By August Blaine Centauri
“Smile wide,” the photographer commands. “C’mon - let’s see some teeth!” He struts around, snapping pictures from a multitude of heights and angles, as I stretch my mouth wider, feeling more like a hyena than a professional businesswoman trying to instill confidence in her perspective clients when they visit her website. My stomach rumbles painfully, the all-consuming void that’s constantly at war with my body trying to overtake me, demanding attention or else. “No worries; we’re almost finished,” the photographer assures me with a wink. I laugh like he’s told a funny joke to hide the tears that prickle at my eyes from the pain boring a hole through me. “Yes, good, good,” the photographer murmurs to himself in some personal satisfaction. I sit perfectly still and smile wider instead of cringing at the sexual undertone lacing his voice. Thanks to this curse literally eating me alive, I have lots of practice ignoring pain and discomfort and pretending as if I’m just like everyone else.
The overeager photographer - the third cheapest I could find, hoping the slightly increased price would afford me some safety and respect - slows down, taking a few last, lingering shots. “Well, that’s your hour,” he informs me, as if I haven’t been counting down the seconds since he actually licked his lips when we shook hands and swapped pleasantries. “I think we got some great shots. I’ll just clean these up and email you a zip by the end of the week, and you can choose which ones you want full versions of for your site. What did you say you did again?”
I leave the hyena smile plastered over my face like a shield. “I’m primarily an organizer. Thanks so much for your time.” I head towards the door, hoping he’ll take the hint. The tight, intense contractions of my stomach are nearly unbearable. I smooth my hands down my blouse, trying to ease the stabbing pains with gentle touch. The photographer lingers in my office, making idle chitchat that I can barely focus on through the spasming torment. I know he’s just looking for the attention of an attractive woman. Like I wanted him for anything other than his photography skills.
Finally, he does leave. With a moan, I curl over into the fetal position. My mouth twitches and pulls as I attempt to stop smiling after a good hour of doing so. I let myself whimper and cry as I ride it all out. Nothing I haven’t been through before; I know I can survive this. I’m not alone. Most the women and some of the men and one nonbinary cousin in my family all suffer from this curse. My mother explained it to me as the gnawing hunger of some invisible, internal beast who was hungry for our body and soul. When I was only 15 years old, she told me the monster would win one day and claim my life. The monster cannot be defeated, only temporarily abated. We must learn to be strong and fight for as long as we can, but our battle is a losing one. We stave the beast back with nothing more than courage and ambition, striving to accomplish as much as possible in our short lives. If our lives are to be short, they’ll at least be fulfilling. But nothing we do can totally defeat the monster - only slow it down. Her words were like a prophecy. The curse claimed her only three years after that conversation.
I refer to the gnawing hunger that thrashes and rips me apart from the inside out as a void instead of a beast. Unlike my mother, I’ve never felt the cold grip of another’s claws tearing through me. It feels more as though I’m fighting myself. Like I’m fighting a slow-acting poison someone fed to me as a baby. Whatever it is, the void feels as much a part of me as the conviction and confidence in myself that my mother helped to bolster. Maybe it’s just that fighting myself seems a lot less terrifying than some invisible monster devouring me from the inside out. I can’t fight what I don’t know, but I know myself, and I know how to achieve what I put my mind to.
Finally, the pain subsides. Shaking arms and legs successfully manage to hold my weight, as I use my hands pressing on the wall to help drag myself to my feet. Some deep breathing helps to manage the shaking. I eat a granola bar to try and regain some strength. Then I run through my daily to-do list. My photography shoot is checked off. I add an item for Friday to either check back in with the photographer if he hasn’t sent me images yet or to have decided on my favorites if he has. Next up is a run to the print store to pick up the business cards and pamphlets I ordered. After that, I have some personal errands.
My hyena smile creeps back on my face as I lock up my house (which doubles as my office for now) just in case I run into a neighbor. Even though I don’t, the grin stays plastered to my face the entire drive. My jaw aches by the time I arrive at the print shop. It’s a welcome distraction from the void. At first, the rep at the counter returns my smile with her own stilted, fake customer service smile. As she continues to collect my information, her smile falters and she avoids looking me in the eye. My stomach feels like the void is throwing actual projectiles around inside of me, like my stomach a rock tumblr polishing a dozen stones. The sharp pains are so bad they cause my chest to tighten, making me feel short of breath. I know I’m making the worker uncomfortable but focusing on the smile is the only way I can stand the sensation of being ripped apart from the inside out. Fake it ’til you make it. If I just keep smiling, maybe I’ll manifest joy. My cards and pamphlets have turned out great. For a moment, my smile is genuine. “Thanks for your business,” the rep dismisses me when I confirm the order looks fine.
My run to the office supply store to pick up more copy paper and staples goes fine. At the grocery store, I run into more men like this morning’s photographer. When a man from somewhere behind me wolf whistles as I walk into the store, the void rebels and thrashes around inside of me. I take grim comfort that even the void trying to eat me alive is offended and upset by this objectification and hurry inside to the potential safety of the store. I don’t look back. Best not to give men like that any attention or acknowledgment. The man who latches onto me in the bread aisle isn’t so easy to shake off.
“What a wonderful smile,” he says, and it’s almost a compliment until he finishes - “so nice to actually see a friendly woman around here. So many of y’all are so unfriendly and brusque these days.” His smile is the easy, relaxed grin of a predator sure that their prey is cornered. My own smile is sharp and jagged, digging lancing pain through my cheeks. It doesn’t waver at his negging, held up by the fear that grips me over how he may escalate if I do anything to appear suddenly “unfriendly” to his entitled demand of my attraction.
“Thanks,” I murmur. I pretend to be extremely interested in the ingredient list on a package of rye. The void clenches. My entire stomach trembles and threatens to collapse in on itself. My smile splits my face in half.
“You new around here? I know I would recognize you if I’d seen you before!”
I’ve lived in this town for a good decade now. “Um, no.”
He laughs. “Shocking we’ve never met. I moved here five years ago, and I’m around here enough. No girlfriend or wife to cook for me, so I’m usually here a couple days a week to pick up food.”
“Hmm.” I dodge the bait he dangles. I can’t see the sharp hook hidden within, but I know it’s there.
“I don’t eat bread anymore, myself.” He shifts, trying to show off what muscles he can through his clothes. “Carbs, you know? Gotta take care of this body.”
“That’s sad,” I turn my hyena smile to him, teeth bared. “Carbs are life. I eat at least two slices of bread with every meal.”
He looks me up and down, quite obviously letting his eyes linger with pleasure. “No way,” he laughs, calling my bluff. Damn. Instead of being turned off, he’s taken my comment as flirting.
I shrug. “Well, onto the rest of my shopping,” I try.
“How about your number?”
“Sorry, I don’t think my boyfriend would like that very much,” I lie. I try to soften the smile cutting my face so it’s more sympathetic.
His eyes flash and his expression falters. I’ve found the hook he had so well hidden. “It’s not nice to lie,” he growls, “or lead me on.”
Whatever the response I was going to try is silenced as the void bursts inside of me, contained only by the prison of my flesh and bones. Crying out in an explosion of pain, I throw my head back. Underneath my panic, I’m vaguely aware of Mr. No Carbs lecturing me on how my distraction is not going to work. The void wriggles and trembles and squirms and expands. It grows within me, no longer just a knot in my stomach. It pushes itself into all of my crevices, molding itself to my shape. There’s a snap in my mind, and I disconnect from my body. It’s not really an out of body experience; it’s as though I’m suddenly a passenger in my own mind, peering out of my eyes like a submarine periscope. Out of my control, my head lowers back down to face the man lecturing me, looming over me.
Spittle flies as my so-called admirer goes off on me, as if I’ve purposefully run his dog over with my car instead of just declined to give him my number. It’s odd to watch the scene like this, but it does feel safer. Even though I’m no longer in control of my body, I can still distinctly feel the actions of my body. I can feel its mutations. My skull balloons to a cartoonish proportion. My smile expands across my face as my mouth shifts to accommodate inhuman rows of long, sharp, anglerfish-like teeth, set upon multiple jaws nestled within each other like Russian nesting dolls. The smile keeps growing, creeping across my face like a spreading puddle of water until I’m all toothy maw and no face, plunging me into disconcerting darkness.
The man stops talking. I don’t know how, but I feel him freeze. That’s a mistake. My mouth - the void’s mouth? - opens wide, splitting my head in half. I pull my harasser down towards me. He doesn’t fight. My mouth easily swallows up a fourth of his body. The smallest sets of teeth chomp down. Coppery blood sprays the inside of my mouth as my hands eagerly keep pulling at the man. Like a set of falling dominos, my jaws snap shut and devour him, bone and all, gulping him down into a stomach separate from my usual, human one. Somewhere, I still have ears, and I cringe at my own messy, slurping sounds as I ensure my mouth-face is clean of any mess.
I seem to inflate back into my body as the void - and I was wrong, there was a beast, after all - shrinks back within me, bloated and bulging with its meal. There’s another pop as I come back to physical awareness, color and light bursting in front of me as I regain my human sight. The aisle is empty and clean. I slowly spin around. There is no evidence of what just happened, besides, perhaps, the loaf of bread I dropped on the ground. I bend to pick it up, burping as I do so. “Excuse me,” I say on instinct. I pat my stomach as I straighten back up. For the first time since I’ve become acquainted with my family’s curse, I feel satisfied and satiated. I feel comfortable. It’s been so long, I hadn’t even remembered what it was like to be pain-free.
My other hand comes up to my face, patting around for the smile I usually wear like armor. My face is relaxed, relieved of its usual soreness, yet I’m happier than I have been in ages. A laugh burbles through me, and I shake with mirth before I’m able to collect myself. My mother was wrong. We’re not cursed, and we need not lose our life fighting the gnawing hunger inside of us. There is no monster, waiting to gobble me up. I am host to my savior, and I need only to let it feed in order to survive. I’ve been in pain because I’ve been starving the poor thing. No more. From now on, it’s not one or the other of us. Together, we will thrive.
August Blaine Centauri, @hemlockrocksandsocks on Insta, is a trickster in a human's body whose hobbies include piano and Muay Thai. Thon has three pieces published in online literary magazines. Blaine also saw thon first anthology story release published in 2023 in Depths of Love: Love Thy Enemy by Cloaked Press, LLC.