You’ve never liked crab legs. Too much work for too little reward. Every Labor Day, you and your family would gather around a kitchen table piled high with crustaceans, shell crackers greasy and gleaming. By the time you could coax any meat out of the shell, it had stiffened to rubber. Your mother always insisted that you weren’t doing it right—apply pressure to the right spot, and the meat slides out all on its own.
Your doctor’s technique is flawless. “You need to lose about twenty pounds,” she says. The words cleave your sternum, splitting you open with an efficacy that your family would have admired. No time for the insides to grow cold.
“Think we can do that?” your doctor says, arching one eyebrow and lowering her head—as if she is bargaining with an incensed toddler. It will be a few years until you’ve relearned that singular indignation. Until you abandon all the fucks you’ve collected over time like pretty rocks. But for now, agreeability is your armor. You nod with a violence that turns all valid protests—that you go to the gym three times a week; that your blood pressure and cholesterol levels are normal; that for all intents and purposes you are healthy—to shrapnel. You need to lose twenty pounds. Of course.
It’s while waiting for the light at the corner of Twenty-eighth and Sixth Avenue that you first hear it: a soft hissing sound. But in a city as colicky as this one, sounds jostle and trip over each other. Car engines idle. Shopping bags rustle from crooked elbows. Pigeon wings beat while white babies squawk within luxury strollers. Black nannies and subway grates sigh. So, you don’t distinguish the hissing until it’s right in your ear—until it becomes words: notyoursnotyoursnotyoursnot.
A hand clamps onto your wrist, and the hissing swells to shrieks. Standing directly behind you, the source: a woman who looks almost exactly like you. Her facial features are identical to yours. She wears the same striped dress and white sneakers. As she alternates between pointing at you and screaming at passersby, similar waist-length box braids whip across her back.
But the fingers on her outstretched hand are too slim. Her hips are too narrow. Your big, strong legs, heirlooms passed down from your grandmother to your mother to you, are nowhere to be found. She’s stretched your frame into the dimensions of a mannequin, all sharp angles and insectoid fragility. Even her shrieks are as thin as a tea kettle’s whistle.
As you shake her off, disruption blooms into full spectacle. Countless eyes turn to you, lacquered with that unique New York blend of uninterest and scrutiny. Behind sleepy lids, you can see synapses firing, threats being assessed and assigned. Panic, the patron saint of all fugitives—unwitting or otherwise—sends you jogging into the crosswalk. You don’t need to turn around to know that she is following you; her screeching burrows between your shoulder blades. Your trot becomes a run, past the Duane Reade. Past the bloated trash bags clogging the sidewalk. Past the wholesale beauty store, cheap wigs hanging in the front window like freshly-skinned pelts.
But she is quick, no chafing thighs to slow her stride. It will be moments before her needle fingers prick the back of your neck. And even as fear, first quiet but now feral, floods your chest, you can’t help but wonder what a sight you two must be. You, chuffing along. Her, lithe and lethal.
As you bound down the steps of the Twenty-eighth Street subway station, a hunted animal going to ground, the shouting stops abruptly—as if she’s been snatched out of existence. The sudden quiet, broken by the occasional chirp of the turnstiles, sets your teeth on edge. On the W train home, you reflect on past meals, certain you’ll have to confess them to her later.
Different cultures have a name for this. In Egyptian folklore, there is the “ka” or spirit double. The Irish call it a fetch. But as a twenty-something living in Astoria, Queens, you have no mythology to bolster you—just a library card and an expensive master’s degree in comparative literature. You seek counsel with Dostoevsky and Poe, but they condemn your kind as emissaries of doom, frauds, appropriations. Your jeans, all two sizes too small, agree.
You become terrified of your own reflection, certain that you’ll see her leering back at you. Will her gaze turn you to stone? A pillar of salt? A stick of butter? You cover all the mirrors in your home and throw out your shiny silverware set from Ikea.
You incorporate more cardio into your workout, running on the treadmill until your knees swell to the size of grapefruits and your hamstrings are tight as piano wire. And when posing for photos, you suck your stomach in as far it will go, attempting to make your waist the vanishing point.
At night, as your boyfriend’s hands rove over your body, you wonder if she’s gotten to him, exposed you for the knock-off you are. He kisses in between your thighs, and you hold your breath. How long until he realizes that the stretch marks clustered along your hips are hasty stitches? How long until his teeth catch on a loose thread?
She’s definitely spoken to your family. When you return home for the holidays, they whisper their concern, light and sweet as confectioners’ sugar. Your face is so round. Have your ankles gotten thicker? She’s even been in your old bedroom; in the closet, size-four dresses hang like nooses.
When you do finally run into each other again, it’s in the dairy section of the Keyfood on Ditmars. You, busy scrutinizing the calorie count of Greek yogurt, look up to see her coming down the aisle. The sight of her makes your brain short-circuit; your feet stumble backwards, while your hands shoot forward, pushing the tub of yogurt, organic printed clearly across the front, in her direction—both shield and offering.
But she pays you no mind. Instead, she stops in front of the cheese selection and grabs a wedge of Brie. A little further down, she picks up a carton of whipped, strawberry cream cheese and a bottle of french-vanilla iced coffee. As each item thuds into her basket, bile floods the back of your mouth. When she stops in front of the freezer and, after a moment of contemplation, pulls out a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream, you can no longer contain yourself. You suck your teeth, and the sound—like someone clicking the safety off a gun—is enough to make her look up.
You expect hatred—brace yourself for vitriol and venom. But all she has to offer you is confusion, would give it to you in cupped palms if she could. It’s clear she’s never seen you before in her life.
It’s then that you notice her body. Gone is the brittle thinness. Her hips are actually a bit wider than yours, legs unapologetically sturdy. Her belly lounges comfortably over the waist of her jeans. Her cheeks are luminous and full. A version of you that is both heavier and lighter, unbothered by ruthless doctors and bitter ghosts.
And the creature on the corner of Twenty-eighth and Sixth? If you’d listened closely; if you’d peeked past the din and clamor of her rage, what would you have found crouching underneath? A strange sorrow creeps up your spine as you realize how terrified she must have been to warp herself so. What monstrous predecessor, both hers and yours, must have haunted and hunted her? As fast as you ran, she probably had to run faster.
Flakes of ambient music drift down from the store speakers above. The space between the two of you is filled with countless incarnations of fat, sugar, and sodium. You could shriek, run her down with your cart, insist she lose an additional ten pounds on top of your twenty. Instead, you put down the Greek yogurt and walk over to her. After giving her a small smile, you gently pry the Cherry Garcia from her fingers and hand her a pint of cookies ’n’ cream instead.
Kayla Lightner is a Georgia native, podcast junkie, lover of horror, and leftie. An English major for life, she currently works at a literary agency in Harlem where she gets to indulge her love of books and creative writing. Her work has previously appeared in Phoebe.
Edward Michael Supranowicz is the grandson of Irish and Russian/Ukrainian immigrants and he grew up on a small farm in Appalachia. He has a graduate background in painting and printmaking. Some of his artwork has recently or will soon appear in Fish Food, Streetlight, Straylight, Gravel, The Phoenix, and other journals. Edward is also a published poet. His other works featured in ACM are Lego Legs 1, Bitter Sweet Melody, Intersecting Intersections, Melee, and Inner Conflict Four.