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Chewing

Chewing


Estimated reading time — 18 minutes

All she wanted was to enjoy some soup while reading her new book; she didn’t prepare anything else, just plain tomato soup. She went to “drink” her soup when she felt something solid and moving in her mouth. She felt little, hairy legs brushing up against her gums and dancing all over her tongue; the tiny moving legs were connected to something bulbous and juicy, ready to burst with one mistaken chew and spew its guts between the crevices of her teeth. An image of an insect popped into her mind and she immediately spit all the contents in her mouth out onto the table. It was one of those big, black crickets with plump bodies and it was still wriggling in the creamy tomato soup as though it were drowning. The shimmering black sheen of its body was covered by a thick film of the soup, and its small twigs for legs were wriggling in the orange-red muck that was supposed to be lunch; she could still feel the memory of those tiny appendages reaching out towards her gums, tickling her tongue.

“Ok,” she mumbled to herself as she dumped the remainder of her soup down the drain, “no more soup for me.” It was probably fine, it came from a can and that was a live cricket, but she was just turned off to the idea of opening another can of soup and trying again at that point.

Well, I wasn’t all that hungry to begin with, which was why I chose soup.

She washed her soup dish and spoon, set the dishes to dry, and returned to the living room to enjoy her book. She must have taken the turn too soon, as she managed to stub her baby toe right in the sweet spot; the pain radiated up her legs, feeling like her skin was crawling. The stub hit right on the corner of the nail and the bed, where the pink flesh is the most sensitive.

“Fuck!” Sitting down, she rocked back and forth, holding onto her stubbed toe as though that would be enough to take the pain away. “This just hasn’t been my day.”

The doorbell rings. She lets out a sigh so the universe knows she is not amused. Someone is frantically banging on the door.

“Jen, open up!” Shirly is peeking through the frosted glass that accents Jen’s front door; she is dressed in a sundress and a light jacket, ready for a summer night of fun.

“Shirly,” Jen forces a smile as she opens the door to greet Shirly standing there with a giant bouquet of flowers.

“Happy birthday!” Shirly lets herself in to give her friend a hug and flowers. As she starts to take off her shoes, Jen interjects.

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“Shirly, that’s really sweet of you, but I really just wanted to have some time to myself today.” Shirly looks up at her friend with a fading smile but shakes her head up and down in understanding.

“I totally get it! I should have asked anyway but I was on my way to Joanie’s and I just wanted to give you these and a big hug to let you know I miss you and I hope you’re doing ok!”

Jen had been isolating herself more and more throughout the years, and it was becoming apparent to her friends and family that this was more than just having a busy schedule; most were beginning to suspect depression in its darkest form.

“Well, actually, work has really done a number on me lately, to the point that I’m considering switching careers, I just don’t know what yet.” It was the same excuse she always used, but the sad part was that it was the truth. There was nothing new, nothing had changed; Jen was still depressed and work was still the heaviest weight bringing her down. No matter how many times she changed locations or careers, life just didn’t seem to line up for Jen.

“Oh, wow, it’s that bad?” Shirly shifts her weight and gets comfortable for a long conversation, which Jen picked up on and did not want to pursue.

The chirping sounds of crickets in the yard distracted Jen from Shirly’s gift, keeping her focused instead on the confused cricket drowning in tomato soup.

“Yeah, it’s a long story, I just think that this job just isn’t for me, and so I’m struggling to find what will make me happy and how I can get there.”

“Hey, let me know when you find that out!” Shirly chuckled. “Let the whole world know!” Jen laughs politely, trying not to show obvious straining.

“Well, happy birthday girlie! I hope you enjoy the time to yourself, and hey, don’t be a stranger, ok? We all miss seeing you around.”

The girls hugged, Shirly a little longer than Jen.

“Well!” Shirly rubs her hands back and forth together quickly in a motion meaning “I’m moving on now. I’ll see you around, Jen!”

Jen waves Shirly off as she hops into her Jeep and drives off into the sunset with her sundress and hat. Turning back into the house, Jen trips on the doormat and smacks her head on the edge of the doorframe.

“Mother fucker.” She runs her hand over her most recent wound. “This has just not been my day.”

That night for dinner, Jen decided to go for something fresh, something healthy. A nice salad, with plenty of toppings. Chopping away at tomatoes, she listens to her book-on-tape version; it’s a horror story about giant bugs raised to use humans as hosts to commit violent acts.

Her tomatoes squish in her hands, like the guts of the bugs from her book as they are crushed. The flesh of the tomato gives enough resistance to mimic that of animal flesh, and it turns her off to adding tomatoes to her salad. The distracting images of bug body parts in her salad turn her attention away long enough for her to miss the tomato and hit her fingertip instead.

“NO!” Jen screams.

“No, no, no, no, no! OUCH.” She frantically ran around the kitchen, alternating back and forth between the sink and finding the kitchen towels in a drawer to stop the bleeding. Instead, she finally rushed to the bathroom to clean her finger, add antibacterial ointment, and bandage it.

Sitting down to dinner after cleaning up the blood, her finger cleaned and wrapped, she stared down at the salad, not ready to be defeated, just wanting to enjoy any portion of this day. To her right was her book, and to her left was a full glass of wine from a new bottle of cabernet, the deepest and dryest of red wines, and her personal favorite.

“Well,” she lifted the glass in the air, “Happy birthday to me.” As the wine washed down her throat, she could feel substance in the liquid, like pulp in juices.

As she automatically swallowed a small portion, she could feel movement in the liquid pulp…something was wrong. She inspected the glass, looking for any signs of broken glass or maybe something in the wine, but to no avail. She hadn’t inadvertently swallowed glass pieces, and the wine didn’t appear to have anything in it.

Taking a deep breath, she took another sip of wine, except this time the wine was teeming with movement as dozens of little legs were flailing about in her mouth, trying to get some solid ground to stand on but only able to find the pink flesh of Jen’s mouth. She spit the wine out of her mouth, spewing it half across the table in the process. To her horror, the wine had substance, and it was in fact, moving. Well, rather, a colony of ants on the table were moving like drowning victims finally on land: grateful to be on solid ground but still in a frenzied panic. They crawled over one another, wine sticking to their tiny forms like glue, becoming a moving amalgamation of bodies in the wine puddles that formed on the table and floor.

She grabbed her napkin and broadly wiped her tongue as there were still a few stragglers wriggling around in her mouth, trying to make heads or tails of what was happening to them. In her panic, she had clenched down on a few crunchy ants, and pieces of insect were logged between her teeth and scattered throughout the hard-to-reach places of Jen’s mouth. The cloth of the napkin didn’t taste good against her tongue’s buds, but all she could picture were squirming ants inside her mouth, so the napkin was her savior at that moment.
Jen had enough of the bad vibes from the universe for the day and proceeded to dump the rest of her best wine down the drain. She expected to see a flowing river of ants to accompany this bloody murder but not one ant or cricket or insect or bug of any kind was seen.

She rinsed her mouth out with a glass of fresh water and took a big swig. No ants. No crickets. Just plain, reliable H2O. Sitting back down to her salad felt like the beginning of a bad Pavlov experiment; she was afraid to take a bite of her food, lest it comes out wriggling. Jen snorted a laugh of reassurance to herself of how ridiculous that sounded. She picked up her fork, prepared a large portion with plenty of toppings included, and took a bite. She was slow to chew at first, noticing her excellent choice for a salad topping. The flavor of the avocado was her favorite, the selection of arugula and romaine came in second, and she couldn’t quite place the item that caused the flavor to change nutty. It was refreshing, but something was off. That’s when she felt the kick of something against the fatty side of her tongue.

Once again, she released the contents of her mouth out onto the table to find something moving within the mess that shouldn’t be there at all, this time, a grasshopper. A big, green grasshopper managed to upright itself among the mashed-up salad contents, but it was missing the lower half of its body. It had only one appendage left to move with, and it stubbornly tried to creep itself away from Jen and her cavernous mouth with the sharp stalagmites and stalactites that claimed its lower half. There was very little blood and the grasshopper made no sound as it tried to pull itself across the table. It didn’t seem to notice its insides were being left behind during this sad drag, and the image was enough for Jen to gag.

Something was wrong with the food. Something was wrong with everything in Jen’s kitchen cabinet and she wasn’t having it. She opened box after box of prepared foods that only require one to add water to be complete, but not one critter could be found, living or otherwise. She started after the cans of tomato soup, but no crickets came out of any of the cans. No ants were in the orange juice and no grasshoppers were in the vegetable drawer or tucked neatly away inside a lettuce head; she tore everything apart, and being hungry certainly helped to feed her anger and irritation during this rampage.

One of the last instant packages she found in the back of the cabinet was a pack of green jello, intended once for Halloween shots of “green goo”, otherwise known as green jello with a strong Polish vodka.

Something came over her to make this jello and hope to high heavens that ants or crickets wouldn’t somehow appear in it afterward. She cognitively knew it was a foolish idea, so she decided to go with the notion that she actually wanted to eat jello; she wasn’t about to “test” such thoughts of lunacy just yet.

So she made the jello and drank lots of water to ease the hunger pangs that were noticeably loud since not having had lunch or dinner was starting to pile up. She started to read her book while she waited for the jello to firm, but decided against her insect horror book and moved on to a book about people’s souls getting stuck in walls.

When the jello was firm, she dumped it onto a plate, turned the flashlight on from her phone, and thoroughly inspected it for unwanted guests. When she was satisfied there was nothing in the jello, she took a second glance at her spoon just to be sure, and took a bite of jello. Jello has a certain firmness to it that distinguishes it from a lot of other substances. For example, it’s easy to tell when there is something present in jello that should not be, and that was what Jen felt between her teeth. She could feel the firmness of the jello fall apart with the slightest pressure of her tongue, but a round, wriggling guest had found its way into her mouth that was not about to fall apart so easily.

Before she had a chance to chew, she spit out the jello contents into her napkin, only to find a fat, green, hairless caterpillar flopping around on its back within the lime-green jello that had been thoroughly inspected for just such an intrusion.

“Ok, what in the actual fuck is going on here?” Jen could feel her heartbeat picking up, and it wasn’t because of the caterpillar itself but rather, she was afraid she was losing her mind.
Her eyes caught sight of the glass of water she had already drunk from successfully. Deciding to find some ground amongst her crazy thoughts, she helped herself to another glass of water, pleased to find it was free of anything but the water she poured into her cup.
“Am I losing my mind?”

With no other options, Jen decided to call Shirly over for a few food tests, without fully going into the crazy details of her own fears about her current situation.

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When Shirly finally arrived, Jen told her everything that had happened from the moment she tried to have soup for lunch that day.

“Oh boy, so now you’re afraid that you’re losing your mind or something, right?” said Shirly, a worried look coming across her mouth.

“Obviously there has to be a reasonable explanation.” Jen went over to the pantry. Grabbed a bag of almonds, and slammed them between Shirly and herself.

“Before I take one almond, go ahead and inspect this bag and choose which almond I should eat,” Jen said, staring at Shirly with deep intent.

Shirly said nothing but looked down at the bag, reached over for it, picked the first almond she spotted, and placed it in front of Jen. Taking a deep breath through her nose, Jen heaved the almond into her mouth and chewed heavily, unafraid. She chewed, and chewed, and chewed, and finally, she swallowed… and promptly threw up what little almond she had eaten.

“Jesus, Jen. Are you sure you don’t have a nut allergy or something?” Shirly pat Jen on the back, rubbing below her shoulder blades between pats.

“No,” Jen coughed. “It’s not an allergy.” She coughed some more. “I’m telling you-” cough, cough, “my food has had bugs in it.” She continued to dry-heave until the air wouldn’t come out of her lungs anymore.

Shirly goes to the fridge and pulls out the milk carton.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea; I can only keep water down,” Jen said as she eyed the milk carton with worry and skepticism.

“It’s just milk though. You’re not allergic to milk right?” Shirly grabbed two clean glasses from the cabinet and helped herself to a glass while she poured one for Jen.

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“Bottoms up,” Shirly said as she lifted her glass and chugged her portion. She ended with a satisfied “aaaaaaaah” that often accompanies a large gulp of any beverage.

Jen stared at the glass of milk with discontent and frustration; she was both hungry and afraid. The fear didn’t quite outweigh the hunger, but rather it was her insatiable need for knowledge that drove her to try drinking the milk. Which ended just as she feared it would end: with Jen throwing it back up.

Shirly played the good friend and cared for Jen through the literal muck and mire that spewed from Jen’s gullet. She was amazed she was throwing anything up at all; she had nothing left to vomit. The puking had turned into dry-heaving which burned her throat with every cough. The overall pain was intensified through her sore abdomen and pounding tension headache. The tears came despite Jen trying to fight them back, and they felt more like burning rivers running down her cheeks.

Shirly tried to push some anti-inflammatories into Jen’s hand but Jen was afraid of anything but water. In the end, she just wanted to go to bed.

Jen was left to stare at the remaining milk left in her glass. Now that Shirly was gone, would she be able to drink or eat anything?

_________________________________

Jen found herself staring at a glass of milk around midnight. Surely a glass of milk can go down without a problem? She loved milk, and despite trying desperately to switch to plant-based milk, she couldn’t get cow’s milk off her diet.

Daring to take a sip, she did, and at first, no side effects. She looked around the room, half expecting Shirly to pop out and say it was a prank the whole time. When one was there to scream out “Surprise!”, Jen took a bigger gulp of milk, a more satisfying one, when the milk eventually came squirming. Much like the caterpillar before, Jen sensed something in her mouth now going down her throat. Before she had a chance to gag it out, one of the squirming culprits slipped down her gullet. She screamed while the stilling wriggling worms in her mouth fell out on her lap in a puddle of milk and saliva.

Never again would she be able to drink milk, her “dirty habit” was broken, and it brought literal tears to her eyes. The worms falling out of her mouth didn’t help, but at least she didn’t bite down on any of them. Her brain had initially read them as gummy worms, until they started moving about her mouth, and then she registered the warmth of their bodies.
She cried from hunger, she cried from frustration, she cried about the worms, she cried until her head ached from the tension.

Desperation seized her, and she was determined that she wasn’t losing her mind. Eyeing the almonds on the table, she wanted to take one more daring attempt at food. She gingerly picked up one almond, treating it like one would with a stained-glass masterpiece. She brought the almond close up to her eye for inspection; it seemed healthy and didn’t have any holes in it. Before tossing it in her mouth, she licked the side of it. There wasn’t anything unusual about it: it was an almond.

She took a deep breath and popped the almond in her mouth, but didn’t chew. First, she sucked on the almond, half worried it would transform into a fuzzy caterpillar. To her gratitude, it didn’t, so she took the next logical step and bit into it. With the very first crunch, she tasted something other than almond, and she could feel something other than the nut pieces in her mouth. She could feel a wide, flat wing unfold over her tongue like thin paper.

Opening her mouth, she reached inside and pulled out whatever she had mashed between her teeth that sprawled out on her tongue for every tastebud to get a sample from. The first thing she noticed was the bright blue of the wing strewn throughout a black background. The second thing she noticed was the yellow guts squirting out from the abdomen; it reminded Jen of raw sausage popping out of its casing.

A butterfly.

Or rather, what was once a butterfly. One wing was still intact, but the remainder, save for the head and antennae, was yellow-white mush mixed in with black and bloodied body parts.

Jen had enough; it was time for bed.

“Come on, Jen,” Shirly insisted. “Just one sip of soup. It’s water-based so you should be ok, right? Just give it a try for today.”

Jen sat at the table staring at the bowl of soup. She was still hungry, her stomach was still growling, and she felt dizzy every time she stood up. To appease Jen and her own sense of hope, she decided to try a spoonful. It ended with gagging and dry-heaving until she puked up cricket parts, from large legs to heads with still moving mouthpieces.

Jen kept an apple by her bedside, staring at it while she lay down on her bed, trying to ignore her stomach pains. Late that evening, she had to do more than stare at the red surface of the fruit. It was going bad soon, so she felt compelled to do something about it. She looked the apple over for holes or any signs of damage. In a moment of desperation, she brought the apple to her lips, felt the give of the apple’s skin beneath her teeth, and bit down.

The juice of the apple quenched her palate and ran down her lips. She felt relieved when she tasted apple on her tongue, but the skin startled her when she first swallowed. Then she realized the roughness of the skin was still present, that’s when she felt the crunch between her teeth. On the left side of her mouth, she bit down on something crunchy, while on the right side she bit down on something that popped and released a warm liquid throughout her mouth; it was bloody and had substance to it, she could taste it on her tongue.

Straggling to the kitchen sink as quickly as she could without tripping over her weak feet, she grabbed a glass and ran the tap for water. Rinsing out her mouth, she spit the contents into the sink; she wanted to see what it was that may have been within the apple.

It was hard to tell among the body parts buts given the number of legs present, she guessed she had bitten into a couple of spiders. She rinsed her mouth out again, and again, never sure if she really got all of the pieces out of her mouth.

Drinking some of the water, she cries. There’s nothing left to try, maybe she can be one of those people that live off of insects all the time and learn to like it. After all, people that ate insects swore by their nutrient levels and loved how easy they are to raise and harvest.

Days had gone by with water being the only thing she could keep down. Too weak to do much other than sleep, that’s what she did. She dreamt of her skin itchy and red, with small red bumps found all over her arms, legs, torso, and back. Even her bum was itchy with red bumps; it seemed few areas hadn’t been affected by this affliction. Curious, she poked at one of the bumps on her arm, its firm node-like form not reacting to her pressure.

Then the bump wiggled.

It shuttered under her skin, giving her goose-bumps and a racing heart. It tickled at first until a small group of them all shivered at the same time. The movement caused the nearest bumps to join in on the dancing underneath Jen’s skin. Soon her entire arm was jingling with bumps shaking every second in unison. The skin stretched tightly around the bumps, making any light touch of the skin feel like excruciating pain.

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Then she felt a wiggle on her other arm. Panicking, she looked over her other arm for the source of the movement. She found it behind her elbow. One of the large, red bumps on the back of her arm started to wiggle.

“Please, God, no,” she begged. The bump wouldn’t listen and soon the bumps next to it started to join in until both her arms had moving bodies beneath the skin. The movement reminded Jen of a time during her youth when she ran into a thicket of brush riding her bicycle. She had considered herself a master on a bike, doing all sorts of cool tricks the kids in the neighborhood ooh’d and aah’d at for hours on the weekends.

One time, she got too cocky, doing a wheelie directly into a thorny pile of vines and sharp things that grab at your skin and don’t let go. She tried to be free of the plants, but they clung to her, insisting that she stay in the underbrush with them. Don’t go. They begged, pricker bushes poking holes through her clothes and her skin. The more she fought, the deeper the thorns and needles dug into her flesh.

That memory came forth and invaded her dreams, reminding her of that horrible, painful time, all the while she was suffering from unknown bumps that moved under her skin. It felt like that time again, except she couldn’t pull thorns and prickers from her body this time; there was nothing to pull out. The wiggled, red bumps had made their home under Jen’s skin.

She screamed as thousands of insects came bursting through her bumps at the same time, covering her from head to toe in a sea of blackened bodies and creepy crawlies.

Jen woke to the sound of intermittent beeping and the smell of bleach and something else that reminded her of the dentist’s office. The lights were bright, hurting her eyes, and the smell of a hospital was so overwhelming she coughed.

Blinking and coming to, she realized she was in a hospital, hooked up to IVs and all. Her baby blue gown smelled like it had just come out of the box from the factory. She wanted to get up to take it off and find her own clothing but when she tried, she was only able to prop herself up in bed before she was too exhausted to move. She realized the IVs must have been feeding her this whole time.

“Good morning!” a perky voice said. A nurse rounded the bend with a glass of water. “It’s so good to see you awake! Your friends and family have been worried sick about you and you’re…” she paused to find the right word. “…condition. But they’ll be relieved to see you up and awake now! Why don’t you try drinking some water?” She set a glass down at the bedside.

Jen had lots of questions to ask, like how she got there, how long she had been there, but more importantly, have they been feeding her? She felt starved, and her stomach grumbled in agreement.

“Oh, I bet you’re hungry!” The nurse made her way towards the door and left for only a moment before returning with a tray of food. It was meatloaf, potatoes, and broccoli, and it looked delicious.

Jen glanced at the water, picking the sweating glass up.

“I think I’ll stick to water for now,” she said.

“Oh, but you’ve been fed through IVs for so long now, it would be wise to try just one bite if you can manage. Some solid food will really help you recover faster.”

The nurse set down the tray in front of Jen, insistent. Jen could only stare at the food before her, desperately wanting to take a bite. The meatloaf had a handful of a helping for whatever was layered on top and it made Jen’s mouth water. The mini mountain of potatoes had a dollop of butter in the center that was halfway melted, as did the broccoli; there were little salt and pepper packs on the side.

“Now you take your time, but do your best to take a bite, and be sure to really chew your food well and slowly,” she said as she walked out the door, leaving Jen alone with food.

It seemed odd that someone apparently suffering from anorexia would be treated as though there was no issue with food, but Jen appreciated the normality for the time being.

Staring down at her food, she eyed the IVs in her arm. She wanted to opt for the liquid diet since it was currently working; she would just avoid sleeping while on her IV diet. She had lost track of how many days without food had gone by at this point. There was a time that came when the hunger pangs went away and she was just tired all of the time, but the pain soon returned. Whenever the slightest scent of food hit her nostrils, the pain was excruciating. It was like being car sick, having morning sickness, and suffering from a migraine all at the same time, and that memory was enough for Jen to try again.

She had made it this far, and the liquid diet didn’t give her anything in her mouth that she wasn’t expecting. The worst that could happen is a bug would appear, and she was slowly coming to accept the reality of life as an insect-eater.

Taking the knife and fork in her hands, she brought herself to cut a small portion of meatloaf. She was sure to choose the piece with the most topping sauce, hoping the strong flavor would drown out whatever may come.

Bringing the fork to her lips, she paused. She licked the sauce. It tasted amazing. No ants, no crickets, no worms, nothing but some delicious cooking sauce she suspected was a variant of someone’s homemade barbeque sauce. It had the perfect kick of spice, heat, and brown sugar, and it made her put the rest of the fork contents into her mouth.

The meatloaf was warm, the sauce warmer. It wasn’t hot enough to burn her mouth, it was just right. She bit down on her piece of dinner and crunched into something hard and bloody. Slowly, she opened her mouth. She reached in to grab the blob of food she had tried to eat, feeling fur in the process. Pieces of the body were falling out of whatever it was, landing on her tongue, warm and bloody. As she pulled the mass from her mouth, she felt what she thought was a thick string brush against her tongue, gliding from the very back of her throat to the tip of her tongue as she brought it out of her mouth. She spat out what was once meatloaf, and realized that it was now a mouse.

She had bitten down on the skull of a mouse.

She cried at the sad realization that each time she ate, the animal it turned into kept getting bigger.

Credit: Heather Hemmes

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