Name the Unknown and Kill It

by Meghan Corwin

Simply calling the thing on her back a creature feels wrong, so Alice named it Toby. It makes it easier to pretend it isn’t a part of her, encouraging her shaking hands and the choke she feels when she tries to speak. It wraps around her body, spindly legs like a corset, its arms a garrote. She feels its spoiled breath on her neck as it squeezes, baring its teeth but never biting. It’s invisible to everyone but Alice, clinging to her skin like a graft and pulling her organs close enough to feel her pulse.

“Are you okay?” Lucas waves a hand in front of Alice’s face. She blinks hard and tears her gaze away from the tablecloth. She feels Toby’s lips pull back in a sneer; it doesn’t like company, and it wants her to hate it too. Its legs tighten and force her to take quick, unsatisfying breaths. She nods and mumbles something she hopes sounds like a yes.

“Okay, good. I can take you back home if you’d like. Honestly, I was surprised you let me take you here. I know we’ve only gone out a few times, but do you think—”

Toby’s heel grinds against Alice’s stomach, eliciting a nausea so terrible it morphs into pain. Alice bumps the table as she hurries to her feet. Lucas barely catches her wine glass.

“I’m sorry. I’ll be—” Her chair screeches along the wooden floor. “I’m sorry.” Lucas raises his voice and asks her to wait, but sheepishly ducks as the other restaurant patrons begin staring.

Alice feels Lucas’s eyes on her back as she walks away, and she knows Toby has turned its head to glare at him.

Her breathing is coming in shallow gasps by the time she hits the cold relief of the bathroom. She leans over the counter and closes her eyes, sucking air in for four seconds and out for four like her terrible therapist has taught her. Toby takes every breath as a challenge, taking over the space she leaves at each exhale. She’s a fish on land, desperately gulping in the potpourri-laden air.

When she raises her gaze to the mirror, Toby’s sagging face emerges from behind her neck. Its beady eyes glint beneath skin that practically melts from its body. She shouldn’t have worn this dress. You can see every dip and curve of its crooked limbs through the fabric.

A hot breath—a laugh?—of approval sends a shiver through her. He knows what she’s feeling, and the deep frown on her face fills his horrible little body with satisfaction.

“Stop it,” she says. She doesn’t normally speak to it. It’s better to put it out of her mind, to pretend it’s as invisible to her as it is to everyone else. It responds to her request with a sharp exhale, the most abstract of no’s. She locks her jaw and its lips peel back to reveal black gums.

Alice beat Toby’s ear off its head in her bedroom before her college graduation. Eight semesters of grazing teeth and mocking vibrations had worn her down. She had pushed herself to her limits to get to this day, her day. The mass of flesh and fear clinging to her skin wouldn’t ruin that.

Alice bashes her back against the wall and knocks the breath out of Toby’s shriveled lungs. It’s dazed for a moment, but she feels pricks on her neck, the suggestion of teeth, and slaps at it like a mosquito. It’s testing her, showing her it can hurt her at any moment. She grasps at the counter and the upscale display of mints and toiletries. Her fingers close around a soap dish, and she twists, cracking the stone against its head. Doughy skin gives way to bone, and she brings the dish down again, this time over her right shoulder as it scrambles to reposition himself.

For the first time in her life, she hears it squeak, a pathetic sound a starving animal might make after a kick in the ribs. She hits it once, twice, three more times, once slipping and bringing the weapon down on her own shoulder. She bites back a pained noise and hits again, one final time. The blow lands where its ear used to be, where the skin had grown in clusters of scar tissue and rot. It twitches and slumps onto her shoulder.

For the first time in two decades, Alice’s lungs swell to their full capacity. The floral air of a steakhouse bathroom fills chest, and she blows it out with foreign ease.

Toby’s weight remains, but it doesn’t stir.

She makes her way back to the table, ignoring the eyes that follow her. Lucas stares at her with polite concern as she sits and takes a long sip from her glass.

“I’m sorry, I was just a bit nervous.” She smooths out her hair and tucks her chair closer to the table. “What was your question?”

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