By Kaitlin Tremblay
Elizabeth didn’t know what she was doing, just that she couldn’t keep doing what she was now. She had had enough of this life—her life, lying awake at night, staring at her ceiling and the shadow puppets made by car headlights as they passed by her window. The shadow puppets were perverse revisions of mundane things—a T-Rex that looked like it was dissolving, a star that was crumbling. One car drove past, disrupting the reptilian shadow puppet she was looking at, severing it in half. Elizabeth swung her feet off her bed and bolted up right. Her shadow swung with her, a thing far too thin, elongated, and delicate to be a fair representation of herself.
“No more,” she decided, feeling the excess weight in her stomach touch the top of her thighs.
Grabbing the tweezers she used to tame her eyebrows into a perfectly formed and controlled submission, she glided into her bathroom. She did not turn on the light. There would be no need for the light to allow shadows (those puppets controlled by lights) to crop up and watch her, judge her, for what she had to do next. Best to do what she had to do in the dark. She turned the hot water on, filling her bathtub with boiling water and steam.
A surgeon, Elizabeth went to work plucking away patches of skin that would only get in the way for the more severe surgery she had to do. If only there was lightning, Elizabeth thought to herself, twisting her lips into a smirk. She would keep her smile, she decided. And her ears. She liked her ears.
Her ex, Harry, hated her ears. They were too big, they had too many piercings. His reasons were all petty, but stung, like a fresh cut being doused with alcohol. Like worms that rolled through the folds of brain tissue, Harry’s words infected her from the inside out. He never raised a hand to her, but her skin bruised nonetheless, blossoming from inside of her.
“Remember, you are nothing without me,” he once said.
Pushing thoughts of Harry away as best as she could, Elizabeth worked away into the night, removing parts of her body in order to reconstruct herself—to fashion herself a new body, one much better than the old. (This is an old tale, one Elizabeth has repeated a few times in her life. She’s always yearned for an unbearable lightness.)
But as she worked, she heard Harry’s voice (or perhaps it was the voices of the worms that were surely still in her brain), “Remember, my dear, you are nothing without me.” He would say this before gliding his hand over her. The caress would turn into a grip, and the pain of it would at least distract Elizabeth from the way he would bite at her lips when he kissed her.
“If I can’t have you,” he would say, thinking it romantic.
The pieces of her body she didn’t like, she tossed in the bathtub to sterilize them with the boiling water. She would have to reform them later, chisel away the excess layers of bone she no longer felt belonged to her.
Like paper-mâché, she formed new bones and fixed the problem areas. The scar tissue on her right leg, gone. The thickness of her hip bones, reduced to what she hoped would translate to a size two (the perfect size, her mind would scream at her, as she tried on size eights, tens, twelves, in harshly lit dressing rooms). How many rib bones do you even need to live, anyway?
Once done with the bones—a pile of broken sections and shaved remnants soaking in the bloodied water of the bathtub, water that swirled with bone marrow like oil—she turned to the muscle and fatty tissue. This was easier. She was already sweating by the time she finished with the bones—she left enough skin around her hairline, she liked her hair sometimes, and all the sweat was concentrated along her furrowed forehead—but now that she was onto the softer stuff, her pace quickened. She began to hum, the sound whistling through her fleshless jawbones like wind through reeds in a shallow river. Her humming would drown out Harry’s voice, reducing it to a steady, incomprehensible drone.
Harry’s voice, always there, always sneering. When she was with him, Elizabeth was just a hulking case of flesh and limbs that became too tender to touch. When he would hug her, holding her close, it felt like his skin could burn her, as if his sweat was a chemical, one that corroded her sensitive skin. She would scratch and scratch, reducing her once beautiful body to ripples of red scratch marks.
Once when he gave her a hickey, he smiled like a bite. “Now everyone knows you belong to me.”
Now, she exorcised out the pieces of flesh that reminded her of his touch. She made her breasts smaller, more manageable. Invisibility was what she wanted. How else would she hide from him?
Her teeth, though, her teeth she kept. They weren’t as white as they could be. A steady influx of coffee and red wine kept them slightly stained, but she liked the cut of them. They were strong and square and were good at digging grooves into her lips and biting trenches into the insides of her mouth. Her smile was beautiful because of the perfect row of her teeth, and she weaponized them. She would bite during sex and nibble at ears during foreplay, dragging her teeth along skin, marking Harry’s body as hers, albeit temporarily. An eye for an eye.
Reforming her sewing needle into a hook, Elizabeth sewed herself back up, her stitches made of red string, the only thread she had left.
Flecks of bone, mounds of fat and flesh, all fell to the bottom of the bathtub as she drained away the bloodied water. She would compost them, she decided.
This is not where the story ends.
Those pieces of herself became her shadow, a grotesque aberration of self, forever attached to her feet. The shadow was not so much a piece of opaque darkness that was only visible at certain hours of the day, or in certain kinds of light, but a bundle of bones. Nor were they a puppet, distorted by twisting rows of light. These bones were real.
Her feet were lacerated from where the shadow had to attach itself, fusing discarded bone to human bone as if melting metal together with a blowtorch. Just as Elizabeth had dismembered these parts from herself, they sewed themselves back to her, refusing to be forgotten and discarded.
“You cannot get rid of me,” the shadow would mutter, not in words, but in a chill that overtook Elizabeth’s body, as if her shadow were poisoning her with the smoke from dry ice. “You are nothing without me.’”
Anywhere Elizabeth went, she dragged around the corpse of her former self, a thing that refused to dissipate and instead only grew stronger when the lights went out. When she turned off her bedside lamp, her shadow would spring up, pulling against Elizabeth’s feet and causing her to cry out in agony. (Her shadow cared not for the typical rules, that it wasn’t supposed to be seen in the darkness.) Her shadow would dance, free of the constraint of trying to be invisible when Elizabeth was in public. And since Elizabeth was still attempting to avoid running into Harry, she appreciated her shadow’s willingness to be invisible.
The night was its true time, and Elizabeth knew of no way to control it. Every night her feet would ache and bleed, swollen and raw from the constant lacerations of her shadow’s bones.
At first, Elizabeth thought she was the only one who could see her shadow, dragging behind her as she walked, like an awkwardly galloping pony that had yet to figure out how to move its legs in proper unison. But she soon realized her shadow was no longer content to be quiet during the day. It reared its head, shook its leap, and cried for attention. It wanted to be seen. It needed to be heard. Elizabeth learned to walk fast during the day, to keep her shadow off guard and in silence as it tried to keep up with her. Her ploy was so successful at first that she thought her shadow merely appeared normal to others, but that was only because she was so concerned with moving quickly and deftly through the crowded streets that she never noticed the stares of the pedestrians in her wake who shot her glares as her shadow bumped into them.
Eventually, as her shadow learned how to keep pace with her, she heard the whisper in her bones: “You know they see me, like something out of the corner of their eye, something that disappears when you try to focus on it. But they know I’m there, even if they don’t know what I am.”
And then, “They know I belong to you.”
Elizabeth refused to leave the house for days after that. She put thick black towels in front of all the windows and refused to turn on any lights, for fear of giving her shadow more power. Of course, she knew this didn’t matter, her shadow didn’t obey the typical rules (it was not a typical shadow). Harry would have laughed at this attempt at hiding. She could hear his laugh in the back of her head. Panicked, Elizabeth crawled into her kitchen, determined to drown out the sound of Harry’s voice and the pain of her shadow’s attempts to be free by whatever means necessary.
For four days, Elizabeth laid in a stupor, bottles of red wine strewn about her bed (after the first day, she gave up any pretense and stopped using a glass). She refused calls from her friends. Drunk enough, Elizabeth waxed in and out of angry consciousness, as her shadow danced, tearing up her feet into swollen mounds of raw flesh and blood and puss. Sometimes, through half-opened eyes, she thought she saw Harry dancing with her shadow. But that was impossible. She changed her number, moved apartments—she even moved cities. He wouldn’t have been able to find her.
Yet her shadow danced, moving its bony body in an unrestricted freedom, a freedom and grace of movement Elizabeth could never attain with those limbs. Through a bleary gaze, Elizabeth watched her shadow dance and ran her numb fingers over her own body, examining the perfect flatness of her stomach, as if being touched by a stranger. She could not stand, not with her sore feet and her head filled with a perpetual battle between a never-ending drunkenness and a forthcoming hangover. Weightlessness, weighed down by a shadow.
After three more days of this, Elizabeth decided something had to be done to separate her shadow from herself. She could not keep living, not while it was alive and haunting her so. She tried to catch her shadow, capture it and unhinge it from herself. On unsteady legs and feet that bled, Elizabeth locked herself in the closet. Her shadow was there with her, whispering questions in her ear.
“What are you doing, Beth? Going to change out of those clothes, covered in sweat, vomit, and piss as they are?”
Elizabeth did not answer it. She would not engage. Eventually, her shadow quieted down. Did shadows sleep, Elizabeth wondered. Hers never had, or perhaps she just never noticed if it did. Still she waited. She needed to be sure. After a few more minutes of complete silence, Elizabeth slowly opened the door, being careful to keep her shadow in the closet. She quietly unfolded her body outside of the door. Sure her shadow was still inside the closet, she closed the door, and pressed her back against it, hoping her shadow was trapped in her closet.
Then the rattling started. It was low and quiet initially, just the soft sound of her shadow’s bones rapping against the closet door, like a lover seductively asking to be let in.
“Beeethh,” came the voice like a chill, “Beth, let me out.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes and bit her lips to hold back a cry. Beth had been Harry’s name for her.
“Does anyone call you Beth?” he asked, on their second date.
“No, just Elizabeth or Liz. I never felt like a Beth.”
From that point on, Harry called her Beth. To show her the side of herself that he saw, he said. In reality, it felt like being given a new identity, one she didn’t ask for, one shaped only by his perceptions. A branding of sorts. Hot and forceful.
Hearing her shadow call her by that name threatened to dismantle her. She tried to steel her nerves and focused on her breathing, on taking air into the pit of her belly, holding it, and then releasing it. This helped, if just to distract herself from the whisperings that felt like they were being spoken right next to her ear.
The rattling grew louder and louder, becoming more ferocious and aggressive in its attempts to break free of the closet. What started as the soft knocking grew into a crescendo of thuds and wails, as if her shadow was breaking its bones by throwing itself against the door.
Elizabeth’s resolve weakened. She couldn’t stand the wailing and crunching of bones, and ran from her post to her bathroom (she was barely able to unlock her bedroom door in her panic), throwing herself onto the floor just in time to throw up the last remains of wine and whatever food she had managed to eat in the past few days. When she was done throwing up, she felt her shadow looming over here, vibrating with anger.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Beth,” it said. “I am just here to help you.” Elizabeth passed out on the toilet, and her shadow wrapped itself around her to keep her warm.
She stopped eating. The less she ate, the bigger her shadow grew. Elizabeth knew she couldn’t get rid of her shadow, so she thought she would instead eradicate herself from her own existence. She was at her breaking point. It had been a week now. Her job stopped calling to even see if she was coming in. Fine, Elizabeth noted. She hated that fucking place anyway. Elizabeth did nothing but sit on her bed, her arms wrapped around her knees, glaring at her shadow as it danced. It was so big now that it almost couldn’t fit in her bedroom. It had to hunch over to prevent its head from scraping the ceiling. It was humming, mocking her with its joy. Elizabeth’s stomach growled, but she refused to feed it anything now, not even wine to temper the pain from her feet, feet she had stopped feeling for how swollen and lacerated they were.
She was amazed at the tenacity of her shadow, and how it swirled and shimmered, a pile of bones held together through spite. The more she watched her shadow dance, the more her stomach growled. She could feel all the bones in her own body. The figure she had made was now distorted. It was bruised, it was broken, it was destroyed by the abuse her shadow put her through. She should have known.
Her shadow was beautiful and glorious. It was unapologetically robust. It seemed to delight in its curve, its fullness, its weight. It cared not for how physically beautiful Elizabeth had become. It danced above her, gorgeous, while she sat hunkered down, swollen and sullen, her skin sallow from lack of light and nourishment.
Her stomach growled, and staring at her shadow’s bones, Elizabeth licked her lips.
In a flash, Elizabeth was up, and raced into the kitchen. She yanked open her utensils drawer, and consumed by her hunger, she grabbed a fork and a knife. She sat down on the floor, her legs raised as if in invisible stirrups, and took the fork and knife to the bones that connected her shadow to her feet. This shouldn’t be too painful, she thought. After all, it’s just a shadow. But when she placed the prongs of the fork against the grey bone, she felt a prick. Then, bringing the serrated edge of the knife down and beginning to saw, she felt an excruciating pain, as every nerve in her body received a painful shock. She didn’t bleed, but she cried, tears clotted with days-old mascara clinging to her cheeks.
She cut small sections out of her shadow’s bones, at first, testing the waters. When the first tiny cube was removed, she plucked it free and tossed it into her mouth, a defiantly non-hesitant action. It was salty and sour, and she chewed and chewed and chewed until the bone was ground down into a fine enough paste to swallow.
She did this for her entire shadow, cutting out cube after cube, consuming the bones, fat, flesh, everything she was previously disgusted with as being a part of herself. She sobbed as she did it, tears mixing with drool as she ate faster and faster, determined to finish the horrible job as quickly as possible.
Contrary to what Elizabeth thought, her shadow did not scream. It did not wail, it did not resist. It merely snickered, smiling garishly at Elizabeth as she consumed it, bit by bit. Until eventually Elizabeth consumed the smile, and swallowed it as it cackled in, a vibrating hum that escaped from her throat, like static, like electricity, and Elizabeth cried out, bone marrow oozing over the sides of her smile, only to congeal on her chin.