Self-Eclipse by Taylor V. Card
Lise’s twin brother Darry tried to kill himself again last week. Also, the Mimick disease kills thousands of people every day. In summary: Lise has taken a week off work.
The world is burning, etc., etc. Lise tries to be responsible. She wakes up every day, but not always every morning. Takes precautions, though no one can quite agree on what works. Her face is chronically swollen. It is not from crying though.
After sleeping in again today, she realizes her roommate has stolen her car.
Darry, who is also Lise’s roommate’s boyfriend, was supposed to watch the snake whenever her roommate was gone. He promised, so Lise wouldn’t have to. Lise did not sign up for pet sitting. Living with her ex-best-friend a.k.a. brother’s S.O. while they figured some things out? One thing. A snake? Another.
Lise goes this far: the entry way of the apartment she shares with the roommate.
Last week she said to Darry, before the hospital: If my roommate was going to get me sick, it would have happened already.
Darry said: They say it’s an empathetic reaction. You guys used to be friends. Are you sure you should keep living together? And Lise hung up on him, but that doesn’t make what happened next Lise’s fault.
There is no fault.
And after, despite the doctors trying to keep it quiet, Lise hears news spread around the wards: a patient was admitted Mimicking a feral cat.
Lise has tried to avoid closeness, but it is an untraining in how to be human. And now, even empathizing with animals isn’t safe.
To be safer, Lise started avoiding the spare room with the tank where the roommate’s snake, Piehole, lives. Lise saw the Mimick patient with the new barbed tongue when visiting Darry. Thousands of tiny hooks that cut open the inside of their mouth. Mostly the patient looked like a person drooling red.
Lise does not want the forked tongue, slitted pupils, scales, the spine that goes on, Jacobson’s social-sensory organ. But even more, she doesn’t want to be posed the question: will this one survive?
Lise’s phone vibrates with an incoming call.
It is not her brother arriving. He hasn’t let on at all if he’s aware about the roommate stealing her car, or the snake lacking a pet sitter.
Instead: her missing roommate. Lise picks up, says:
- You took my car?
- Lise! Can you drop off Piehole at Darry’s? I won’t be able to come back this week to feed him. Looks like, both my parents have it, minor cases so far, but I’m at-risk too.
- Sorry, will you be okay without your car? I know I said minor but. It’s scary. It’s really, really not good. They both Mimicked the housekeeper.
Lise wonders if she can engineer a drop off with no face-to-face time. Really, fuck this.
- Do I just take the whole cage?
- Yeah, don’t forget the heat lamp. And there’s a blanket, if you’re taking the bus. No one will care if you wrap him in the blanket. Do you know where it is?
- I got it.
- There’s also dead mice – they’re in my mini fridge, in the freezer. Can you stick a few in like, a cooler –
- We don’t have a cooler –
- Fine, use my Yeti.
- I know. Just – can you?
There was a time, Darry is right, when Lise and the roommate were friends. Today, Lise wants to forget the way the roommate looks when anxious, chewing on soggy nails.
- Ok. Ok, I’ll do it.
- I’ve got to go, but you have him? You’ll take Piehole over?
- Yeah, don’t worry. Bye – be careful. Be safe.
Lise’s roommate hangs up. Before the Mimick disease, repetitive greetings, hellos and goodbyes, were thoughtless autopilot. Now, people try to avoid repeating words, though there’s no proof that this helps.
What’s on everyone’s mind: the symptoms. The first is uncontrolled, compulsive imitation of speech, followed by behavior, body appearance and finally body function.
Can prove fatal. Risk factors: proximity plus empathy.
For some, the final progression – change in body function – manifests as small as a change in diet or as pleasant as more efficient digestion. For others – well. It all depends on who and how you Mimick. The patient who Mimicked their cat was alive hours after being admitted, but their heart rate kept increasing, and Lise heard the nurses say it would be a miracle if something didn’t give out. Prep the machine.
Lise has not seen Darry since the ER last week. Unavoidable now.
She pulls up her Lyft app.
Requesting a rideshare to campus.
Requesting a woman as my driver.
Requesting immediate pick up.
Requesting a return trip.
Requesting a pet friendly ride.
There is one driver in your area who meets most of your search parameters –
Accept Jason (2 other passengers) as your ride?
You have accepted a ride. Your driver is 7 minutes out.
Lise uses two plastic produce bags to pick up the frozen mice out of the yellowing mini-fridge freezer and transfers them into her roommate’s Yeti mug, wrapping the mug in a hemp grocery sack to stuff in her purse.
She slips on a pair of sunglasses, even though it’s probably not true that eye contact has anything to do with Mimicking. Blindfolds have been proven ineffective already. Still.
Then Lise gets the purple plaid blanket from the roommate’s room and approaches the snake cage in the spare room. In the red light of the heat lamp, Piehole drapes from the mounted metal hook, loops of him hanging off on either side. The sliver pupil of his right eye angles toward Lise, unblinking.
He yawns. Lise feels momentarily transfixed.
Strange loneliness, when Lise maps yesterday onto today. There is something trapped here. Maybe Lise herself. The way the present overlaps with tomorrow when laid one atop the other does not encourage her either. Maybe the repetition. The phone calls. Always an emergency. As the days pass and the lines get thicker, she begins to feel an enclosure, experiences sealed off by time itself.
There is no end to the damp length of this throat.
Your ride is 1 minute out. Please be ready on the curb.
But Lise cannot overthink this snake. She unfolds the blanket and tries not to looks at Piehole’s tongue, darting in and out, scenting the air.
Blanket goes on the tank, around the tank. Unplug the heat lamp, the heat mat, both go in her bag. Now the hard part: picking up the snake tank. She lifts the tank to her chest. It is warm on the bottom and right side from the heat lamp and the heat mat. It is heavy.
She stumbles into the entry way under the weight. Misses the step down and slams the glass tank into the wall to halt her fall. Real smart. But she didn’t hear anything shatter. And –
Your ride has arrived.
Lise gentles her feet into flipflops and nudges her door open with one elbow, edging out and down the front stoop to the waiting BMW – license plate a match for her ride. Behind her, her door swings shut and the lock clicks. It clicked, right? She doesn’t have a spare hand to check, but, no, it definitely did. It clicked.
Deep breath. The night tastes like overripe fruit and hot asphalt.
Someone in the back of the BMW opens the door for her – she climbs in: one foot, swings in her weight and the cage’s, a second foot. Almost overbalances, almost tips her burden onto the other passenger in the backseat with her. Clutches the tank close, feeling as if, at any moment, she’ll discover a break, a shard of glass, snake blood.
Only apart can we prevent the spread of –
And I told my brother, if you cheat on that –
Calling in from Manistee, Jana is requesting “Alone Tonight” by –
- Sorry, we’re picking a station.
- It’s fine.
They pull away from the curb. Something is climbing down Lise’s leg.
The driver says:
- Is the heat good back there?
It is not the snake, it’s just warm and dry like one might be. The footwell heater, on a bit too strong for the night. So, she responds:
- I’m warm.
The person next to her in the backseat is a stranger. He doesn’t look at Lise.
The driver pokes something on the dash, maybe the heater, says:
- Saw you requested pet friendly. You got something alive in there?
Now her seat mate looks at her – or, rather, at tank in her arms. The person in shotgun turns around to look too. Lise knows him. Angelo, one of the night-shift receptionists at the ER. Or at least, he used to be – it has been months. Last week, their visit was during the day: no Angelo. He says:
- You’re not letting that thing loose, are you?
Angelo seems to know she carries something alive. Treats this knowledge as seriously as check in and medical history. Turns fully around, unbuckles to make eye contact, his black nylon jacket making a whistling swoosh sound against the leather seat. The driver is not pleased – says, hey man, safety. To no avail: Angelo doesn’t stop watching her and the blanket-covered tank. The gaze makes her skin itch and shiver. But the blanket, purple-knit and frumpy, disguises well what it contains.
Lise is mostly calm when she makes eye contact with Angelo. She doesn’t blink.
- I’ve got a snake in here. I won’t let it loose.
- A snake… a big one?
- Maybe a little taller than you.
- No, it’s a constrictor.
- Does it eat people?
- Frozen mice, mostly.
- No, I mean in the wild.
- In the wild, there aren’t people. There are just trees to hang from, little rodents to eat and in the skies, raptors with sharp beaks. Sun, sometimes. And at night, the moon.
What does Angelo say to this?
Nothing: they are at the first passenger drop-off point.
Angelo gets out of the passenger seat, wishes them all to stay safe. (No one responds.)
Walks from the car toward the flashing lights and murmuring crowd around a woman on the ground outside the bar. Now that Lise can see the back of his black jacket, she can see the word PARAMEDIC in large print.
From receptionist to paramedic. And still not enough ambulances in this city? Still?
The stranger next to Lise gets out of the car and walks around to shotgun, getting back in. As he sits down, he says:
- No offense, just don’t like snakes.
Lise doesn’t say she gets it. Expressing that bit of empathy won’t endear her to anyone.
The driver has to wait for a police car and a fire truck to arrive on scene before he can leave the curb this time, but then they are off again.
There are a few stars visible – less than Lise hoped this far out of downtown. There are sirens, some fading behind them and some becoming louder up ahead.
The stranger in the passenger seat switches the radio station a few more times. The driver, Jason, glances back at her in the rearview mirror. She wants to tell him not to look. Lise licks her suddenly dry lips – twice, then again when they still feel close to cracking. She can’t say that now she’s cold when she was the one complaining about the heat. Instead:
- What’s our next stop?
- Taking you both to the dorms. Lucky it’s about the same spot. Then I’ve got one more passenger pick up and drop nearby, and I can swing back around to take you back home. Should give you about 10, 15 minutes.
Lise doesn’t want to be dismayed about this length of time. Darry and she have, at this age, spent more time together than apart, even counting a few separate classes in their childhood, and most of college so far. But these near-deaths scare Lise more than anything else ever has. Her brother nightmares her thoughts.
Darry told her: it’s not one thing specifically. He meant: Nothing you can fix.
Tender the wound, Lise thinks, when a brother hurts you with his hurt.
The driver is pulling up to Darry’s dorm now. The other passenger reaches for the door handle even though they haven’t stopped yet, ready to be gone.
That is when Piehole’s yawn emerges from Lise’s mouth, jaw brashly open and tongue scenting for hot blood. Her teeth glimmer in the light from the smart console, radio now playing Strawberry Summer Hits in early September. Is this Mimickry? Do either of them notice?
The driver says:
- Here we are. Be safe.
Lise lunges for the handle, gets the tank’s corner rammed right into her gut for it, but gets the car door open. Gets out.
By the time she’s knocking on Darry’s door with her foot, the day has been long enough. She might be sick. The world is burning. Etc. Etc. Lise is tired, not sure she was ever being responsible.
The dorm door opens.
Darry’s hair seems longer than it was last time she saw him, nearly at his shoulders and loose around his face, which Lise doesn’t look at. Was his hair in a ponytail at the hospital?
And Darry has all his new piercings back in: lips, ears, nose, eyebrows. With them, he is once again the stranger. One arm is still in a cast and sling, and one eye might be swollen, but Lise doesn’t want to look at his face long enough to be sure.
I want to go home, she thinks, nonsensical. There is no home without Darry.
And at the same time:
- Can I get a hug?
- C’mere sis.
Of course, they don’t hug.
There is the obstacle of the snake tank. Also, the snake. Piehole can be heard hissing within the purple blanket. Lise hopes she doesn’t get that, if she’s sick. Hissing would be creepy.
Instead: Darry takes the tank. Jolts, as if stung. Bitten? Gives a half-shout, half-swear:
Right, his cast. They’ve both forgotten what he can’t carry.
So, he drops it.
The tank shatters.
Lise hates Piehole, such a stupid name, stupid animal. He squirms, bares his belly the wrong way up.
Lise is on her knees in the glass without thought. Maybe hate isn’t the word.
Blood: yes, hers and Darry’s and snake’s. Also: glass, murmuring from Darry.
His one working hand is not doing much to help. Lise bats it away.
Piehole wraps around her leg.
Fuck-ow, Lise mocks.
Fuck-ow, he repeats.
- Darry, quit it.
- I’ve got Piehole. Let me –
- You’ve got nothing. Get something for the blood. Get the door. I’ll get the snake.
Piehole, though, is panicking. Constricting. Tightening the loops on her ankle, winding tighter up her right leg.
This goes three ways:
1. Piehole calms down. They get him off of her. They get him put away in some temporary home. Lise leaves, returns to her apartment alone. No one is there when her ribs start collapsing.
2. Piehole keeps panicking. Keeps ascending Lise’s body. Lise pheromones her fight back. Spreads her ribs to make herself big. Intimidates the snake into letting go. And then collapses. A role-reversal of last week: Darry takes her to the hospital.
3. It’s too easy to empathize. They’re all bleeding together. Scales rustle out of swollen flesh, loneliness does not abate. Later, the roommate finds them. Door still open. Three snakes, flattening their heads and necks, striking at the glass, their reflections, on the floor.
Taylor V. Card holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and haunts her home in Michigan, making trending coffee beverages and wearing blue. Her fiction has been published by Button Eye Review, Digging Through the Fat, Paranoid Tree and Milk Candy Review and is forthcoming from Alternating Current. Besides writing, Taylor enjoys making ceramic animal sculptures - you can see a few at taylorvcard.com.