One morning, as Anna awakened from a moonless dream, she discovered a hole the size of a small child’s fist above her belly button. Crunching her stomach to get a closer look, she scrutinized the oblong cavity—about one-inch deep and freshly-pink like marbled ham. It was as if someone had picked up a tablespoon and swiped at the soft cream of her flesh, at the taut-skinned tissue and nerve fibers. A clean, decisive blow. As she probed the hole for any bumps or alien tenderness, she felt no pain, nothing but the warm, familiar hum of her body, rushing to meet her fingertips.
In the bathroom mirror, she surveyed her reflection—wide-eyed, a pink dash of a mouth, coffee-ground hair smeared wildly down her nape. As she turned off the faucet to splash water on her face, she could have sworn—if she closed her eyes and held her breath—that somewhere air thumped against a wire-mesh screen. A distant whistling, although the lone window in the bathroom remained shut. Undisturbed. Her eyes traveled south to the mirror’s edge—the shadow-indent below her small breasts—and then back up to her face. An oversized pore, she finally told herself as the cream-colored blouse swallowed up her torso—or the vestigial pockmark of a particularly deep-rooted pimple. Another hallmark of getting older that no one talks about, the slow uncoupling of your flesh from its velvet grip. She buttoned up her worries—for later.
That day, like any other, Anna commuted downtown to a high-rise flat that refracted the skyline’s grey and teal. There, on the top floor in the office closest to the yawning bay, she answered phones for a corporate lawyer named David, a man in his mid-fifties with the exuberance of a gangly teen. The day’s tasks consumed her—coffee filters to dispose of, various legal documents to photocopy and file, a steady stream of calls to field, and clients to smile for and appease. Burrowing herself in the requests and demands of others, she rode the circadian rhythm of the corporate organ, punctuated by David’s booming laugh—its familiar rituals making it easy to forget.
His bedroom door—first clumsily opened and then slammed shut—was hard and cold against her back. Clothing discarded like a trail of breadcrumbs crumpled at their feet. Anna closed her eyes, felt David’s hand moving inside her. A tug of desire pulled at her navel. His staccato breaths raining hail down her neck. Then his fingers withdrew, now slippery with her want. Turn around, he ordered. And Anna obeyed. As David furiously worked behind her, Anna thought back to the unspoken tension in the air during those first few weeks—like something you had to tease out, an ingrown hair, a pomegranate seed. Green-footed, unsure Anna, still new to her responsibilities and grateful for the health insurance, who observed the fit of David’s blue oxford shirt around his forearms, the sharp jut of his chin, the laugh lines around his eyes as light as a graphite drawing.
So when David propositioned her two months into the job, with that open, boyish smile of his, and assured her that his wife had previously agreed to this arrangement, Anna was surprised that her body had intuited what her mind could not—had dismissed as one-sided. Impossible. Although she would never admit it to anyone, a feeling of childish gratitude flooded her. That someone like him—attractive, successful, and self-possessed because of it, with a tongue that could shape words out of clay and acquit war criminals—would notice someone like her. A man whom she could never love.
The wet tarp sound of flesh on flesh echoed through the hallway. On the opposite wall hung a large portrait of David and a woman with warm, intelligent eyes and a shock of auburn hair. Her red mouth coiled into a squashed half-moon. His wife.
Their cheeks still damp from a tropical storm, Anna and David rose to get dressed. What’s this? He hooked a finger inside the hole. Careless. Anna quickly turned away and pulled down her blouse. It’s nothing. In the car ride back, David went on about his upcoming cases, the palm of his hand uncomfortably hot against her left thigh. But all Anna could think about was the shiver of pleasure that had captured and then released her like a wet sock. Later, when she got home and took off her clothes for a bath, she noticed that the hole had widened by a finger’s width.
Anna redownloaded a popular dating app. She figured enough time had passed since her last heartbreak two years ago when she caught her fiancé—her first love—in bed with another woman. The day had unfolded like a bad rom-com—her keys splattering onto the floor; their bare-slicked bodies cracked open like fleshy oysters, the sheets splayed around them in a makeshift altar; her spittle-filled scream to get out, get the fuck out; an overturned flowerpot, a keyed car, a returned engagement ring. Carved underneath her breastbone was the memory of that day—a weathered score on a tree trunk, scabbed over with silt and leaves. Before a warbly love song playing in a coffee shop would lash it open, or an artifact surfacing from the burial ground of their shared history—like when the washer spat out from its bowels her ex’s bright-yellow sock, left behind years ago in the haste of packing. Now, with the damp sock in her hand, she felt nothing but a hollow detachment—her sorrow finally bleaching into petrified wood, the clack-clack of dead branches scraping against an old worn-down house, her body.
Her first date stood her up at a tiki bar. Her second date was a graduate student in philosophy who spent an hour pontificating about authors Anna had never heard of and would never read. Her third date was a phlebotomist named Cat with spiky hair and a mouth that showed all her teeth when she laughed. Anna immediately liked her, and after a night of dancing under swathes of purple and blue light, they found themselves in front of Anna’s apartment. Hands running over silver clasps, untying hair.
In the dark against moonlit sheets, Cat gently took off Anna’s dress and drew a line from her chin down to her belly button. What’s this? Cat asked when her finger dipped inside the hole’s basin. But before Anna could turn away, Cat leaned down and pressed her ear against the hollow curve.
What the fuck are you doing? Anna pushed Cat away and quickly wrapped herself up in a blanket.
I’m sorry, I was just trying to help—
Are you serious?
Cat left Anna alone in the slanted moonlight. Once the gunpowder of Anna’s fury burned itself out, a deep-gulfed shame crashed in and carried out to sea a soughing of batwings, a whistling.
The squelch of time was slow, Anna knew that. But the following days were unbearable—as if plunged underwater, and she gulped a lungful. Two weeks later, Anna climbed back into David’s silver Lexus after work. And they drove, like they had many times before, toward his house across the darkening bay. The air pulsed with the first autumnal chill. Branches raked an orange-crisp sky, preparing to drop their leaves. A few intimate sessions later, Anna realized he had stopped taking off her shirt. His eyes stared straight ahead as if still concentrating on a legal brief. Another stale ritual. A business formality.
Home alone, she started getting dressed in the closet—careful to avoid brushing against her torso—and showering in the dark, the beads of rainfall collecting on cave walls and sliding down her hips. The whistling licked at her eardrums at all hours of the day—and at work, to drown it out, she picked up the receiver and listened to the dial tone. At night, it gathered speed, rattling the small bones of her ribcage like wind chimes. She slept under a garbage bag of the first things she saw and grabbed—metal pots and pans, a stack of unread books, a vibrator, dirty laundry, and a velvet throw pillow—as if the combined weight of her life in these assorted fragments could press her into herself, flattening the hole into a dried daisy on parchment paper, and remind herself that she was still here.
Finally, one-midafternoon at work, the elevator dinged, and a woman with auburn hair stepped out. She headed for Anna, eating lunch quietly at her desk. Before Anna could even look up and whisper hello, David’s wife, her eyes full of shards, screamed and pushed Anna to the ground.
You little bitch! How could you do this to me?
Anna hurried to the bathroom and locked the door. But the wife’s ragged sobs still echoed through her ear canal. She felt a pang underneath her breastbone, the score on the tree trunk dribbling milky sap, tearing shrapnel. To her horror, Anna realized that the mangled wailing was rippling from her own mouth. The sound of a cornered animal.
She yanked off her blouse and gaped at the hole, now a gash-filled crater eating away at her midsection. Running her hand along the seafloor of her flesh, she stumbled upon an orifice the size of a quarter—a hole within a hole, thrumming with the energy of a wound-up clock—and stuck her thumb clean through. Her thumbnail protruding from her back—exposed to the sour bathroom air.
The hole within a hole gripped her thumb before pulling her in up to her elbow. A second mouth.
Hunched over and panicking, Anna dialed Cat’s number for the first time since they argued that night. Strands of hair started to lift above her head like a ghostly crown, the whistling turning into a howl.
Cat, please, I think I get it now, I’m sor—But before Anna could finish, the hole ripped open with the sound of a toothpick snapping, and she was sucked in.
Lucy Zhou is a technical writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Rejection Letters, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. In 2020, she received an honorable mention for the Felicia Farr Lemmon Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. You can find her on Twitter @lrenazhou.
photo by Pars Sahin (via unsplash)