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1 story
by Stella Lei

Stella Lei is a teen writer from Pennsylvania whose work appears in Four Way Review, Okay Donkey Magazine, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize, as well as selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 longlist. Her debut prose chapbook, Inheritances of Hunger, is forthcoming from River Glass Books for 2022. She is an editor in chief for The Augment Review, she has two cats, and she tweets @stellalei04. You can find more of her work at stellaleiwrites.weebly.com.

Changeling

One of the first books I remember was 1000 Fun and Unbelievable Facts—an oversized affair whose letters lurched off its cover, primed to spill into my doughy palms. Jessica and I spent afternoons tracing the headings with milk-soft fingers, sounding out four-syllable words, peering at every photograph and cartoon diagram like there were secrets between the dots of ink. Moths lack stomachs, and thus mostly drink liquids like nectar. An African elephant only has four teeth. Goldfish may eat each other when under stress. This was printed in a speech bubble adorning an image of a goldfish, its eyes glassed over, mouth slightly open. How morbid, we said of the book designers, to make an animal admit to its own crime.

 

* * *

Now, my mother and I bury Jessica on the riverbank. We should have done it on Sunday, right after we killed her, but it was 10 p.m. and neither of us trust the dark, so we covered her with a towel, left our clothes to soak in cold water, and went to sleep instead.

Originally, my mother suggested floating her down the river behind our house for the fish to eat, but I thought that was disrespectful as fuck, and we were family, Jesus Christ. She was your child. The least we can do is bury her.

So we haul her body into the mist-drenched morning and shovel the bank until we can roll her in, the August sky so airless it sucks away all sound—an endless vacuum of blue.

When we killed her, my mother said that really, she had stopped being Jessica long ago, and besides, it’s not murder if the victim isn’t technically alive, and I almost told her that morality shouldn’t hinge on technicalities, but she would have ignored me and made that face where her mouth withers and her eyes pinch into slits, so I stayed quiet.

Now, I drag Jessica by her clammy hands, legs streaking through the mud. Her mouth is frozen open in a gash, and I imagine her hunger accumulating behind her teeth, exploding between her lips and leaving her behind. Collateral damage. The back of my throat burns.

I lay her in the hole and pick up the shovel, hands raw on its handle. Jessica stares up at me, eyes blank, blood a black crust on her shirt. We were always identical. The same widow’s peak and gently sloping nose, twin sets of braids brushing our backs. Jessica-and-Jennifer: even our names each other’s reflection. When we were little, we dressed the same and tried to confuse our mother, exchanging identities between our half-formed hands. In the end, she stopped calling us by name and directed her words to whoever was in the room. You, help me wash the dishes. You, take your shoes off before entering the house.

I pour dirt over Jessica’s face first.

 

* * *

My friends say it’s possession. People online say it’s a rot from the inside, decaying you until you crave flesh to fill the emptiness left behind. I say it’s creepy as hell, and it doesn’t matter anyway. This is what matters: Jessica’s body buckled into itself as she wasted away organs-first, emaciated throat swallowing her pulse, mouth opening and closing in a breathless gasp. Jessica ate half our goldfish and spit their bones outside my bedroom door so I saw them when I woke. Jessica reached for my arm across the dinner table and tried to take a bite.

She was not the first like this. The disease originated in the countryside, spread to the city, and exploded from there. Children ate their parents. Parents ate their children. Sisters grabbed each other by the arm and opened wide. Businesses shut down, and people quarantined inside their homes, leaving only to steal from whatever stores had more stock than bloodstains puddling the floor.

This was my mother’s job now—leaving three times a week to trawl the abandoned shopping centers, running her fingers down the empty shelves, tiles echoing below her feet. Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have let her go alone. Before Jessica shriveled into a shell. Before I wrestled her down as our mother slit her throat with a kitchen knife, blood seeping tar-thick out of the wound—long-stagnant in its veins. This was because in April, after a trip to Costco, I had found our mother hiding a pack of ham in a floorboard under her bed. I shoved her aside and shook her shoulders until they drained bloodless in my fists, yelling that you can’t just hoard all the food, goddammit. What about me? What about us? Just stay home next time. I’ll split the portions. My God.

From then, until Jessica got sick, she and I made grocery runs. We had one bike, so each trip we traded pedaling and sitting on the back, knees cramped, bony arms around the other’s waist. Whoever was on the back brought the backpack for carrying food. In the earlier weeks, it bulged with soup cans and crushed bags of chips, zippers straining over the Double Stuffed Oreos Jessica loved. By June, it hung around our shoulders like a husk of skin, our emptiness transmitted to it and then to us. Hunger inherited and amplified on the way back.

On one of our last trips, we lingered in the Walmart aisle, bag on the floor, a single can of sardines in Jessica’s hands. She turned it back and forth, reading the label: WILD CAUGHT & SUSTAINABLE; 170 calories per serving; 1 serving per container. Two weeks expired, but we were long past caring.

Jessica weighed the can in her palm. “Mom never liked fish.”

I glanced at the empty backpack, its zipper yawning like a mouth. “No, she didn’t.”

Jessica ran her fingernail along the can’s tab. “Eighty-five calories if we split it even. Eleven grams of protein each.”

I kicked the bag down the aisle.

The can peeled open, fish and brine permeating salt-thick through the air.

* * *

 

“I think murder does something to you.” I say this to my mother as we wait inside the laundromat, our bloodied clothes spinning themselves pure. She stands against the wall, arms crossed. The blue-green fluorescents highlight the wrinkles in her face, and she looks like someone else, older and paler and thinner, her cheekbones stark against skin.

“I already told you. Not murder.”

The washing machine—somehow still in service—clatters.

“You know what I mean.”

She walks to it and peers inside.

“I feel like she’s still watching us. Like I’ll turn a corner and she’ll be there, blood all the way down her chest.”

My mother checks the digital clock on the wall, display frozen at 2:33 p.m. “Guess that’s guilt.”

“Do you think she recognized us? When she was like that?”

My mother doesn’t look away from the clock.

“Do you think she knew us? When we killed her?”

 

* * *

Growing up, our mother left Jessica and me at home while she rushed to whatever job she was trying to keep. We had no television, and we weren’t allowed to go outside, so we spent the long afternoons roaming around the house.

Our favorite game was hide and seek, even though the cramped apartment had few places to crawl into—few holes to fill. Still, we took turns being It, facing a corner and counting faithfully to ten. Back then, danger had a countdown. A warning, echoing through the halls. Jessica always hid behind the curtains in our mother’s bedroom, but I made a show of searching each corner, turning over pans in the kitchen, cushions in the living room. The goal was never finding each other. Back then, we always knew where the other was. Instead, we delighted in the search—the rambling turns, the freedom, the promise of something at the end. After picking through each corner, I’d wander into our mother’s room to see Jessica, silhouetted against white, shadow languid on the floor. I never mentioned how the light revealed her body, crouched against the wall. So vulnerable, even in play.

Once, I tried to surprise her, sneaking to the window and grabbing her through the curtain. My fists clenched around her neck—the same column as mine—as cloth closed around her head. Her mouth gasped wet against white. Her limbs pummeled blindly. I flinched back, and she tumbled out of the curtain, coughing into the floor. She pushed me in the chest.

“Sorry!” I shielded myself with my arms. “It was an accident! Promise I didn’t mean to.”

She cuffed my shoulder, and I stumbled to the side, feet tangling in the rug.

“You can get me back, okay? Okay?”

Jessica, smiling now, shoved me into the curtain. I thudded against the wall, breath punching out from my lungs. I turned my head, and there was the ring of Jessica’s spit, translucent in the sun.

 

* * *

Noon beats down on us in a blast of dry heat, and I sit in front of our fish tank, watching the lone goldfish drift. Most of the ones left by Jessica had died when we ran out of fish food, and I dumped their limp bodies in the yard. Buried them like a trove of gold coins, earth swallowing the price of her decay.

The radiator wheezes in tepid gusts, and the television buzzes with static. None of the channels broadcast anymore, and even the static is spotty at best, but I like the white noise when it works. A constant background thrum. Something to focus on other than starving.

My mother leans against the wall, dangling a cigarette out the open window.

I fan the air in front of me. “That shit is gonna kill you.”

She lifts the cigarette to her lips and inhales deeply. “Better than being eaten alive.” The cherry glows like a drop of blood on skin.

I stand and fold my arms behind my back. “Did you know goldfish can cannibalize each other? When water temperatures rise too high, or when there isn’t enough food?” Maybe I should have left the fish corpses. The survivors might have lasted.

My mother exhales out the window, and smoke curls around her upper lip like a ghost of breath. “Brutal.”

The television static fizzes out.

 

* * *

In the evening, I lie in the bathtub and wrap my arms around my chest. Our stock of stolen ramen ran out two days ago, and the hunger gnaws at me, corroding my ribs. I hold my breath and slide deeper into the tub. The water closes around me like a womb, and I pretend I am Jessica, rotting in that riverbed, pulse gone long before my death. Maybe she had floated away. Birthed out of earth. Stolen by the water like a baby from its cradle.

I remember our mother telling us a story like that decades ago—fairies who’d snatch infants and swap them for a changeling, a copy not quite right. She had said this as she washed our hair in this bathtub, drawing pictures in the shampoo sliding down our spines.

“You would know, right? If we were taken?” Jessica asked, eyes wide.

Our mother smiled. “You wouldn’t have been taken in the first place. I sat in that nursery and watched you every night. Nothing will happen to you, my beautiful girls. My twin joys.”

She’d never answered the question.

Soap stings my eyes, but I watch my hands distort in the water. What if I caught the disease? If I shriveled until only hunger was left? If Jessica’s deterioration mirrored itself in me, our bodies hurtling to the same end? My mother would kill me. I know this, true enough to type in block letters and tuck between passages about elephants and moths. She might have to call a neighbor to help, but she would.

 

* * *

As my mother bathes, I kneel in front of the goldfish again. It bobs up and down, barely visible in the dark—a smudge of orange against blue. I press my fingers against the glass, and it swims up to me, mouth gaping into space. I open in response.