From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

The Weight of It All

Elizabeth is the first person to notice I’m inside her.

“Tell me how to do it,” she whispers.

It’s a shock. No one has spoken to me directly in ages. I’m nothing more than a whisper when I slip beneath her skin. I’m less than a breath. I should be undetectable, but somehow, I’m not. It might have been a relief—to be acknowledged, to be known—except that Elizabeth clings to me with her bony fingers and won’t let me go. I struggle to escape her, but no matter how hard I push, she’s got me trapped inside her body.

“How do I do it?” she asks again.

Do what? I ask back.

And then, because I’m inside her, because I flow through her blood and lymph and spinal fluid, I know:

That she hates the way her waistband digs into her midsection, the way her hips press against a stranger’s on the subway. That she refuses to look at herself in the mirror. She feels as if her own body despises her, angry and unruly.

She wants to be able to slip wherever she wants, unnoticed as a puff of air. She wants to feel limitless. She wants to be nothing.

Stupid girl, she wants to be me.

• • • •

All I am now is lightness. I take up no space. I leave no mark. If there’s anything solid about me, it’s bone, angular and empty in its coffin. No muscles twitching, no ligaments or tendons holding me together.

No weight. No weight at all.

And, yes, sometimes, when my need for physicality becomes desperate, I’ll dip inside a person and hide behind their skin. Just temporarily. Just to remember how it feels. I know I shouldn’t, although I don’t know how I know. There’s no rule book for the dead, after all, any more than there’s a rule book for the living. But we all sometimes want what we don’t have, and right or wrong, I have the means to take it.

A body, I mean. Although “take” is a strong word. I just duck inside and hide for a little while. Allow gravity to claim me once again. You have no idea what a blessing it is to jump and to feel the ground echo through your feet when you land. To relax your head into a pillow so fully that the fabric creases your skin. To slosh water over the edge of your bathtub, because your body takes up so much room.

Yes, your body.

Can you remember a time when, at long last, you relaxed your belly and took a deep breath? When you allowed your thighs to spread on your seat, and reveled in the fullness of yourself, in the space you claimed? That was me. Feeling weighty. Feeling alive.

• • • •

The second day I’m trapped inside Elizabeth, she meets some friends out at a bar. She wears a tunic dress and scarf and cardigan and leggings and boots, layers upon layers of fabric stiffening her limbs. As Elizabeth nurses a sparkling water with lime, I use her eyes to spy on the others sitting at her table. They lean in to each other with familiarity, jostling the table and laughing with their whole bodies—taking up space. I twitch inside the taught confines of Elizabeth’s rib cage, cramped and claustrophobic. If I’d picked someone else—anyone else—I’d be free to hop from host to host. I’d stretch my legs beneath the table and lick salt from the rim of a glass. Travel on beery breath to experience a kiss from both sides. Sway along with music I don’t even care for, but what does it matter when there’s a beat, when there’s a body to move? Instead, I’m stuck with Elizabeth, who perches on the very edge of her chair, shifting from sit bone to tailbone to sit bone again. I can feel the other bodies calling to me—muscle and organ and blood, all singing sweetly, Come to us, come be with us—and it’s almost too much to bear.

Elizabeth feels me stirring and tightens her grip. “Don’t even think about it,” she mutters beneath the din.

The waiter arrives with a platter of nachos for the table. Everyone else digs in, but Elizabeth edges away from the platter and sucks on an ice cube.

“No wonder you’re so thin,” says one of her friends. “I wish I had your willpower.”

“Oh, I’m just not hungry right now.” She’s lying, but I’m the only one who knows the desperation with which her stomach growls and twists.

“Well, you look amazing.”

The others agree: “Amazing.”

The only person who doesn’t say anything is Cary. Cary is the one who invited Elizabeth out tonight; they’re the one who knows her best. They sit directly across the table, scratching their shaved head and clinking their rings against their glass. Their eyes narrow when Elizabeth orders another sparkling water. When Cary looks at Elizabeth like that, I shrink back. I’m going to have to be careful about them. Even in the dim light of the bar, they see more than I thought they would.

But I don’t have to worry about avoiding Cary, because after that night at the bar, Elizabeth stops going out. For a while, texts blink on her phone regularly with invitations: to an evening of board games, a weekend hike, a chat over coffee. I press myself against the underside of her skin, imagining dice cradled in palms, feet sinking into muddy trails, blood rushing with a jolt of caffeine. But Elizabeth politely demurs every time: she’s tired; she’s already made plans; she’s got too much work. The light tap of her fingers against the screen is like a feather tickling an excruciating itch.

Why won’t you do something? I plead. Anything.

“It’s too much.” After a pensive moment, she shakes her head and amends, “It’s not enough.”

Just let me go, then, I say.

“So you can find someone else to haunt? No way. I’m doing everyone a favor holding on to you.”

I know that’s not the reason she’s keeping me here. She’s not protecting anyone. This isn’t altruism. But it doesn’t matter. Gradually the texts sputter and thin like a tap running dry. It’s just me and Elizabeth and this husk of a body we share.

• • • •

When Elizabeth eats, she does so furtively, snatching tiny mouthfuls like a squirrel. She counts out almonds and measures berries into half-cup servings. I grasp at each morsel, but I’ve barely tasted it before it’s gone. I don’t understand it, because she owns dozens of cookbooks, and has bookmarked hundreds of recipes from food bloggers. But she won’t prepare a meal without first visiting one of several nutrition websites, calculating the calories for each ingredient and adding them all together, then dividing the recipe to come up with the portion size she’ll allow herself. It takes hours, these calculations. Hours of stillness, focused only on the heady math of calorie and gram. Hours when she forgets her body in its chair, hours when all she thinks about is her body—the slope between her hipbones; the comforting, persistent growl of her stomach.

It’s too much. It’s not enough.

To tempt her, I envision the dishes of my childhood, sending them in flickers of thought and memory: warm challah and apple cake dripping with honey. Gloriously fatty pastrami edged in peppercorns, on deli rye, with a plump sour dill on the side. When that doesn’t get a reaction, I send her thoughts of Wonder Bread; the factory was in my town, and when the wind was right you could smell baking bread as far away as the mall, mouthwatering and wholesome even though we all knew the supermarket travesty it’d turn into.

Elizabeth opens up a new tab and searches for a recipe for sourdough sandwich loaves. She spends two more hours online, saving recipes for a New England apple pie with cheddar cheese baked in the crust; a Greek eggplant-and-potato casserole with a linked recipe for the lemony herbed white sauce; healthy breakfast muffins chock-full of oats and dried fruit and flax seed.

She will never cook any of the recipes she saved. She knows this, and I know it, too.

I flit to and fro inside her like a moth trapped in a lamp and beg her to move, to eat, to feel. I look at the recipes she’s dissecting into sterile nutritional units and twist inside her.

You’re torturing me on purpose.

She wraps herself around me, all wiry muscle and sinew, and squeezes. “You came into my body. You should be happy to stay here.”

Stupid girl! I scream at her. This body is wasted on you. You don’t deserve it.

“Take it, then,” she whispers back to me. “I don’t want it.”

I gather myself into a ball and float down into the pit of her stomach. I’d trade places with Elizabeth in a heartbeat, if I could. I’d take her body and go dancing in a crowded club, where I’d throw myself against other bodies with reckless abandon. I’d swim in frigid water until my lips turned blue, and then bake in the sun. I’d eat a greasy pile of eggs and hash browns and unbutton my jeans while I digested. Let Elizabeth float free. Let her enjoy her weightlessness, her emptiness, her nothingness.

But that’s not the way any of this works. We are who we are, and all we can do is suck at the dregs of each other.

• • • •

Elizabeth’s friend Cary still checks in every couple of days:

< come out tonight Liz >

< afternoon off lets go get ice cream >

< I miss your face >

< u ok? >

< ? >

Elizabeth answers in apologetic excuses. Yes, she’s fine. Sorry she’s been so busy. No, she can’t do anything this weekend. Cary doesn’t argue, but they don’t give up either; they keep texting, and pinging her on social, and tagging her in their group chat.

Finally, they send a text that just says, [open up friend I’m here].

Elizabeth grips her phone and curses under her breath. It’s been days since she’s seen anyone other than the grocery clerk face-to-face. Her hair is greasy and her skin smells funky but she throws on a bulky hoodie and answers the door.

Cary stands with their elbows out and their feet planted wide so that they fill up the hallway. I can practically hear the blood pumping forcefully through their veins, feel the press of their waist against their jeans. They give Elizabeth a quick once-over from behind their sunglasses, and then say, “Let’s go get a coffee.”

“I can’t.” Elizabeth stays just inside the door, as if she’s afraid of catching what Cary has. As if she’s afraid of catching life.

“Liz. Come on; what’s up with you?”

“Nothing’s up with me. I’m just busy.”

Cary pushes their shades onto the top of their head. “Something is up. You look like shit.”

“Wow, thanks.”

“You barely talk to anyone anymore,” Cary presses. “Just, talk to me. Come out for coffee.”

For a second, I can feel Elizabeth wavering. I feel her wanting to drink a thick, sweet latte and tell Cary everything. Do it! I scream at her. But then she stiffens and says, “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m fine. I’m just busy.”

“Busy,” Cary says flatly.

“Yeah. Busy.” Elizabeth has had one hand on the doorknob this whole time, and now she starts to slowly swing the door closed. “Look, I have to go. I’ll see you around.”

Cary puts their sunglasses back on. “Okay. If you say so, Liz. I’ll see you.” They walk down the hallway toward the stairwell and I ache for their easy strides. I ache to feel the retort of concrete against their rubber soles as they thunder down the stairs, ache to feel them take a sip of coffee, scalding and bitter.

But I can’t, no matter how much I try. Elizabeth won’t let me go.

Live, I scream at her, but she doesn’t answer. I’m not even certain what it is that I’m asking her to do. What does a dead girl know about living?

• • • •

Elizabeth has so little body fat that she can’t sit on her office chair without padding it. Most of the time she doesn’t sit at all; she stands in front of her desk, shifting from foot to foot while working. She used to march in place, but she doesn’t do that anymore. She used to wear ankle weights, but she’s stopped that, too. It was too much for her. She’s exhausted all the time. She’s wasting away, and as she does, I’m wasting away too. I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been inside her. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be anywhere else.

And I keep thinking: If something happens to her while I’m inside—if she stops being alive for real—what happens to me? I don’t think Elizabeth’s body could still hold me once she herself has left it. I don’t think I’d be trapped inside her corpse, slowly turning to dust inside someone else’s coffin, but there’s no way to know for sure, and the not knowing is terrifying.

One day when she’s so tired she can’t resist me, I stretch myself into her limbs, into each of her fingers and toes. The sensation of movement is glorious. I pinch the softness of her leggings, lightly scratch her nails down the dry skin of her arms. I stretch her body from fingertips to toes and feel a satisfying crack in her shoulder joint.

“What…what are you doing?” Her voice is thin and reedy.

To be clear, I know I shouldn’t do this—actually possessing someone’s body is most definitely against some nebulous rule—and normally I refrain. But I tell myself I’m out of options. I test my control by making Elizabeth take a deep breath. To inhale, and increase her capacity. To exhale, and settle.

Don’t worry. It’s for your own good.

Moving clumsily within her, I shuffle us both out of the apartment and guide her toward the bakery down the street. Elizabeth follows the bakery on Instagram, but she’s never been. When she sees the awning, she whimpers.

“No.”

You have to.

The smell of yeast and sugar washes over us as soon as we open the door. Elizabeth starts to salivate, and right away I know I’ve won.

I turn her head to scan the glass case full of the bakery’s offerings, waiting to see what catches her eye. We look at plate-sized half-moon cookies, elaborately-frosted cutouts, decadent slabs of coffeecake and delicate petite-fours. We are paralyzed by choice. In her state of perpetual emptiness, everything looks delicious; nothing looks possible. When I see she’s not equipped to make a decision, I guide her toward a thick slice of babka, richly-swirled with a cinnamon-sugar filling.

“That one?” Elizabeth asks me. The women behind the counter interprets it as a command and nods as she opens the case from behind.

It’s delicious, I tell her. I send her a vision of my mother preparing babka, rolling the sweet filling into the soft buttery dough; slicing each roll down the center to expose a shocking line of cinnamon sugar before twisting the rolls together and nestling them into a pan. You’ll see.

Once she’s paid, we go outside and sit on a park bench. Elizabeth removes the babka from its grease-stained paper bag and holds it with trembling hands. I wait a second, to see what she does, but when she just sits there I get impatient. I push myself into her fingers and guide her to pinch off a morsel of the sweet bread and rest it on her tongue. Her taste buds tingle and I shiver with it. The butter coats her mouth and the sugar crunches between her teeth. She swallows. Her stomach acids rush to dissolve the bite into its digestible parts. Her blood washes through her body, anticipating the influx of sugars and fats.

Again, I urge, and together, we eat until the pastry is gone. Until we are both satisfied. Until we are full.

• • • •

After we get back to her apartment, she shoves her finger down her throat and vomits the whole thing back up into the toilet.

Acid burns her throat and eats at her teeth, and I beg her to get a sip of water from the tap, but she’s too exhausted to stand. She falls back on the cold tile of the bathroom floor. She’s losing her hair, and she fingers she thin patch at the crown of her head.

“I’m sorry,” she cries. “It’s too much. It’s not enough.”

I know, I tell her, and I do. We can never be enough, not any of us. We take up too much space; we take up too little. We bump into walls and tables, and yet we make no mark upon the world. We fall, powerless against gravity’s pull, and we float away from everything we ever wanted. We fall, over and over again, and nothing can stop that.

• • • •

With me inside her, Elizabeth grows lighter and lighter. Even her voice softens, becomes quiet as the scrape of a page turning. She meditates, and barely indents the cushion where she sits. While I struggle to feel her borders—the clothing against her skin, her legs folded against themselves—she disassociates from her body altogether, imagining herself floating above it. Little by little, she’s turning herself into a ghost, and I can’t stop her, and I can’t escape.

And then, one day, she releases me.

I feel it like a breath of fresh air from a cracked window: the strength of her grip is gone. There’s nothing tethering me to her anymore, nothing at all to make me stay in this fragile, failing body.

“Go,” she says. Her voice as thin as her wrists, as fine as the downy hair beginning to coat her body. She shifts, trying to take pressure off the protruding knobs of her spine. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

I’m already halfway out of her body, everything in me screaming for freedom. But in spite of myself, I pause. I hesitate. Why, why do I hesitate? I’m not supposed to be here, inside her. I’m supposed to be free. And Elizabeth, she isn’t designed to be inhabited by someone else’s spirit. Her body, like everyone’s, is built to house one permanent occupant.

Meanwhile, a million other bodies call to me, their voices shining like comets: Come to us, come be with us. They’re as thick as syrup in the air; the weight of them is intoxicating. Before I have a chance to second-guess myself, I pull free of Elizabeth like a clog pulling free of a drain.

• • • •

None of the other bodies feel right. The skin pinches and pulls, or else gives like spent elastic. Everything chafes, muscle and organ and bone alike, as if I’m wearing a suit full of sand. And it’s not just individual bodies; it’s every body, any body. And still, they sing, loud and insistent:

Come be with us, with us, with us . . .

Why do they keep calling to me? Why do they pull? It makes it difficult to concentrate. Wherever I am, I feel as though I ought to be somewhere else. Wherever I am, I don’t fit. I don’t belong.

Ever since Elizabeth. She was the last one, the last body I inhabited before it all went wrong.

Before I even fully realize what’s happening, I’m pulling myself out of my latest host and drifting back toward Elizabeth’s apartment. I find her sitting in her bed, propped up and cushioned with half a dozen pillows, her laptop open but sleeping. She twitches when I plunge back inside her.

What have you done to me?

“Why are you here? I told you to go.” Her voice is so quiet, I’m not sure I’d be able to hear it if I weren’t listening from beneath her skin. I make up for it by screaming.

I can’t feel anything. No weight, no gravity, not since your body. You poisoned me.

“Maybe you poisoned me.” She laughs weakly. “Did you think of that? Maybe you turned me into a spirit after all.”

I punch at her sternum. You’re not a spirit. You’re nothing like a spirit.

“Listen: can’t you hear them? Can’t you hear the angels?”

There’s no such thing as angels.

“There are, though. They’re calling to me. Listen.”

I shrink back in shock. The voices—they’ve followed me here, like they’ve followed me everywhere, needy and insistent. But I had no idea Elizabeth could hear them, too.

They’re not angels, and they’re not calling to you.

Her phone lights up with a text from Cary, and I shove myself into her head to make her turn and look at it. This is the only one calling to you. Your friend. Not some spirit. Not some angel. An actual person.

She squeezes her eyes shut, plunging me into darkness. “It’s the angels. They’re here to give me what you wouldn’t.”

No one can give you what you’re trying to get! I shriek at her. You’re human. You have a body—a body! It’s trying to tell you exactly what it needs, and you’re not listening. You’re destroying it. You’re destroying yourself.

“If I’m destroying myself, then so are you.” She winces and shifts on her pillows. “What are you, anyway? Why are you here? Hijacking people just to feel like you still have a body. Well, you don’t have a body. You can’t. You’re dead. You’re dead and you can’t be alive anymore. So just get out.”

She clenches all of her muscles and curls her hands into fists. Her body contracts around me, a fierce peristalsis. It’s squeezing me outward, and even though I weave myself around Elizabeth’s rib cage to try to hang on, I’m slipping.

“I said, get out!”

She takes a deep breath, and grits her teeth and pushes . . . and her body expels me, flinging me out of itself.

I stare at Elizabeth from outside her. She’s a sickly shade of gray, and she’s panting on her bed, a prisoner inside her skin. Meanwhile, I hover above, bobbing like a cloud near the ceiling. The voices have not stopped calling. They’re louder than ever, clanging like bells.

Shut up! I scream. All of those bodies, eating and having sex and running so hard their lungs burn. All of those bodies, living, when I can’t.

Come be with us. Come to us . . .

I can’t, I yell back. I can’t. I don’t want to anymore.

Us . . . us . . . us . . .

I stop. The tenor of the voices has changed, or maybe I’m just hearing them differently. Maybe it’s that I’m finally hearing them myself, rather than through someone else’s ears.

The voices aren’t coming from bodies at all.

They’re in the air. They’re swirling on breezes and gathering in clouds and floating in mist. They’re everywhere.

They’re like me.

Come to us, come be with us, come be us

be us

Reminding me who I am, what I am. Beckoning me to expand. To become expansive. To stop gripping on to this life.

Calling on me to let go.

Elizabeth’s phone lights up again, and I glance at the text.

< I’m coming over. I’m worried about you. Please talk to me >

Elizabeth won’t even look at it. Even though I’m no longer inside her, I know she won’t answer the door when Cary arrives. I realize how far we’ve both shrunk inside ourselves. Both of us aching for what we can’t have. Both of us trying to control whatever we can in this maelstrom of chaos we call existence.

We’re destroying each other. We’re destroying ourselves. Neither of us is okay.

I flee from the room in time to see Cary marching up toward Elizabeth’s door. They ring the buzzer once, and then, after a half a minute, ring it again. No one answers. Cary shifts their weight, shoves their hands in their pockets. “Fuck,” they mutter, and start to turn away.

I dart down and dip inside them, as gently as I can. This is the last time, I promise myself.

From within Cary, I send them thoughts of Elizabeth’s wan face, of her listlessness, of the clumps of hair that her brush pulls out every time she remembers to use it. I send them a mental picture of Elizabeth’s shoulder blades jutting through her skin like wings. Of her dark, hollowed eyes, sunken into the skull of her face.

She’s trapped in there, I whisper, willing my voice to reach Cary somehow. She can’t get out on her own.

I don’t know if they hear me or if they decide all on their own, but Cary faces the door again and pounds against it. “Open up, Liz!” they call. Their hand aches from striking the door again and again, and I wrap myself into their fist to give them strength. “Please, open up!”

Finally, Elizabeth answers. Her thin, drawn face peers out from behind the door. I’m not used to seeing her from someone else’s point of view, and she looks shockingly out of proportion: eyes enormous in her skeletal face, stick-like wrists disappearing into bulky sleeves. Cary sucks in a breath.

“Jesus, Liz. Are you sick?”

At first, Elizabeth just stares at them dully. But then she blinks, and her brow furrows, and she leans closer. She looks in Cary’s eyes—inside Cary’s eyes—and it’s a look I recognize. Elizabeth sees Cary. But she also sees me.

“You came back,” she whispers. “Why did you come back?”

Maybe she’s talking to me or maybe she’s talking to Cary. Maybe she’s talking to both of us. It doesn’t matter.

“I’ll always come back,” Cary says, speaking for us both. “I wanted to make sure you’re okay. Are you okay?”

Elizabeth doesn’t say anything for a long moment. From the outside, her face is inscrutable. I wish I could dip inside her, just to see what she’s thinking. Just to give her the tiniest nudge. But I know, even though I don’t know how I know, that I can’t. Elizabeth needs to make this choice on her own.

After an uncomfortable silence, Cary says, “Hey, you know what? It’s okay—you don’t have to answer that question if you don’t want to. Just maybe come sit with me for a bit, yeah? I miss you.”

Tears leak from Elizabeth’s eyes, and she swipes at them with the back of her hand. “I miss you, too.”

• • • •

I leave Cary when the two of them sit down on Elizabeth’s front stoop. I wish I could stay for a while, to find out if Elizabeth will tell Cary the truth, if Cary is equipped to hear it. If Elizabeth will let herself get help. But it’ll take years, I know; years in which Elizabeth will get better, and get worse, improve and decline. Nothing about life moves in a straight line.

A very foolish part of me thinks that she might need me to guide her.

But I’m not a guide. I am, as Elizabeth told me, dead. And unlike Elizabeth, I don’t have lots of choices. I have this one, last, final choice, and once I make it, there’s no going back. Even though there’s no rule book for the dead, I know this is true.

I listen to the voices (come with us, come be with us, come be us, us, us) and the air around me tears like tissue, revealing everything I’ve been hiding from myself.

I cast one last glance behind me at Cary, at Elizabeth, trapped in their bodies but trying to find a way to breach that divide. My love for them—for their beauty and their frailty, for their imperfection and their impermanence, for the brightness of their souls shining through—is immense, so immense that I worry for a moment that the weight of it all will hold me down. But it doesn’t. It buoys me up instead, propels me skyward. It’s frightening, the speed at which I’m rising, floating away from everything I know. Frightening to know that I still have a choice; that for one final moment, I’m still me.

The last thing I do is send a thought to Elizabeth:

Can you remember a time you felt like fleeing your body, your life, yourself, and then—even for just a moment—you let your borders expand with a single, delicious inhalation?

Maybe that was me.

Or maybe it was just yourself. Feeling weighty.

Feeling alive.

I don’t know if she’ll listen. I don’t even know if she’ll receive my message at all, or if it will disperse on the wind. The not knowing is terrifying. It’s also the point.

And then, like a snake shedding her skin, I let go.

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Jennifer Hudak

Jennifer Hudak. A middle-aged white woman with long, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a green sweater and a silver hand necklace, smiling at the viewer.

Jennifer Hudak is a speculative fiction writer fueled mostly by tea. Her work has appeared on both the Locus Magazine and the SFWA recommended reading lists, and has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from Boston, she now lives with her family in Upstate New York where she teaches yoga, knits pocket-sized animals, and misses the ocean. Find out more about her at jenniferhudakwrites.com.