The parasite on Elle’s back was getting bigger, but she hadn’t noticed yet. She was brushing her teeth, watching her own hand move in small, perfunctory circles in the bathroom mirror. For no reason in particular, she swiveled her feet and hips to the left, exposing part of her right shoulder in her reflection, and the lumpy, grapefruit-sized creature attached to her there. Still, black and insect-like, it stared past her in the mirror. It’s long snout was affixed like a sucker fish to the nape of her neck, and pulsating. Elle casually swiveled her hips back to front and spit noisily into the sink, blue foam swirling down the drain as she rinsed.
It was a Tuesday night. Definitely bigger than last week, she thought. I really must do something. But what could she do? Stretching her arms above her head, she confirmed she wasn’t in physical pain and took some comfort in that. There were other symptoms, though, she noted: her skin was pallid. Her hair was limp. Her joints were stiff. Movement had become difficult.
Then there was the progressive darkening of her thoughts. Since her parasite had latched onto her, storms had been forming across the back of her eyes. She felt trapped in a hollow encasing, as if her skin was stretched into the shape of Elle, but inside was nothing, only the vast emptiness of the universe.
With that thought Elle’s head began to throb. She pressed her fingers in between her eyebrows. What could be done, she thought? She stood on beige linoleum looking at her reflection a little longer. Seeing but not seeing. She remembered the first day she had noticed her parasite, nonchalantly. She had seen it crawl up he leg, across her back, and attach itself to her neck. She barely felt anything at the time. Perhaps it will go away on its own, she had thought.
But the parasite had not gone away. Each day she saw it, but any thought of taking action was countered by another: she was really fine, in fact. Just a temporary situation. Her parasite would be gone soon.
Elle sighed shallowly and looked at her bed, a mess of blankets and sheets. Discomforting. Without dwelling on the feeling, she flipped off her bathroom light and shuffled across the room. She pulled the covers under her armpits. Her eyelids slid thinly shut. Her mind was a network of dull, anxious thoughts, replaying in disjointed echoes. She scratched at the sucker-fish snout of her parasite and waited patiently for unconsciousness.
Elle’s alarm jerked her mind open at 6:03 AM. No wispy dreams lingered at its edge. Just darkness. The night before, she had placed her phone far enough away from her bed to necessitate getting up in order to turn the alarm off. She didn’t like doing it this way, but she didn’t see any particular reason to move the phone closer. As she reached for it her arms felt like spindly tree branches, cracking and stiff. She cut off the abrasive noise.
Elle lay back in bed. Her body was heavy, but her mind was already running through the same anxious thoughts as the night before, as if sleep had only been a half-rest in a chaotic concerto. Her anxiety was murky, fuzzy, foggy — an amorphous collection of fears about nothing in particular. They all seemed to point unmistakably, however, to the fact that she was a failure in her own life. Her thoughts flitted from a conversation with a coworker, to an email sent to her boss, to a childhood interaction with her mother, to the third slice of pizza she told herself she shouldn’t have eaten, to guilt for not waking up earlier to work out. The only way to stop the noise in her head was to think about the day ahead of her. Elle furrowed her forehead and played out the possibilities. She didn’t dread the day. She didn’t excite for it. It was another day, grey and passing into the next.
The movement of the parasite on Elle’s back snapped her out of her daydream, reminding her she had to move now to make it to work on time. She pushed herself out of bed and headed toward the shower. She reached her left arm around to feel for her parasite. Hairy. Slimy. Perhaps it was bigger. Perhaps it would have its fill and go away today, she thought. She showered instinctively. She made herself a cup of coffee. She brushed her teeth. She looked at her closet and pulled out a shirt and pants. They didn’t look particularly good on her, but she didn’t pause to look. She tried to do her hair but lost energy, so she slung it back into a pony tail. She grabbed her keys and a granola bar and walked out the door. Meaninglessness occupied her whole heart.
She drove to work, watching the streets blur and streak past her. Anxiety bubbled up in her mind again. She wasn’t sure what was going to happen at work, but she generally was convinced she wasn’t performing well. She started listing off the things she had to do that morning — the million small annoyances that she was not equipped to handle. She had just started the job 3 months ago, and she still wasn’t fully ramped up. There’s a block in my head, she told herself. When people talked at her, she felt dull, as if her IQ had lowered a few points since a time before… before when? She remembered a time in her past when she felt sharper and more engaged, but she couldn’t find a reason as to why things were different now. She only knew it had become harder to retain information, and she had lost curiosity.
So work came to her in small, disconnected tasks, which she did quickly and efficiently, so as not to draw attention to herself or let on that she was, in her mind, a fraud. She lived in constant fear that someone at work would question her about her job. If someone were to doubt her decisions, because she felt no ownership over them anyway, she would have no way of defending herself. Lost in her own mind now, Elle suddenly realized she had made it to the office parking lot. She turned off her car and began walking in. Panic ensued. Her breathing was shallow. She tried taking a few deep breaths to relax. She breathed in and out and said to herself, “Its alright. I’m alright.”
Elle’s parasite dug its snout further into her neck as she walked into the company kitchen, where a few of her coworkers greeted her with smiles. Elle reached for a mug for coffee. She liked coffee, or at least she remembered she did. She smiled at her coworkers and asked how their week was going. Her voice echoed between her ears as she obsessed over the small talk. At some point I must have forgotten how to do this, she thought. As they responded to her, she searched for signs of approval or disapproval. She could barely follow what they were saying. Someone made a joke. She smiled weakly. Was that funny? All of her attention was pointed inward, a voice inside relentlessly judging her every move. She was in prison. She said, “Have a good day,” to her coworkers and walked off in the middle of the conversation.
Elle walked into a conference room to prepare for a morning meeting with the executive team. She had been preparing for a week. She had spoken in front of executive teams before and this should be easy, she thought. On her back, her parasite shifted its thin, clawed legs. The team filed in and Elle’s head immediately began pounding. Her breath was short. Her mind wandered. She tried to focus but found she couldn’t. What was she supposed to say, again? She desperately tried to make a contingency plan for getting through the presentation, but her mind was only screaming at her that she was about to fuck everything up. Elle closed her eyes. She breathed in and out. She shifted in her seat. She reached behind her and stroked her parasite. The executive team filed in, a parade of thin white men. They sat down and chatted with the easy air of people living a life without scrutiny. One by one their long faces turned toward Elle.
Unable to stall anymore, Elle began to talk. Her voice was shaking. The others in the room noticed her nervousness, and shifted in their seats. Elle noticed their discomfort, and all at once her mind buckled. She could not speak. She opened her mouth, but only felt the heat intensifying in her cheeks. Terrible silence filled the room .She looked away. She coughed as she felt eyes boring into her head with more pain and force than her parasite had ever given her. A voice in her head was getting louder. Leave! Get up and walk out! it said. Elle considered this for a second, then forced herself to straighten up. With an ugly, primal and brutish strength, she pushed words out of her throat. They came out raspy and toneless, unrecognizable. After another 10 hideous minutes, she finished her presentation and stopped without conclusion. There were no questions. She said thank you. The meeting adjourned. Elle closed her computer, got up, expressionless, and walked into the bathroom.
She sat on the toilet seat, holding herself and shaking softly. Her breathing was fast. She thought she should cry, but she couldn’t remember how. She felt for her parasite and stroked its hard backside. It did not move. She felt an odd and empty comfort from its small pressure on the back of her neck. She was alone, but her parasite was always there.
The rest of the day was distorted. Elle thought about going home early, but already felt bad for her poor performance. So she mindlessly watched her email box fill up. Each one filled her with dread. Would people give her a problem she couldn’t solve? She clicked open an email from her boss. She was telling her good job during her presentation. Assuming her boss was motivated by pity, Elle took it as confirmation of her failure. She did very little the rest of the day. At 5pm, she packed her things and left.
As she walked back to her car, still in a daze, she itched around the round-toothed mouth of her parasite. She held her fingers there and felt the slow, methodical pulsing of its snout against her neck. What, exactly, was it feeding on, Elle wondered. She approached a crosswalk, and noticed two of her coworkers waiting for the light to change. She hung back so that she wouldn’t have to talk to them. When they had crossed and it was safe to proceed, Elle stood at the corner and felt a chill and a flash of pain as her parasite caught her hair in its sticky legs. She jerked. Her parasite felt big and heavy.
Elle drove home replaying the meeting in her head. She relived the uncomfortable stares, the inability to eject air from her lungs, the flight response. She could feel them burrowing into her head, or maybe that was her parasite again.
She walked into her apartment and thought of food. The simple act of nourishing her body seemed complex and calculated now. Would she gain weight if she ate? Should she eat out? Her mind spun around phantom options. She stood motionless in her kitchen. Ten minutes passed, and she realized it didn’t matter. She poured herself a bowl of cereal and sat on her couch to watch TV. She turned on Netflix and browsed through titles. She couldn’t remember what she liked, so she chose something at random. The story unfolded, but Elle couldn’t follow it. Her mind kept drifting to her awkward encounters throughout the day. She had really screwed herself over this time, she thought. If everyone didn’t think she was a failure already, they certainly do now. She smirked to herself sardonically, turned the TV off and walked to her bedroom. She laid on her bed and stared at the motionless ceiling fan. Thoughts of work crept through Elle’s mind. She ought to check her work email, she thought, but it was getting late and she didn’t want to get sucked into something that would stress her out. Still, considering how little she had done during the day, she felt guilty for not getting something done now. She spent the next hour trying to unwind her thoughts. Suddenly she realized it was approaching midnight. A new rush of anxiety streaked through Elle’s body. She would have to face work again tomorrow, and she felt both unenergized and unprepared.
She gave up and went to brush her teeth. Perfunctory circles. Blue foam. Beige linoleum. She swiveled her hips and looked at her shoulder. Her parasite was the size of a watermelon. This time it was, unmistakably, looking at her, with small, red eyes. A wave of rage passed through Elle. She threw her toothbrush in the sink and dug her fingernails into her own skin, around her parasite’s round mouth. She pulled and cut desperately, but her parasite would not move. Blood began to ooze from her shoulder blade. Elle barely felt the pain as she scooped pieces of skin underneath her fingernails. But her parasite seemed unperturbed, as if feeling only the rustle of the wind. Elle leaned against her bathroom wall, defeated. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, and at last she saw herself, for the first time in months. The person looking back at Elle was not Elle, but an awkward reproduction. Translucent skin, yellowed teeth, hollow eyes. Her parasite had been sucking away her existence. Elle sighed miserably, putting her head in her frail hands. The rage she had felt moments ago had faded so far into the back of her mind, she could not remember how to feel it. She was left only with the dull aches around the self-inflicted gashes on her shoulder. One hopeful thought entered her mind: Maybe it will be gone tomorrow. She turned to look at her bed — discomforting — and turned out the light.