s eventual choice was to undertake a Graduate Diploma in Gender Studies.
She really took to her studies. Mounds of books piled up around the house, and on the credit card. She bought new, unflattering clothes and began to wear her reading glasses, which she exchanged for pink rimmed ones, as a fashion statement. (Nick awaited with trepidation the day when she would dye her hair some unnatural colour.) He saw less of her, and most of their time together was spent in front of the television, eating takeout dinners, after which she would retire to the office to study until late.
She was also getting bigger, though the data provided by Nick’s eyes was hard to quantify, given both her continuing reticence on the subject and her habit of snipping the size tags off her clothes (which led him to suspect that, after all, she was less “body positive” than she made out).
One evening they were having Thai when Shannon snorted and spat a half-chewed noodle that landed on his knee.
“Can you believe that!” She was referring to a Weight Watchers commercial in which a newly slender woman proclaimed: “I didn’t just do it for me; I did it for all of us,” meaning her family, among whom she was pictured smiling, kissing her husband, playing with her children, etc. “Anyone who doesn’t recognise fat phobia as a form of acquiescence in patriarchal norms should just fucking watch this! Disgusting!”
He made sure her eyes remained focused on the set before flicking away the noodle. Little outbursts like this—and not so little—were becoming commonplace in their relationship. The plan had long been to start a family as soon as they could afford it; presumably it had now been superseded.
Once their social isolation had been shared, but now Shannon was deeply involved in her friends’ and comrades’ subculture. There was nothing secret about it, though; from the start Shannon wanted to draw him in, even as merely an inert prop. He got to know “the girls” and their assorted male and female partners in a largely observational capacity. At first these social occasions took place in coffee shops and bars around the locale of his workplace and Shannon’s place of study, which were unfortunately the same.
It did not take long for his further induction to the group to proceed.
It appeared after all that there might be some truth in her assertion that “fat” people (as she had begun to identify herself) were as capable as anyone else of leading full, active lives. The evidence took the form of a flyer for a sort of theatrical show that Nick would have given much not to attend. “It’s something some of my friends are starting up. Wanna come?”
Come see Cellulite Cindy, Morgane the Man-Eater, Miley Walrus, and friends perform their inimitable and subversively arousing hits, including “You Look Good to Me,” “Big Sunflower,” “A Chocolate Affair,” and “Feeding Time at the Zoo.”
Join us for a decadent evening of body love and fat acceptance! Skinny folk are welcome, but in the event of a full house, be advised that you may be asked to sit in some lovely lady’s ample lap!
The letters of the title were pink and shaped like fleshy clouds or cushions. The pictured performers tended to confirm Nick’s worst apprehensions.
A fat woman tried to put a corset on an even fatter one, and both fell over in a pile. There was a type of pole-dancing which gave the impression that the pole was a necessary aid to the performer’s standing up. Wearing an appropriate headdress, Morgane the Maneater sang an ode to her quite spectacular stretch marks entitled “My Tiger Stripes,” at the culmination of which she performed some bestial actions with a male audience participant. Thank God it was someone else! Food, especially viscous dairy and chocolate, were frequent props, and indeed most of the show resembled more closely an eating contest than anything else Nick could think of.
Then there was the Miley Cyrus pastiche. The image of “Miley Walrus’s” twerking buttocks would stay with him for a long time after. It was amazing what the woman was capable of making her flesh do; that big white, puckered rear looked like some obscene jellyfish or undiscovered deep sea creature propelling itself through the ocean’s depths.
After the show it was late. They were in a group of ten or so, mostly female, heading on to another bar or perhaps to a takeaway. That was the topic of conversation when someone whistled from the other side of the street. Because Nick always assumed people were looking and judging, he leapt to that assumption before steadying himself. It was probably nothing.
“More cushion for the pushin’, eh boys!” More whistling.
“Come here and say that!” yelled Shannon, of all people. Nick experienced an attack of physical fear in addition to that of shame which he was already reeling from.
“Nah, you might eat me!” replied the drunken smart-aleck.
He took her by the hand, afraid that she would run across the street to attack.
Instead, someone whose name he had missed replied to the taunters with a beckoning gesture she had used in the show, “Don’t be shy, honey, come on over here, and you can eat me!”
He had been to previous occasions such as this, but this was the first where the speaker was male. The title of the bearded hipster’s paper was: “All Fat is the Lord’s: A Comparative Study in Affective Labour and the Labile Materiality of Fat.” In addition to the beard, the PhD candidate in question wore a side-part and large plugs in his distended ear lobes. Under a pink cardigan, his T-shirt displayed the slogan: “PIZZA ROLLS NOT GENDER ROLES.”
“. . . In contrast to the Western-Aristotelian discourse, in which fat is identified with hypertrophic excess in violation of the golden mean, so-called primitive peoples, such as the San of southern Africa, have constructed the fat body as a paradigmatic object of desire; similarly, other pre-modern and non-Western cultures have exulted fat itself as a signifier of abundance, health, and fertility, a fact underscoring the urgent need, as identified by Jomo-Gbomo and Levine, among others, to decolonise the health sciences . . .”
They were upstairs in the union building at the main campus in a large, carpeted room full of uncomfortable metal and plastic folding chairs. Some of the attendees used these, but most were empty, the heavier women sitting on bean bags or cushions on the floor that, he knew, had been brought along specially. The room stank of heterogeneous food aromas, and there was a constant accompaniment of chewing, swallowing, and slurping noises.
“. . . The lability, indeed the volatility of fat, solid one moment and liquid or even gaseous the next, may to some extent explain the ambivalence in which it has long been held in Western culture . . .” Nick looked at Shannon, who appeared slightly clammy despite the fact that it was winter, and there was no, or from his point of view inadequate, heating. Nearby sat another woman whose eyeliner was running while her greasy pores struggled to breathe.
“. . . A growing number of feminists, male, female, and non-binary, are now exploring the possibilities of a new frontier in affective labour and liberatory praxis in their personal relationships and communities. Many heterosexual, cisgender males now identify as ‘fat admirers,’ an orientation which, for all its rootedness in the human experiences of diverse peoples throughout multiple histories (and her-stories), is queered in mainstream discourse by reference to the dominant paradigm of female beauty in affluent, late capitalist society . . .”
Nick was horrified at the intimations of just what this “liberatory praxis” entailed. By the end of the paper, he was fully engrossed in the retrospective dissection of his life and the choices that had led him to be seated in this room, among these people, at this point in time.
After the talk came the Q&A. A woman with short, spiky hair, still reclining on her beanbag, spoke with the aid of dismissive hand gestures that caused her upper arms to wobble disgustingly. “I’d like to raise an issue with this anti-woman subculture you seem intent on sanitising and rebranding as some kind of feminism. I’m talking about these men who call themselves “fat admirers” and “feeders.” In reality it’s a lifestyle centred around the physical dependence of women on men, and the appropriation of the fat female body as yet another object of male desire and aggression. Obviously it’s just another guise of patriarchy, just an exacerbation of the oppressive violence of the gender binary of active and passive roles. What have you got to say to that?”
The speaker was apparently timorous when not reading aloud an essay. He was obviously upset by the woman’s aggressive tone, and his response sought to placate her by disavowing any sympathy for the undoubtedly dreadful, sexist, and exploitative practices she had in mind (although it was unclear to Nick, at least, just what the point of difference was supposed to be).
Then someone else spoke up: “I don’t see it that way, Michelle. I’d argue that to interpret consensual feeder/feedee relationships as a form of ‘violence’ or ‘oppression’ buys into essentialist thinking and the valorisation of the medical gaze which construes the fat body as somehow inherently grotesque or deformed. Moreover, there’s a vast intersectional literature, based on people’s lived experiences, in support of the contention that these relationships can actually overturn the traditional gender binary in which, of course, the woman is scripted as exclusive nurturer and caregiver.”
“Yes,” someone else piped up, “and as a queer woman I’d like to add that I see value in the shift away from heteronormative genital sexuality in the eroticisation of the oral zone implied by feederism. And I’d just like to say, Michelle, that some people like myself find it really offensive when people like you presume to question our agency. We’re actually adults who can make our own decisions!”
“Well I find it really offensive when people like you masquerade as feminists with these porno-chic burlesque shows of yours!”
It was on then. The room was quickly polarised between the radical feminists and the “Fat Burlesque” crowd, who were in the majority. The males, including the speaker, remained out of it, and Shannon as a novice member of the latter group allowed the more voluble and confident to speak for her.
Afterwards, in response to her enquiry, Shannon allowed Nick to get away with saying only that it had been “interesting.”
They were returning from a dinner party at the home of one of “their” new friends.
“You were very quiet tonight.”
“Aren’t I always?”
There was an uneasy silence as they travelled through the night lit by fluorescent signs and occasional street lights that thinned out as they made their way home through the formerly industrial Western suburbs. The radio was chattering on low volume, providing half an excuse for silence, until Shannon switched it off.
“Ari and Sonia seem so in love,” she reflected fondly.
“Yeah, they sure do.” Ari had been feeding Sonia all night, teasing her with tidbits that got smeared across her face in the course of their game, and wiping her mouth with a napkin afterwards. Self-disgust at the life he had passively chosen overwhelmed Nick so that he almost forgot to stop at the traffic lights, hitting the break suddenly so that they jolted forwards in their seats.
“Geez,” Shannon exclaimed, “careful!”
“Yeah, the way he was shovelling that cake into her. Jesus Christ!” Nick said, heart pounding as the words found their own way out past the censor, hissing and crackling in his consciousness and hers, like oil poured into an overheated pan.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know . . . Actually yes I do. I mean where is that guy’s self-respect?” He smacked his palms against the wheel and stared straight ahead, gritting his teeth and tensing his bowels.
There was a shocked pause before Shannon replied. He could feel her eyes on him. “Oh my God, Nick! That’s a horrible thing to say!” It was as if she were genuinely shocked to the core of her moral being, offended not just personally, as before on those rare occasions when he had overstepped the mark in coaxing her towards self-care, but on behalf of humanity itself.
“I hope you don’t mean what I think you mean!” she added.
“I don’t know what you think or where you get your ideas from any more, Shannon,” he replied with more dignity and coherence than he would have thought possible (even though, of course, he knew far more than he wanted to).
“Well I don’t know how you can be so prejudiced, so downright hostile towards our friends, when by now you should understand enough about fat phobia and the harm it causes. Or maybe you still don’t understand. Maybe you never will.”
“Yeah, maybe not.”
Finding her still frigid towards him almost twenty-four hours later, he predictably truckled and, to make it up to her, bought a tub of her favourite rocky road ice cream. He was relieved to find that a verbal recantation and lengthy reassurance was not required. Her confidence really had grown of late.
Towards the end of the academic year, a certain doyenne of Fat Studies from the US, Professor Jaz Huffington, had come at the group’s invitation to speak to and dine with them in the course of her tour to promote her latest book, a popularising tome entitled The Fat Feminist Cookbook: A Recipe for Equality and World Peace! It had received much coverage in the mainstream media, drawing endorsements from the likes of Rebel Wilson and Gabourey Sidibe, and doing more than anyone since Linda Bacon’s Health At Every Size to further the agenda of politicised gluttony. Shannon admitted she was star-struck, though that did not stop her from participating in the discussion while he just sat there, for all intents and purposes alone with his thoughts. Despite looking to Nick very much like a heavily pregnant bulldog, thirty-two year-old Huffington moonlighted at a plus-sized model, and the cover of her book showed her being hand-fed a chocolate-covered strawberry by her very much in-shape, negro husband.
Nobody minded about Nick’s silence; by now they knew him as well as they ever would. There had been jokes bandied about representing him as an “ornamental” or “trophy” man, he knew, and was only grateful to be exempt from having to endlessly agree with the absurdities that were passed around the circle like an electric current waiting to be lethally grounded should he ever succumb to the temptation to open his mouth and speak his mind. He was also grateful not to have to hand feed Shannon on this occasion, except for the odd token mouthful from his own plate, if only because the copious food was for once not the main focus of her attention.
Huffington was holding forth: “. . . The problem with HAES, as constructive as it’s been, is the latent essentialism in this notion of a ‘set-point weight.’ What I argue is that we need to distance ourselves from any discourse of biological determinism whatsoever, so that we come to view the pathologisation of fat on a level with phrenology and racist pseudo-science . . .” Those around her, including Shannon, listened, agreed, and amplified her pronouncements.
Nick looked around him at the couples at the banquet table. No order was being observed between courses. They had been eating for an hour or so, and some were onto dessert, while others were still filling up on pizza and pasta, or carving up steaks and schnitzels. And all the while talking with their mouths open.
It was small comfort that there were couples more grotesque than he and Shannon in attendance. Looking at her profile he noticed with anguish the beginnings of a web of broken capillaries starting to appear in between her crows’ feet and triple chin. She had started ageing, fast.
Nick was feeling crazy, like he was about to do or say something unadvisable. He excused himself and went to the toilet, where the nauseating smells of food were suddenly overridden by lilac-scented air freshener. Here he locked himself in a stall and tears began to flow, silently at first, then audibly. He could not go on like this, he whispered to himself. But knew this to be untrue. He could and he would, despite everything and despite himself. He noticed that he was feeling quite dizzy. It was not alcohol: he had always been a teetotaller.
Shannon had never been perfect, but under the fat rolls she was a pretty girl. She could even have been striking, with those black Irish looks of hers, and what in its natural state would surely have been a good figure. On some level, though his discomfort had grown steadily (more or less apace with her actual weight gain) in the course of the relationship, he had always felt fortunate to be with her, and thus responsible for correcting this one great shortcoming that was, after all, a kind of judgement upon him as well.
When he emerged, conversations were of course continuing in that pseudo-intellectual gibberish of theirs. But as he staggered towards the big table, surprisingly, the sounds grew no clearer: now not a single English word or phoneme was isolable in the noise coming out of their mouths. It was as though here was in an aviary full of flightless birds—or giant, bird-voiced slugs—twittering, cawing, and screeching at each other through vocal chords of a completely alien type.
The waiters were still human, though, and could not help staring in dismay at the menagerie that had invaded their workplace and was likely to riot when the food inevitably ran out. As invisible as Nick felt to the erstwhile women around him and the weird little insectoid symbionts they carried in tow, he felt the embarrassment of being stared at by those normal humans who numbered him among the aliens. He had felt it before—always felt it when they were out in public, to some degree—but now it was excruciating. A lovely girl of about twenty in her whites stood under a picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the alcove that led to the kitchen, thinking she was out of sight and furtively texting her romantically normal boyfriend the gruesome details of the sight before her. He could hear her thoughts as she composed the message in her mind. “OMFG u shd see this! Sooo sorry i got mad when u teased me bout my luvhandles . . .”
The room itself was unchanged; there were still the same eclectic postcard pictures—the Leaning Tower, a villa in Tuscany or somewhere, the New York skyline, the Rat Pack, some guy who in a different context might have been comically fat shovelling pasta into his mouth in a black-and-white movie still. But around the long table everything was evaporating into something suggestive of smoke curling from a couple dozen giant, invisible cigarettes. There was a smell of something impure, like dried dung or plastic, burning.
The wisps of smoke coalesced in the shape of grotesquely obese bodies. And Nick noticed with shock that the plume rising nearest him was perhaps the fattest of them all. He had believed the opposite; even taken some kind of pride in the knowledge that at least his case was not the saddest of all, that there were other couples more depraved. It made sense now. That time she had fallen over and not been able to get up; the way he would invariably wake up on top of her in their king-sized bed; those times (increasingly rare) when they had gone outside together by day, and her shadow had seemed too big for her, and people had stared and stared.
He squinted into the smoky shape beside him as it grew increasingly translucent like a vessel of blown glass, simultaneously starting to reveal something inside: something big and dark, of ambiguous outline. It seemed to be moving in a complex, self-propelled way, almost filling the glassy bulb of Shannon’s body. The tendrils were dark and glistening.
Shannon’s translucent face swung around. He could make out her expressive brows, whitely pencilled-in, it seemed, enabling him to answer her monstrous gaze with his own. “Nick, what’s the matter? Why are you staring like that? You look sick!” He understood that this was the meaning of the noises she—or perhaps it—made with its alien voice box. When she reached out what was supposed to be a hand to his face, he flinched violently and fell over backwards.
When he woke up, Nick could understand more or less every word Shannon said, the first of which were, “Oh Nicky, there you are! Poor baby!” He was looking up at the ceiling of the restaurant, and Shannon was looking down at him, human concern and even love apparent in her face. She looked just like the wheelchair bound hundred-odd kilo woman she ostensibly was. In reality, he knew, she was much larger.
He had fainted, that was all, and been unconscious for about five minutes. The ambulance arrived, but Nick insisted that he felt fine. He would go for a check-up the next day, which revealed no cause for concern.
Still, over the days that followed there were some residual echoes of what he had seen at the restaurant, not a moment of which had he forgotten. If he cleared his mind of preconceptions he could see, in spectral outline like a soap bubble surrounding her, the outline of Shannon’s true body, just catching the light at times. And perhaps as a result of this perceptual breakthrough, what was more horrible, he could touch her true flesh, feel its clammy, pillowy unwholesomeness like an aura around her false form. What did others see, he wondered? He tried not to flinch at her touch.
“Nick, can you give me my painkillers? It’s really sore tonight; can you give me three instead of two?”
Shannon had been prescribed oxycodone for the pain in her leg. In addition, Nick had got himself prescribed Xanax for the sleeping problems he described in his check-up at the doctor following the episode at the restaurant. How much would be necessary was hard to know, given his uncertainty both about Shannon’s true size—not to mention how much of that bulk was indeed hers.
He crushed two more of the opioids together with two of the other and put them in the bottom of a bowl-sized cup. He then added chocolate buds, sugar, cinnamon, chili, and a pinch of salt. It tasted slightly bitter so he added more sugar and confirmed that he had achieved the right balance with another tiny sip. He then served the drink to her in bed.
“Oh, Nicky, what did you put in this? It’s so good!”
“Just three, like you said.”
She gulped it down.
“I’m so tired,” said Nick. “It’s been a hell of a week.”
“I know.” She reached over to stroke his forehead, and he did his best not to flinch. Soon she was fast asleep, snoring like a grampus.
The obvious approach was simply to leave her where she lay and prevent her from getting out.
When he heard her snoring, Nick prodded, shoved, and shook her to make sure. Then he got up and removed Shannon’s wheelchair to the living room. That was the main thing; she had no other means of unassisted mobility. There were two possible exits: door and window. The window fronted onto the backyard, so with the high fence no one would be able to see her distress. All things considered, though, he was going to have to monitor her just about constantly. Fortunately, he had a couple of weeks leave owing at work which he had been urged to take as soon as possible. One week was probably the limit before people started getting suspicious, however.
Surely she was fast asleep, but still his heart pounded as he contemplated what she would think, say, or do, should his efforts wake her up. He had bought a hog-tie device from a sex shop that was easy to fasten without the need for any skill in tying knots. He held his breath through the nerve-wracking process of turning her over, arms behind her back, and legs bent up. If she woke up her assumption would be that he was trying to make love to her (though he had not initiated sex in a long time). He panicked for a moment when it sounded as though she were mumbling something; it was when he handled her sore leg. But no, she slept on.
He made sure her head was tilted to one side, and lovingly gagged her with a strip torn from one of the bed sheets. She would thank him, he knew, if she survived.
It was almost noon. Pacing up and down the hallway on his tiptoes, Nick worried about the absence of any noise from the bedroom. Maybe he had given one too many painkillers? He opened the door slowly so as not to disturb her.
“Shannon . . . ?”
There was no reply. Her face was just as he had so vividly imagined it, half-buried in bedclothes, but the eye was closed. Was she breathing? Images of her leaving in a body bag and him in police custody flashed through his mind again. He approached and took a closer look at her face. Her eyes were closed. They were closed tight.
“Shannon . . . you’re awake.”
Then the eye opened. He tried to give the speech he had intended, that would explain and justify his actions, but in seconds she was screaming with all her might into the gag. She was outraged, and he could feel it vividly as if their roles were reversed. She was calling him unintelligible names. Struggling. Threatening. But after all, no one would hear, and she could hardly get very far, even if she managed to roll onto the floor.
“Careful, you’ll hurt yourself if you fall.” Having backed off a couple of steps, he now advanced and sat down next to her on the bed as either her energy ran out, or she realised the truth of his warning.
“Shannon, I’ve seen what’s inside you, and you just have to trust me. It’s up to me to help you, since you can’t see the problem yourself; but you must feel it, deep down.”
No response. Just the frightened, accusing eye. Perhaps she did know?
Nick had never felt so in control. Bit by bit, emboldened as he went on, he took advantage of the situation to unburden himself, telling her all that he had wanted to for so long. After a while the tears started, and he thought that they might even have been tears of contrition. But it would have been yielding too much to remove the gag on the first day.
She became more pliable as time went on, and although she had abused him the first time he took the gag out, the second time she instantly began begging for food, in addition to the water he had brought. It did not take long for pathos to set in; she was a recovering addict, after all. “Please, Nicky, I can feel my stomach digesting itself . . . !” Her voice was so weak and pathetic Nick could hardly bear it. “Don’t do this to me, Nicky! I love you, don’t you love me?” He patiently explained that even a person of normal weight could last up to a month with no food. Her eyes bulged in terror.
“Please Nicky, Please! I’ll go on any diet you want. I’ll try the Atkins again, go to the gym—”
“No, Shannon. I’m sorry. The creature that’s inside you wouldn’t allow it. We have to kill that parasite so that you can live.”
Her hysteria was such that he had to put the gag back in. Interestingly, if he read her response aright, she had not actually seemed surprised at his statement. Did her lack of explicit denial mean that she knew?
It was hard to stay firm, though, when changing her diaper and washing her backside as he had to do for the first few days, uncuffing one hand in order to turn her on her side so that he could reach the baby wipes into her crevices with gloved hands. She was compliant at these times, but would plead unceasingly for freedom, for something to eat, until he had to put the gag back in so as not to weaken. Then her tears would plead silently. For her comfort, he would turn her onto one side or the other from time to time, releasing either her feet or her hands from the hog tie, but never both at once.
After five days she became incoherent and began singing catches of songs in a high, tuneless voice. It was still enough to wake him from his light sleep in the living room on the fold-out. He wanted as far as possible and practicable to suffer with her, the woman he loved. He had taken to sitting in a kitchen chair at her bedside throughout most of the day.
The next development was that she started to complain of something which she referred to only as “it,” “eating her inside.”
Inside Shannon was a dark, tangled forest. The branches of blood and nerves were there, of course, and the internal organs pertaining to her own proper organism; but then, coiled among them like a serpent was something that, he feared, might not possess independent corporeal existence and so not respond to the starvation treatment. Its wriggling behaviour was like that of a worm; a hookworm perhaps, that Nick was aware could grow to an enormous size and devour as much food as a normal human. But then, he reflected, people thus afflicted did not gain weight; they grew emaciated. The implications terrified him . . .
And her family and friends were messaging her on her phone and on social media. He replied, but it would only be so long before they would need to hear her voice.
He looked up on the Internet ways of luring parasites out of the body. He tried leaving a steak in her diaper, then, when that failed, with greater trepidation he tried the other end of her digestive tract. He had to pin Shannon down to keep her from biting at the meat; she was salivating uncontrollably, choking on it, but too weak to struggle. He tried bread and cake as well, without success.
He sat beside her, staring for hours on end, trying to renew and deepen his first insight, to see through to her insides as clearly as he had done back in the restaurant. Meanwhile, probably the opiates she was taking on an empty stomach were contributing to her incoherence. The last non-delirious thing she had said was a day ago: “Please, I’m so hungry . . .” Now only inarticulate sounds escaped her as she lay staring back at him in a trance beyond hunger. They reminded him of the horrible twittering of the creature he had seen back then. His intention was not to sedate it, though, but to drive it out. That meant unfortunately that Shannon would have to do without any more pain relief, too.
He had tried worming tablets, then more worming tablets, then more again. They only made a mess and augmented her pain—though he could see the worm writhing as well. It got so bad that he had to reinstate her gag, long after he had thought her too weak to scream.
Then, on day nine, an intelligence seemed to take hold of her. Nick was woken by a wheedling voice that chilled him utterly, it seemed so unlikely now after eight days and nights of steady decline in his captive’s articulacy. “Nick . . . Nick . . . please can you come here for a minute? I need to talk with you. I’m willing to be reasonable.”
He came, stopping by the kitchen to collect a heavy fryingpan with trembling hand, not knowing what might be awaiting him behind that bedroom door.
But no, it was Shannon as he had grown used to seeing her, on her side, bound as before, hair tangled in sweaty black strands that criss-crossed her beautiful yet still chubby face. Her voice was thin and pained but clear as she called out to him once again, just as he began cautiously opening the door on the dark bedroom. The bluish light of the nearly full moon found its way in around the edges of the blinds that were pulled down over both windows. It reflected off the water glass beside the bed and the pallor of the bed sheets.
“Nick, you’ve done enough. You’ve tried everything you can, unless you’re actually going to starve me to death.” She stopped, breathing heavily. “I know you think there’s something inside me, some parasite that’s taken me over. I don’t know, maybe you’re right. But if it’s true, can’t you see I’m its victim? You don’t want to punish me anymore, do you? Look, how about we stop this, and you take me to hospital so they can run some tests? If there’s some kind of parasite, they’ll find it, right?”
Nick slowly shook his head, making no effort to conceal the frying pan that he held against his thigh. “No.” he whispered, decisively. It was not her speaking, he understood.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and went to close the door.
“Nicky, if you don’t take me to the hospital I’ll die. I haven’t eaten for over a week!” Her voice was straining to stay calm, human. As he withdrew, no-longer repressed emotion flooded into her voice. “You can’t keep me here like this forever! I know my mother’s been calling; by now she knows something’s happened to me!”
It was true, and he knew that the Facebook message about going camping out of phone range was a thin one. He updated it with another message about having had a bag containing both their phones stolen. It was lucky that Shannon’s parents lived several hours away, in the country, and were not particularly nosy. In case anyone came snooping around, though, he had parked the car in another street.
“Look, I know I was wrong about all that fat acceptance stuff! You were right to put a stop to it, Nick. It was just rationalisation, and I was being selfish expecting you accept me being so fat I couldn’t even walk. I understand why you’ve done this, and I want to change, Nicky, for both of us! I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .” She started crying. “I’ll try paleo properly this time; no cheating, I swear!”
The next morning Shannon did not wake up at the usual time. She might almost have been dead but for a scarcely perceptible oscillation of the chest.
Inside her was quartered the parasite whose dark shape Nick could once more see as her body dematerialised under his famished gaze. Instead of a worm, he now perceived it as something more like a centipede: one of those long-legged ones he sometimes found in the bath; except that the legs themselves had legs, and these in turn had legs . . . In other words, the thing had a root system! All black, blue, crimson, and purple it was, in the X-ray light of his supernatural vision. As he had feared without daring to fully articulate it to himself, Nick now saw that the parasite was completely intertwined with Shannon’s own nervous and vascular systems. She was like a tree infested with mistletoe; so much so that it was impossible to tell who was actually breathing right now. Shannon might be dead already, or soon to die.
There was his sleeping beauty, pale lips parted, her broad chest and broader abdomen rising and falling so peacefully. Had she lost weight? Some, no doubt, though any dramatic contrast was lost on him, keeping watch on her day by day. Could she die of starvation while remaining overweight? Surely not; but at the same time, this could not go on forever. Nick guessed at the danger to himself; he had seen The Exorcist; but he would gladly have sacrificed himself if it came to that.
He placed the sugared tea and the shortbread on the nightstand, then dipped the teaspoon into the cup and withdrew it, pregnant with opalescent liquid. This he carried to Shannon’s mouth in his trembling hand which somehow did not spill a drop until the tip of the spoon reached her bottom lip. Yes, he was sure.
A gasp. A moan. A pair of wide open eyes. Was this some kind of trap? they seemed to ask. But now that she had tasted it, how she wanted more! Her neck craned up from the pillow and her tongue popped out, desperately seeking another taste. As so often, there were tears in her eyes. “It’s okay, sweetheart. There’s plenty more. You’ve suffered enough, Shanny.” He gave her spoonful after spoonful until she calmed down and the apparent suspicion in her eyes subsided before they closed. Nourishment was the only thing on her mind.
Then he dipped the biscuit in the remainder of the tea until it almost dissolved, and gave it to her. This time she looked at him as though all conflict between them were forgotten. Yes, she loved him no less than he her.
“Here you go. A special treat.”
In that moment she bore him no ill will for the torture inflicted on her. She was a baby at its mother’s teat. And in that state she fell into a deep sleep: the deepest since the start of her confinement.
Nick wiped away his tears, knowing that the beautiful moment was now past.
It was up to him to discover whether Shannon and the creature that had at some point taken possession of her body and mind were truly inextricable, or not. So he thought, holding in his trembling hand the scalpel that would be his equivalent of the Prince Charming’s sword to commence cutting through the malignant forest to the clearing where, he prayed, his love lay waiting.