teratoma

1: to obsess is to surround but not control

Avery felt bad for ordering the off brand soda, but did it anyway. Ina, never one for substitutes, didn’t.

“Six months and we’re out.” Ina had the kind of story that could keep any party listening, frat or cotillion — married into the navy at eighteen, widowed at twenty, graduated at the top of her class and now, less impressive, she worked at the desk next to her best friend from high school. That was Avery.

“You know what you’re gonna do after?” Avery’s upbringing and the years that followed were more traditional but she knew who invented email, which people at parties were interested hearing about sometimes.

Ina sucked the Coke between her teeth. “School again.” Their years spent at a state school largely regarded as a scam was a well-known pyramid scheme. “You’re gonna work at Seabury, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Avery had the standing promise of running the summer camp she’d spent every offseason in from ages five to seventeen once the restraining order expired. Just a precaution, they had assured her, they wanted her back.

Ina put a hand on her friend’s forearm. “You good?”

Avery’s sigh was automated. Of all the loaded questions Ina deployed with regularity, this was by far her least favorite, just ahead of “You know your mom is absolutely fucking our ninth grade math teacher, right?” (yes). This question came with history leeched onto it, back to all that again. Four years of prescriptions had mostly booted it. Still Ina worried.

“Have you ever heard of a teratoma?”

“You know Andrew used to live in that neighborhood, yeah?”

Avery’s soda hardened in her stomach. “Not anymore. Have you-”

Ina shrugged, implying an ‘obviously.’ “You’ve never lived alone before, that’s all. And since last year-”

Oh yeah, last year, but that had time been even shorter, an isolated episode meaning the diagnosis had grown stale and it was time to bring in reinforcements. Andrew had, her parents agreed, overreacted. She had her job, she had her savings, her face was symmetrical except for the one thing.

“Past bad behavior isn’t indicative of future behavior,” Avery replied, trying to sip from the Mexican soda the way the queen of England would.

“What’s that, Mark Twain or something?”

“I made it up.”

“I’m coming over every week so you don’t burn the place down.”

“Kind of sounded like him though, yeah?”

This was before the wall.

***

In spite of pending legalities, Avery was well-liked, once voted along with a Andrew as the most fun couple at his shitbag brother’s wedding. She was good at her job, which involved recruiting people to join a couponing app that was also a pedometer.

Living alone was good. It was in a quiet neighborhood, a quiet apartment complex with a crooked foundation and the units on either side of her vacant for an indeterminate amount of time. She had decorated it in a variation on what she’d had since her first semester in college, the only noticeable change being that the posters were framed now — that meant you cared enough to be worth fucking. There were four walls, three panels that contained a sink and refrigerator, three others to empty out whatever had been bought on the way to work that morning.

Avery didn’t remember the first time she looked at the wall that way. ‘That way,’ like she was in love with it or something. Dumb.

Living alone was definitely good.

Next to the wall was her bed, full sized like a respectable single adult had. Twin meant you didn’t have it together, queen seemed to say ‘any day now’ with its always-empty other half. The wall was a pale green, the color reserved exclusively for the faces of sorority girls at the end of a night drinking from a punchbowl and her wall. The other walls were beige, so the day her father had helped her move the bed headed for color without any discussion. When he left she didn’t think about the wall, but the job, and the doctors appointments, and whether she would invite Ryan over anymore. Normal things.

At some point, she started to think about the wall. Later on, Avery regretted not being able to hold the exact moment between her fingers, the same way she was always frustrated her parents didn’t remember where or when they met. Wasn’t that important? She thought about the wall, would reach out to place her hand on its coolness in the middle of the night in the summer, gently run her fingernails against the matte paint to make a piercing sound. Paint came off the wall, and she thought about tasting it sometimes. She had eaten a bug on a dare some fifteen years before. Someone had asked her to do it, which was the main difference.

In any case, that was the wall.

Avery liked living alone, she decided, it just didn’t feel that way yet. Still, if you decide you feel something, it’s how you feel.

She’d been reading about teratomas, these gnarly little balls of hair and teeth and nails that sprouted from almost nowhere and settled in your uterus, almost to make a point of who they were singling out. It made you think strange, and act strange, until your body and your brain became separate. There was no proof that one of there, but there was a faint pulsing in her brain and hips that made it feel possible. She would let the idea of it, or maybe the real thing, roll around her head on the commute to work and see if it stuck anywhere — she’d miscalculated the time she thought she had a tumor in her brain, but completely missed the signs that her kidneys were about to shut down. Bad instincts, or maybe just wanting illnesses that would sound good on an NPR show and chucking the rest. The visual of the wet hair and teeth and nails were comforting, a hot little fireball that controlled everything and radiated battery acid until she couldn’t stand it anymore. Avery was a visual learner, and a visual blamer, and couldn’t look at a picture of one until an hour after eating.

She looked up a lot of things. She looked up what would happen if the paint was ingested. Nothing good, told in a series of x-ray landscapes that boiled down to one less employee at the office next week. So she’d absentmindedly scratch at the sickly green she had never liked anyway while reading at night and on the weekends she didn’t want to leave her hotbox apartment. When the paint she could reach from a resting position lay in thin shavings and beneath her fingernails, she moved her pillow to where her feet usually went and started on the other side.

***

Work was good, although she was the only person pretending that was true on most days. She and Ina had intended to leave two years ago but Pedocoups, the company that sounded like a child pornography sentence, had given both enough promise of a healthy stock cash out to stick it out three years and share a brownstone together.

“When can we come over?” Ina asked as Avery finished a sales call. There was a ‘we’ now, looming as a constant threat to the theoretical brownstone. His name was Colin, Disney prince handsome, not Avery’s type, but Ina had always like collecting shiny things.

“I’m still setting up,” Avery said, thinking of the dreams she’d been having that prevented her from inviting guests over. She still went to yoga classes, but only twice a week so as to spend time with her wall.

“It’s been three weeks.” Ina’s suspicion was fine tuned, but Avery figured it was misdirected.

“I’m not seeing Andrew.”

“You can’t, right?”

She had printed out some research about paint toxicity to consult at home that evening. “Right. Did you read that thing about the teratomas I sent you?”

Ina was examining a picture of Colin and a woman posted three months before they met, opening the girl’s profile in a new tab. “The uterus hairballs? You don’t have one, idiot.”

The “idiot” hit her in just the right spot, and Avery nearly tackled Ina in a hug from behind. “You can’t call me that, fucker,” she laughed, and Ina reached her hands over her shoulders to pry her friend off, laughing and swatting. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

Ina looked at her the way they did before the wall, and all the Andrew stuff, and maybe before they hit puberty, too. “You’re a dumbass.”

“Do you wanna come to yoga with me tonight?”

Eye roll. “No more than I wanted to join your fucking manga club in high school.”

“Fuck off.” Ina pulled the butterfly clip from Avery’s hair and clawed it to her shoulder, and several yelps later everyone in the office but them were pissed at the laughing.

“I refuse to fuck off, Avery,” Ina said between laughs. “No matter how fucking weird you get.”

Avery had caught her breath. “So did you read the teratoma thing or not?”

Ina’s eyes dimmed a little, and the fifteen years that had disappeared for a few minutes returned. “Love you too.”

Everyone at work looked at her different, no matter how many times she had the top sales.

2: level of toxicity

Eventually she invited Ryan over. This had been going on long enough to constitute common law marriage — they’d be bummed at the same time, spend a few weeks having sex because learning tennis sounded boring and expensive, stop answering each other’s calls. He’d been a year behind her at Bellevue High, all puppy dog eyes the year she’d been appointed head carpenter of an embarrassing production of Hello, Dolly! She couldn’t take him seriously for reasons she couldn’t articulate — maybe the lack of hard consonants in the name, maybe his froggy eyes. She’d try to remember the titles of Friends episodes when they had sex for the most part. Unbeknownst to her, he was partial to trying to recall Seinfeld guest stars until cum dribbled and he made an excuse to leave.

Ryan spoke exclusively in fragments, like sentences were a thing you found on the sidewalk and grenaded into an unsuspecting conversation partner’s face. When Avery had run out of wall on the other side of the bed, all coyness about the operation holding a magazine in one hand and scratching furiously like the other had to be abandoned -

“Gotta call landlord about that,” he said, darting his frog eyes. “Happened to my ex once. Susannah. Her wall just started eroding. Paint first. Supposed to be lead. asbestos, maybe.”

Avery thought he sounded like a telegraph, but didn’t say so. ”It’s cheap,” she said instead. “I’m going to move somewhere else soon, it’s just, you know, I’m waiting for my raise.”

“Be careful, kiddo,” he continued, inciting one of her least favorite pejoratives. She’d been a grade above him. His dick swung slow and shriveled as he headed for the kitchenette, seeming to agree with her appraisal. “Can catch some brutal stuff in shitholes like that. Susannah wrote a story about it. ‘Bout a girl whose apartment inflamed this tumor in her pussy.”

“I really need to get some work done tonight,” Avery said, facing the wall. Ryan waved away the comment as the sink choked out a glass of water — he had been planning on leaving since before he arrived.

“Tumor thing had hair and teeth and shit in it. Bone shards. Just in there. In her pussy. I don’t-” Avery had tossed Ryan’s pants and hit his back before he could finish. Maybe a little mean.

“Did I tell you that Susannah works at The Washington Post now?”

“Yeah.”

He picked up one of the printouts Avery made at work and laughed softly. It sounded like Pop Rocks were in lodged in his throat. “These the pussy tumors Ina was telling me about?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t have one, idiot.”

Beneath her fingernails felt heavy. Avery didn’t remember Ryan leaving, but he must have.

***

One Thursday in late February the paint was gone. It was there for a while, but then she’d vacuumed up the piles of scratched-off shavings to lend a little finality to it. Avery had taken to going to Ryan’s apartment as an alternative to being lectured on asbestos levels in the comfort of her own home. There was no more paint, and there was a hole the size of a penny beside where her head laid every night.

It hadn’t tasted like she thought it would, but the building was old, so she adjusted quickly. Using a little bowie knife Andrew had brought her back from the trip to Germany, the same trip that would take on a new meaning but had only meant he was bad at choosing gifts at the time. Avery took the knife and used it to carve out a coin’s worth of thin wooden panel that separated her from the empty apartment next door. A dark room was all that lay on the other side, waiting for a cheap tenant who didn’t need heat to occupy it. The wall tasted like the horrible granola her dad used to bring back from the Pacific Northwest on business trips. It tasted like the gristle that cracks a tooth in a turkey leg. She let it get warm and soft until it surrendered to her embarrassed saliva. Cautious swallow. Easy.

After, Avery laid and bed and thought about the why. Then, she thought about bringing Ina to yoga. Then, she thought about eating paint again.

Maybe this was how Catholics felt about doing anything.

***

She was sick at work again, and Ina noticed. Even in the throes of new guy Colin, who she alternated on saying was a chode and the one from day to day, she’d trained herself to look at Avery with scrutiny when a hair was awry. Ina regretted not noticing the times before, so and now she noticed too much.

“Are you pregnant or something?” she asked.

“Just feel like shit,” Avery choked out. There was a hole the size of her fist in the wall now, carefully hacked into a perfect circle over the course of several weeks. This was going to take longer than she thought.

“Ryan sucks, dude,” Ina said with a mouth half-full of panini. “Never understood the appeal, never will.”

Avery’s stomach was too splintered for patience. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Fine,” she said, refusing to break eye contact with the old rounded monitor. “Did I tell you I heard from Mr. Carl?”

Mr. Carl was their counselor at Seabury, head of the camp. “What for?”

“You know him, just calling to shoot the shit, check in and see if we’ve made something of ourselves yet.”

“Have we?”

“According to my account, yes.”

“Weird he didn’t call me.”

Ina coughed up a little panini but managed to keep it down. Avery tried to picture getting the wall out of her stomach but pushed the thought away before it became real. “I mean, not that weird,” Ina said. “I think he’s just waiting for, you know, all the Andrew stuff to be sorted out.”

The wall jostled around a little more. “I’m so tired of that. It wasn’t just-”

“I know, honey, but all Mr. Carl knows is what’s on the police report.”

“Well, it sucks.”

Ina was quiet, having always had a very specific point where she could no longer consider someone else’s problems. Avery changed tracks. “How’s Colin?”

Ina exhaled. “I still haven’t seen your apartment.”

“I don’t like it. It’s embarrassing. What else is there to know?”

Ina thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know.”

***

She ran into Andrew when the hole in the wall was the size of her head, the closest she could get to identifying time by then.

The intention behind Avery’s bodega visit was to get another armful of tomato soup cans to settle the splinters in her stomach. He was getting what she knew to be an Andrew usual, Cheetos and one of those fucking awful energy drinks. That hadn’t changed, but with her belly full of soup and plywood, a lot had. Avery’s favorite soda was unchanged, too, but his body now stretched long and lean where it had once been stocky and insecure. She saw him first.

“Oh.” It was something.

“Are you gonna call the-“

“I think this is okay. Accident.”

Avery took this in and savored it. This is okay from certain people means more than an undying confession from another. She searched for words as a sharp pain tore through her stomach. Part of her wished he looked like shit.

“So how’s it been going?” she began as Andrew put his drink and Cheetos down on the wrong shelf and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“I’m gonna head out, I think,” he said, raising his hand with a tense smile to match. And then he did. And then Avery found herself putting the can and the Cheetos in her bag when the bodega cashier wasn’t looking. She paid for the soup.

This is okay, she looped in her brain on repeat. Realized it was Andrew’s voice looping, then reset it to Morgan Freeman’s, then realized the cashier was waiting for her pin number and had been for a while. Avery was grasping for the memory of the wall, connecting its growing chasm to the sickness in her stomach, connecting the sickness in her stomach to the soup in her hand that would help, pushing away the threats and medicine and long period of silence. One year. It was embarrassing. She had expected, after that long with a restraining order in place, that he would be angry or afraid to see her. He wasn’t. “Accident.” He looked healthy, and better dressed, and sad for her.

***

She’d be up for an apartment inspection before this was done. On occasion, Avery would remember that, at some point, this would not be her place anymore, that she would need to explain what she hoped to be a completely absent wall, but maybe that was wrong. She could stay here if she wanted.

Seeing Andrew was good, she decided. Now she knew that ‘this is okay,’ when it previously was not, because that is how life is supposed to work. You get upset, then one day you’re not. Few people worked themselves into a restraining order in the process, but again, an overreaction. Avery savored a feeling of completion, less of the graduation kind and more of the have sex with the boy who used to call you pointy tits at the high school reunion. It was good. “This is okay.”

She wondered what he’d think of her teratoma. Probably what Ina did — would want her to go to a doctor to hear it wasn’t there from someone she believed. Or now that she thought of it, he didn’t want her to do anything. Or maybe it was okay that she did things, but not in ways that he could hear or see, so really it didn’t matter what she did, as long as he didn’t know about it. So really, she could do anything.

All that anyone knew was on the police report, just as Ina had said. Andrew had decided how things would be left, and decided that it was okay for her to skip the Cheetos, and decided not to talk about anything that wasn’t the police report. He was a strategy guy and always had been, down to his board game choices, and Avery was tired of recalling the exact details. Every time you remembered something, she knew, it blurred a little more. So she just didn’t, in case she ever needed the exact colors or sounds or threats or words that were not in the police report, every small thing that made the police report seem so random and unhinged and sudden. She had all those things, but they were not useful to the police and she knew that, had seen it play out in college with the girl who spent months in court to see whoever drugged her at a party get a month’s suspension before he was welcomed back on campus. It wasn’t worth it, she decided, and so stealing the sharpness of the memories she still had felt like an empty exercise. Ina knew, had seen and heard a lot of what led to the police report and the restraining order, and knew just as well that the difference between fighting and waiting for it to just end were the same pain distributed over different amounts of time. The fighting was for people with money who could take a stab to the gut, and Avery was neither of those things.

Hearing that it was okay brought a smell back from a years-ago apartment, but Avery moved it back to storage for later use. Pickled it, put it in the freezer next to Walt Disney, and tried to see what was in front of her instead.

It was easier to eat more of the wall if she was already a few shots into the whiskey she’d been given that Christmas, whenever that had been, by her brother. Sam was a good brother who was definitely cheating on his wife, who seemed to be pregnant all the time anyways. He and Andrew had always gotten along with each other. Ina hated him.

Okay, focus. And it might have been the by-then six shots of hard liquor, but she did. By the end of the night, there was another head-shaped hole at the foot of her bed, leaving two ogling eyes staring into the dark complex next door. Her stomach looked as if she’d swallowed knives and hurt like a motherfucker, but goddamn. She felt the warm sense of accomplishment and whiskey that came with doubling her work in a night’s time, the same way it had felt good to decide she was over Andrew after all that time. It didn’t feel that way quite yet, but if you decide you feel something, then that’s how you feel.

Avery had taken to reaching her arm through the head-sized hole to feel the cool air on the other side. By this time it wasn’t cold anymore, maybe spring. There was a calendar at work but she didn’t look at it anymore, preferring surprise and focus on other things. A draft that seeped into her apartment hit her hand softly as she wiggled her toes in the hole she’d chewed at the foot of her bed. What was the animal that chewed wood again? Beaver or badger?

Something gripped her hand on the other side. Warm. Another hand. Avery waited for anything else — the voice of a squatter, the barrel of a gun. No one had moved in, but there it was, another hand holding hers with a palm covered in a comforting thin sheen of sweat.

“Who’s that?” Avery couldn’t see through the hole in the wall very well with her arm sticking through.

Nothing. Avery didn’t pull away, the breeze and the warm hand working together to work with the whiskey. “Hello?” Nothing. She wasn’t sure if she’d said it out loud or not. It had been getting more difficult to remember things and say the words when she thought of them. Still, nothing. No answer, but the persistence of a soft, hot hand.

Avery tightened her grip. The hand squeezed back once, twice, three times. It’s-oh-okay. This is okay.

Then, she fell asleep.

3: teratoma

One afternoon an indeterminable number of days later on what must have been a weekend, Avery found herself again crosslegged and naked on Ryan’s bed. Nothing of note had happened, but they’d had sex.

“Feel close to being done with all that, you know? Real close.” Something about Susannah and The Washington Post and getting her to answer an email. He spaced his pointer finger and thumb a centimeter apart to demonstrate. “Don’t know even if I like her now.” Avery’s hand got hot as it sometimes did now, she imagined from the anticipation of the hand’s return. It kept coming back, sometimes missing a night when her day felt less leaden, but those days were less frequent now. “You ever feel like such a fuckup that you’re, like, floating above your body looking down at a fuckup?”

Avery had to look up at this one. It was the most words she’d ever heard Ryan say in sequence, and the only that had ever held her attention. “Yeah,” she laughed. “I kind of do.”

Ryan laughed a little too, somehow less froggy when clothed as he was now. “You want a Ritz cracker or something?”

“Oh. Yeah, okay.” She put her shirt back on before he changed his mind — they had never played the game of sticking around, not ever playing house for even fifteen minutes. But there he was with the Ritz crackers, sitting next to her with all his clothes on with his weird body perched next to her weird body. Avery took a cracker.

“I saw your Andrew the other day,” he said. “At the store, you know?” Avery knew. What a store was.

“And that’s why you’re offering me crackers.”

“Well, no, Avery, you’re not a fuckin’ parrot or whatever.” The mush was sticking to his teeth. “I’m just saying that like, I know things were fucked with you guys or whatever -” Avery wanted to leave. “- but I think, you know, seems like you kind of got a raw deal there.”

Some of Avery’s peripheral thoughts poked out of her head the way she dreamed the wall did from her stomach. For a second it smelled like a years-ago apartment, until it didn’t. “Yeah, well.” She finally took a cracker. “I don’t really like to talk about it. Or, you know, and I’m not supposed to, either.”

“Because of the lawyer guy.” Andrew had one, she didn’t, and there was no need to haul anything out of the back filing cabinets in her head without the right sort of person to sift through it. Ryan, crackers or no crackers, was not that person. “It made me mad, seeing him, or I think it did.”

“Didn’t make you mad when all that stuff was happening.”

Ryan thought on this a moment, but hadn’t considered the route of an apology. “Yeah, well, it wasn’t as important to me then.” He turned his froggy eyes to her, and her stomach turned a little. Putting crackers on top of the wall was a bad idea.

“You should try Susannah again,” she said after a moment, swinging her legs over him and into her shoes. “I’m gonna get- “

“You sure you don’t need somewhere to stay?” There was no question, the hand and the wall were at home and she was so close. His froggy eyes seemed to dart out of his head, not back in his skull as they did when he talked about Susannah, which seemed less and less often.

“Since when?”

“I dunno,” Ryan said. “Seeing him, it really made me mad.”

Avery wanted to poke his eyeballs back in their normal place. Some variation of this had been delivered to her with various degrees of regret and the reserves of energy she’d had to reassure them that the afterthought sufficed had more or less dried up.

“I don’t have time to be mad about that stuff.” And she didn’t. The wall was three miles away, and thinking of anything else would pull her back into her body, not floating above a fuckup like she preferred. She thought about hating Ryan, then decided that someone else probably had that covered already.

***

It was difficult to be concerned about why Avery was thinking about something when all she could think about was the thing she was thinking about. There wasn’t spare time. It was a slow, slow process — like building the Disney Concert Hall, she thought for some reason — but worth it.

She would not speak to it out loud, because it wouldn’t speak back. It did think, though, and they exchanged brief ideas while Avery held the warm hand that touched hers each night, sending a quiet shock down her body that registered as something not to think too hard about, lest she become disillusioned.

The wood popped and cut at her mouth before she could swallow. She did not love the wall, but felt it important that she consume it. To obsess over something, she knew, meant to surround something without controlling it. She did not think of it as an obsession, because the wall could not control her — every night, and the days when she could, were her decisions to keep breaking off parts, and her decision to picture the wall swimming around with the teratoma she was now convinced had split in two to settle on either side of her uterus. She had stopped going to yoga, but felt the balance. The wall did not control her and did not want to, and did not argue, and got her closer to the hand as it disappeared. It didn’t care if it disappeared, it told her some nights, but it did care that she did the right thing. And the right thing, she knew, was making it disappear. The wall did not control her, and that felt okay.

By Ina’s count, Avery had missed exactly four parties at Ina and Colin’s new brownstone, and while Avery’s thoughts were mostly with the wall, she believed it. Had Ina and Colin moved in together? Did this mean the brownstone she and Ina had been planning since college was off? Did she want that anymore? What she did know is that Ina had left Pedocoup for a marketing job across town, leaving Avery with the strange comfort of not having to talk to anyone at work anymore. It didn’t bother her as much as it once had. She was finding creative satisfaction elsewhere.

“Avery, Christ, listen,” Ina said at the coffee shop she’d painstakingly determined was directly between their two places of work. She lifted her friend’s chin to make eye contact. “Are you coming? To Colin’s birthday tomorrow night? You still haven’t seen my new apartment.”

“You haven’t seen mine,” she answered, and Ina consolidated her worry at Avery’s glassy eyes. Her voice sounded tired, words stuck to each other like stubborn price tags. Work was hell, Ina knew that firsthand. It was probably that. Avery had dealt with running into Andrew several months before so well. That was progress. Ina choked out a laugh.

“Well, I’ve fucking given up on finding out whatever you’re keeping in that crack den, Ave.” They both smiled, good ones, nervous but real. “So you’ll come?”

Ina was so beautiful, Avery thought. Avery herself looked fine, passable, but the recurring nightmare where the wall would start to poke out of her stomach like massive, splintered icicles would jerk her out of a dead sleep until the hand on the other side of the wall stroked her with its silky thumb. Ina was so beautiful and good, and Avery shouldn’t disappoint her. Okay.

“Yeah,” she heard herself saying to the surprise of both. Avery thought of home, the real one and the dummy she’d set up across town, and the wall that had a massive gaping hole in its center when the smaller ones had begun to bleed into each other.

She touched her forehead. Sweat. Must’ve been summer again. Ina was gone when she looked up. Avery didn’t remember her leaving, but she must have.

***

The hand only came at night, maybe for the cover of darkness. It hadn’t yet proved to be attached to anything, and Avery had learned not to look. One of these nights, she thought. The hand would sit up and be attached to one of Ina’s Disney princes with shiny teeth and dull brains, or maybe her best friend Callie from camp who had died in a car accident the September after. Maybe a pet dog she was pretty sure she’d had at one time, but that might have been her neighbors. Whoever was attached to the hand would climb through the hole in the wall, she thought, they could be six feet tall and fit through, and they’d talk all night long. Can’t rush these things.

One particular night, the one before Colin’s party — had she and Colin ever met? — Avery sat still as wood decomposed in her mouth. All pretense of distraction had been dropped months ago, and her books and phone lay beside her in bed for show. She would feel the wall in her mouth, wait for the hand, think of excuses to tell her landlord, if he was even still alive. She’d renewed her lease without any inspection. If her calculations and digestive system were cooperative, she could be finished with the wall in two weeks. Then the hand couldn’t hide anymore. Maybe she’d just have a bigger apartment.

When her phone rang Avery instinctively reached down to reject the call, assuming it was Ina or her mother with another check-in. If Avery knew Ina at all, she’d been in touch with her mother about Avery’s well-being. They probably had a fucking conspiracy to get her out of the city and back home. Her mother had always liked Ina better, with her pointy facial features and good grades. Fuck Ina. Fuck her mom. They did it for fun. To make her mad.

The screen read “Seabury.”

“Hello?” Suddenly Avery’s voice sounded like it had a year before, not the sluggish stutter she’d become accustomed to since it started being sweater weather again. She was stupid, she knew that, and this was just what happened when you were stupid and got older. Not to Ina, though. Why should she have to go to a fucking party if she didn’t want to.

“We thought you forgot about us, Ave,” came the voice of the Mr. Carl counselor who’d had a hand in raising her seasonally since she could form a sentence. Or the twenty or so years she could form a sentence. He’d said years before to just call him Carl.

“Of course I didn’t, Mr. Carl!” She actually had, assuming that the camp was being polite when they said her restraining order had to expire. It had, but no call. That’s okay. She was busy. Avery slipped the wet wall from her mouth in one deft movement. “What’s up?”

“Well, we’re sorry for taking so long to get back to you, honey,” he said. He’d had his lung removed, a result of the Camels he chain-smoked after lights out until sunrise, but Avery recognized the voice that had been Mr. Carl’s before — jaggedly optimistic, his voice scaling octaves as it babbled. Maybe he’d gotten his lung back. Did that make sense? “I’m calling with that job offer you’ve been waiting for since the nineties.”

Her stomach flipped, turning over some drywall and splintered tissue. It had really started to hurt, but she was so fucking close. “That’s great! What were you thinking?” She just needed two weeks.

Mr. Carl deliberated. “We were thinking right away, if that’s okay, with you. Three days? I can come on down to the city and help you load out your apartment, I know it’s a hassle. We’re replacing someone pretty quick, you’d be managing the facilities, cabins, stables, you know the lay of the land.”

Avery stared into the hole. Three days would not work. She couldn’t finish in three days. She couldn’t think of an excuse to tell Mr. Carl, whose voice sounded so perfectly like it had when he made her scrambled eggs on Sunday morning every Sunday, in three days.

“Could I have longer?”

Mr. Carl coughed, and his iron lung reappeared on the line. “No.”

Instinctively, Avery reached into the abyss with her left hand, knowing it was far too early for the hand to appear but savoring the breeze. As Mr. Carl explained in his raspy voice the money and the stipulations and how if it had to be, it had to be now.

“I can’t now.”

“And why is that?”

“Because I have to finish something.”

“Well fuck you, then, Avery.”

“Okay, Mr. Carl, I don’t disagree.” The hand rewarded her by pressing the pads of her fingertips. She didn’t cry. She wasn’t sad. She would be meeting them soon.

4. we’re having a party

Ina and Colin’s apartment smelled like complete and total shit, but the kind of complete and total shit that really seemed to do it for some people.

“Well, look who came!” said a man so perfect-looking that he bordered on the uncanny valley. She knew it must have been Colin, and knew she must have met him before, but couldn’t remember. She took a jalapeno popper from the IKEA plate he was holding.

“Where’s Ina?”

“Holding court.” He gestured to the living room where Avery saw that Ina had dyed her hair blue like she had their sophomore year in college, brought back the Joy Division t-shirts she had since replaced with more sensible clearance items. That was the Ina she remembered.

“Ina!” She wasn’t going to believe what Mr. Carl had said. And then Ina was beside her, but must have dyed her hair back to brown and changed her clothes.

“Ave, honey, did you run here?” Avery did not remember, so she said yes and reciprocated Ina’s hug. She’d learned to adjust to the thick nausea that accompanied digesting the wood, but something about the smell of the apartment made the acid in her stomach burn twice as hard. “Did you see who’s here?”

A throng of Seabury counselors sat on the squeaking, sticky leather couch and eyed her with pity that felt sharp. There was Alton who she’d French kissed on a dare then French kissed on not a dare, and Ellie who was afraid of the dark and fire and couldn’t swim, and Mr. Carl’s son Jacob who had always envied how his father doted on Avery. Her friends. Avery sat in the chair across from them and touched Jacob’s hand.

“Did you know I just talked to your dad?”

Suddenly Jacob wasn’t there anymore, but her brother was, and he delivered Jacob’s message for him. “Really? He’s up in Maine, I didn’t think he had reception.” Avery laughed and ate another jalapeno popper, maybe both at once. She had felt the stress of wanting to get back home to the wall at first, but noticed four empty Heinekens next to her — were they hers? — and a rush of seeing faces to share her conversation with Mr. Carl with.

“They, he, he called and offered to -” She felt Colin’s hand touch her shoulder, and she jerked her elbow upward, getting him directly in the gut. He touched her shoulder harder.

“Avery, Ina wants to see you in the kitchen.” She turned to Colin to tell him not to fucking touch her, that she didn’t think they’d ever met before, but when she turned it was Jacob, and Colin was sitting on the couch, and her brother was nowhere to be found.

“Did he make you an offer, too?” came a confused voice from the couch. It was Bethany, another Seabury counselor from Avery’s era, a little dumpy but always efficient.

Jacob, who was Colin again, gestured to the small kitchen where Ina and her blue hair waited. “It’ll just be a second,” he told the couch people, and Avery felt her legs work independently of her and she stumbled to the kitchenette.

“He doesn’t know me,” Avery laughed, pointing at Colin. Ina shushed her and said something about yelling and neighbors.

“How much have you been drinking?” Ina hissed at her. “Avery, if you weren’t feeling up to it I don’t understand why you’d -”

“I’m celebrating,” Avery interrupted, hugging Ina and unsettling the wall in her stomach. She burped. “I’m celebrating the job and the apartment and the -”

“Did Mr. Carl call you about the job?” A smile began to creep onto Ina’s face, and Avery wasn’t even mad that her hair was turned brown again.

Bethany appeared behind her, perpetually wearing an expression of feeling unwelcome, which she usually was. Still, Bethany, that was nice. Avery hadn’t known she’d moved to the city, but this party was fun. Her mom gave such nice hugs.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Bethany apologized, and Avery suppressed the thought that her face had already been sorry enough. “I just wanted to say that I’m going back to Seabury too, Avery!” She smiled with those creepy little teeth with too much gums. Avery released Ina from her hug to lean into Bethany on the counter.

“I turned it down,” she told her mother, sorry, Bethany, proudly. Bethany looked a lot like her mother from the corner of Avery’s eye, and sometimes head on. Her mother always smelled like coffee and menthols, a scent she’d learned to dread “They called me and asked me to take over facilities and the stables and all of that shit and I said you know what, no, I’m not gonna.”

Bethany was sweating. That’s weird, her mother wasn’t really much of a sweater. Haha, not that kind of sweater. Why was Bethany sweating? It took Avery a moment to realize she was saying something.

“Are you sure, Ave?” Ina said. Avery wasn’t sure if her eyes were open and whose hair color was what. Her mother was talking out of Bethany’s mouth with that sorry, sorry look, and Avery wanted to shut her up. It was time to get back to the wall and the hand.

“- how that could be possible, unfortunately.”

Ina’s eyes were wide. “Avery, Bethany’s the facility manager, why would Mr. Carl have-”

Avery’s teeth were on Bethany’s shoulder and sinking through layers of skin as she held the sorry woman’s torso firm, and she was reminded of a scary story she used to tell on the annual Girl Scouts camping trip.

“You know,” she’d say, “my dad says that you can bite someone’s finger off just as easy as biting a baby carrot.” She’d always pause here to watch the gap-toothed scouts react with appropriate horror. “But your brains just don’t let you do it.”

Bethany was not a carrot, and so she screamed. Ina was not watching Avery eat a carrot, so she screamed. Avery had thought she was biting her mother, and she watched as her legs pulled her teeth out of Bethany and toward the door, down the street and four blocks east, three more west until she was at home, panting and looking at the wall and tasting blood. She pulled something from between her teeth, and realized she’d brought a little bit of Bethany as a souvenir.

5: encode and consolidate

There was something she had learned in a college class with a clickbait name — it had to be a college class, because Avery could picture Ina sitting beside her with the bubble gum pink hair she was known for at the time. It was about how memories formed in two phases, prompting Ina to make some unfunny joke about how can we erase this fucking college from our memories, something like that. At the time, Avery had just reminded herself to give that movie with Jim Carrey and the girl from Titanic another try, maybe it had just gone over her head the first time.

Bethany was going to Seabury. There had been no call, or if there had, it had been a very different one. Her phone vibrated with Ina’s concern across the room, and she willed it to die. It did.

Avery remembered the two parts, the encoding and the consolidation. Encoding is the truth of what happens, down to the flinches and eye twitches that come with the most carefully concealed lie, the words said, the actions taken. Consolidation is the editing tool, smoothing out blemishes, softening words, erasing unwanted actions. It’s what keeps people in careers they’re mediocre in, relationships they’re abused in, patterns of behavior that hurt. Consolidation invented illusions, encoding registers failure. The sparklier usually won out.

No matter how she philosophized it, the beginning middle and end of it was that the wall was gone. There was no more wall, or it had distributed itself through her body and into various public bathrooms and alleys across the city. There was Avery after the party and a room on either side of her. She was still hungry, somehow.

The hand arrived on time. She held it tighter than usual, placing it firm on the mattress/

“I want you to come out.”

The hand squeezed, then pulled. Avery gripped it in place. Tonight she would not fall asleep with it, would not let it choose, wanted to see the warm body attached to it.

“I want you to come out.” The hand pulled away hard, and Avery pulled back. She remembered the time she and Ina had walked all the way out to the old fairgrounds in high school and Ina had managed to fall into a sinkhole. Avery had pulled then with the sort of adrenaline that allows mothers to lift cars. Her pull on the hand was different, though — it was with a solid force, the kind of frantic force that might cause one to eat their bedroom wall and assault a camp counselor.

And it came out. Hesitantly at first, but out all the time, moving its humanlike form and climbing on the bed of its own volition by the end, gripping Avery’s hand. It sat across the bed from her and released her hand, slowly crossing its legs with a soft squish. It looked, or it felt like it was looking, right at her.

“This is okay,” it said.

She could feel the heat of it from where she sat, inhaled a mercurial sweat from it without touching. It made a wet sound when it moved, but didn’t move closer. It clicked sometimes, as if wearing thick jewelry all over its body. Its outline was that of a person, but the backlight of the street didn’t show a face, if there was one, which felt doubtful. Its voice didn’t come from its head, but from its everything, exhaling the hot wet mist with every word. Its voice was whispered and low. Avery did not move. She understood that it didn’t want light. She wouldn’t try it yet.

“This is okay,” it said again. Avery heard the words but did not feel them, their meaning arching over even higher than her floating above herself.

“It’s not okay.” She looked to her left, and felt the draft of the empty studio beside her. It didn’t feel okay, having Bethany’s blood in her teeth and forgetting her name. The creature’s warmth had developed a scent, a familiar one that resembled an apartment she’d lived in years ago.

The creature considered this, squished and clicked in its particular way.

“Please say something.” Avery felt words collecting in her throat, hardening and threatening to spill out. The creature breathed with the same pop rock humming lungs as she did, but said nothing. “It’s not okay.”

“This is okay,” it repeated. The words rose and spilled out, but not as she planned — a thick stream of wooden splinters and Heineken and those goddamn fucking poppers fell out of her mouth and down her shirt. She felt tears collect and her fists clenched. This was not how is was supposed to be. It was not supposed to be a shapeless body made of something that smelled like her old apartment telling her it was okay, and it wasn’t supposed to be Ina and Colin, and it wasn’t supposed to be one year later and no wall and the restraining order not gone and this is okay, this is okay, but it wasn’t and it hadn’t been for a long time. She threw up again, and the creature wrung its hands.

“I want to go home.” She willed her phone to come back to life and to answer Ina’s call, but it didn’t. The creature reached its hand out to her. Avery was tired, she was hungry, and she pulled away. “I want you to go away. I want to go home.”

The creature erupted in something like a laugh. It looked to where the wall had been, where it had finally risen from minutes ago. “But look what you did to it,” it said, laughing again. “Look what you did.” It reached out its arms and took her shoulders with its warm hands, the ones she’d held without looking for what was attached to it for so many nights. What was attached to it was ugly.

“Look what you did,” it purred, pulling Avery closer, but it wasn’t Avery. Avery was watching from a foot above her body being pulled to the creature, registering the footsteps coming from the floor below but focusing on the smell and sound of her body being pulled. “Look what you did.”

They connected, and Avery felt the body for the first time. Its torso was hair, rope-like and thick and matted with mucus to keep it connected, with bumps she felt along its sides. She let it hold her, let it tell her “look what you did” as she explored its body and realized what her fingernails were grazing were fingernails themselves, sticking out of the hair at strange angles. The teeth, the gums, the hair all twisted together and reeked of the apartment, and the creature pulled her in tighter. “Look what you did.”

“Avery,” called a voice from somewhere, but she couldn’t call back — the creature had drawn her into its chest, mashing her face against the mucus and thick flesh and reminding her of what she’d done. Her arms tightened around its back, cutting her fingertips on the teeth and nails in an effort to suffocate it. It wasn’t working. She shouldn’t have invited it, but she had wanted to know what it looked like.

“Avery!” It was Ina. She had the address, and she was there, and she was screaming.

“Go back!” Avery screamed into the chest of the creature, who was howling for her to look at what she’d done. It did not care that she could not see. “Go back, go back, go back.” The vomit came up again, the splinters scraping her throat and drawing blood, absorbed by the hair and the flesh and the teeth and the nails that might have been her own, soaked in the place that she tried not to think about so as not to consolidate it. “Go back.” But it wouldn’t, and as Ina kept shouting Avery felt her body go limp as the smell of the apartment from years ago, the thick feeling of flesh and nails and teeth pulling her in and asking her to see it, consolidated and turned into something dark.

“You asked me to come here,” the creature said, or maybe she’d imagined it.

Then it was only dark.

***

Ina had bought her a hideous shirt several years ago in an effort to convince Avery that wearing her high school clothes wasn’t acceptable just because they still fit.

Avery let her eyes open to see that the light was on. Her bed was drenched in what she knew to be the creature’s remains, or her sweat, or both. It was gone, and Ina was there, and she was crying.

“Where is it?”

“Where’s what, honey?”

“The, uh -” She made the shape with her hand, suddenly wanting to put the word itself behind a chainlink fence. Visible, but safe. “The little hairball thing.”

Ina pulled Avery to her chest, and smelled like something new, maybe a perfume or maybe an adrenaline sweat that was different from her after-yoga sweat. Avery tried to encode it. “The thing from the — Avery, honey.” She lifted Avery’s chin, which had hardened with the same asbestos clay and looked at where the wall had once been. “I’m sorry.”

Avery shook her head and sunk back onto Ina’s shoulder. Some variation of these had been delivered to her with various degrees of regret and the reserves of energy she’d had to reassure them that the afterthought sufficed had more or less dried up.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Ina murmured. Avery’s hair was matted with sweat. “It’s okay.” But it wasn’t, and it hadn’t been for a long time.

It was okay, they thought, and Avery let this thought rest on her chest on top of the vomit and flesh, below her teeth and above her nails. She encoded the smells and the piercing the creature’s nails had made in her back, and the sound of Andrew putting the Cheetos back down, and Bethany’s scream. As she did so, her chest became heavy as she felt the tears escape onto Ina’s clearance clothing. It was not okay.

“It’s okay,” Ina murmured, and Avery folded up the smells and the sounds and the screams and put them inside this idea she kept being told. Look what she’d done.

Avery closed her eyes and consolidated, and surrounded everyone and everything without controlling it all at once.