Something was crawling underneath Helen’s skin. Or wasn’t? Or was? She leaned in closer to her bathroom mirror and squinted at the S-shaped bump, red and angry around the border, with an edge of self-disgust. It had been there for two days. First, tucked timidly underneath her eyebrow, easily mistaken for an irritated hair follicle, which, no big deal, but now, if her eyes weren’t playing tricks, it had scooted its way smack-dab in the center of her forehead, spotlighted by the offensive bulb overhead. Could it have been something she ate? That rubbery shrimp in the food-court lo mein? Or an unwitting encounter with some poisonous leaf in Punta Cana last week? When she stumbled into that bush after one too many coladas? She thought of texting Bob to see if any curious growths had appeared on his pallid body but decided she’d rather physically suffer than emotionally exhaust herself in a forced flirtatious exchange that would no doubt end with a dinner invitation she’d say yes to, even though the idea repulsed her.
They met on ItsTime, a dating site for “mature singles with spark.” Helen, not bothered by the missing apostrophe and swayed by even the worst retail slogans, joined after seeing a sponsored ad on Facebook, where she mostly posted passive-aggressive inspirational quotes, like “I am thankful for all the difficult people in my life,” and stalked the children of long-gone friends with a peculiar feeling—something between yearning and pity—that she knew better than to try to investigate. At fifty-five, there was no chance anyway. Not without medical intervention and the grim vision of a future self hauling a squirming child over the threshold of her sixties.
Helen tapped through the catalog of sun-damaged foreheads until she landed on Bob’s forced smile, which looked as if it was straining to keep his skin from falling off the bone. That’s not to say that he wasn’t handsome—just handsome on the precipice of something less handsome, like inevitable collapse. He was seventy-one, practically rendering Helen a nymphet, which was the point. She had filtered out men under seventy.
“You know, I can be a real slut,” Helen once said to her twenty-three-year-old coworker Maureen at the department-store makeup counter where she had worked for twenty-five years. “Me too,” Maureen responded. “We’re big fat sluts.”
Why did Helen say yes to dates she had no interest in; fly to Punta Cana with Bob after only knowing him for two weeks of desperate groping in the dark; and stay in a job with no upward mobility into, first, early middle-age, when briefly an abstract desire for more caught fire in heart before it was quickly extinguished for reasons mysterious to her because—ha!—life is a hilarious mystery in which one passively partakes; and now: cold dead middle-age? Once, a therapist too bohemian and sage-burning for Helen’s taste asked her what she wanted, but her desires were like a collection of needy pets too unruly and dangerous to home. “I’m more of a see-what-happens type,” she responded. The therapist, backdropped by a cheap Indian-inspired tapestry, looked dissatisfied, pressed for more details. Helen hemmed and hawed, shifted in her seat. So what if she liked—or liked-ish—being fondled by Bob or whatever iteration of Bob she happened to be indifferently fondling back. So what if she liked to slap creams on nice ladies’ forearms for a living. The keyword was “like.” She liked these things and wasn’t that enough to make a life? God damn all therapists to hell.
And she had plans—retirement plans! Maybe some future Bob, the great big showy jazz-hands grand finale Bob, in the never ending Bobathan that was her fabulous life, would be filthy rich. When he died, she’d inherit his money. And if he didn’t die soon enough, she might (nicely, gently, sweetly) kill him? She said this to herself with a question mark because it felt like good etiquette. And if she were caught? Well, off to prison to live out the rest of her days on the government’s dime, where, thinking of that popular TV show about incarcerated women, she might meet a gang of difficult yet interesting gals, a veritable sorority, and have all the time in the world to write her memoirs, which she pronounced mem-wahs. Life, what a party.
Helen covered the bump in a thick layer of foundation, then left for work.
At the makeup counter, she disinfected surfaces while humming to herself, avoiding her reflection, as if the act of deprivation alone could will the thing off her face, a game she had been playing since childhood: hold your breath for fifteen Mississippis and a poodle will appear at your doorstep at midnight; don’t eat the last MoonPie and you’ll grow your first pubic hair by sunrise.
“When you sing, cats die,” Maureen said. She was leaning against the register, sipping a blended coffee drink the length of her head.
“I think you mean that when I sing, it sounds like cats dying,” Helen clarified, but she preferred Maureen’s malapropism because it raised the stakes of her life. Imagine if she had that kind of power.
“I want to die,” Maureen said, admiring herself in one of the store’s mirrored columns. She was pretty but non-descript. Her face struggled to materialize without makeup.
“Did you know that they can guess a person’s age by their bones?” Helen asked.
Their significant age gap gave each an embarrassing false confidence. Helen doled out unsolicited advice and arbitrary facts, gathered mostly from the ID channel and its shows’ Reddit forums, desperate to exploit the insight of her age, open Maureen’s mind to new and exciting dimensions. Maureen went on and on about herself through loud, unselfconscious slurps. She approached most of their interactions as if she was a very interesting celebrity being profiled for a magazine, rarely inquiring about Helen. It hadn’t yet occurred to Maureen that people over fifty, who she assumed achieved human completion, had hopes and dreams, too, even if that miserable duo had begun to decay, like it had inside of Helen, somewhere underneath her ribcage, jabbing at her insides, waking her up in the middle of the night in a panic she might never identify.
“My point is,” Helen continued. “There’s an anti-aging treatment for everything except—”
“The labia.” Maureen poked a milk-coated tongue through her index and middle finger and mimed cunnilingus.
Stupid child, Helen thought. “No, the bones,” she said. “Which means that no matter how good you look for your age”—and Helen was thinking about how good she looked for her age—“once they cut you open, the jig is up.” If only Maureen would listen. Absorb her wisdom. She was on the verge of a Shark Tank idea. A pill or penetrable ointment to keep the skeleton young and fresh. Skelly Jelly, she’d call it.
“They dug up that missing woman’s bones in the woods near my house,” Maureen said. “That could have been me.” Helen found Maureen’s insistence that she might be killed at any moment irritating, even pompous. What made her think her life was so great that someone would want to take it? As if a bunch of professional assassins lay in wait to open fire on silly little nothing Maureen. After each shift, she ran-walked to her car in the mall parking lot, a tense finger on the trigger of her pepper spray. Helen would trail behind her, wondering if she had aged out of feeling like she might be murdered or if she had aged out of anyone wanting to murder her altogether.
“I don’t want to be buried. I’m too claustrophobic,” Helen said. “Throw me in the ocean.”
“I want my ashes to be scattered in Paris.”
“You’ve never been to Paris.”
“But I’m a fashionista.” Maureen looked at Helen like she was an idiot.
“I don’t mean my ashes,” Helen clarified. “I want to be thrown in the ocean whole.”
“By who?” Maureen asked.
“A big strong hot guy?” Helen said.
“This guy’s hot.” Maureen flashed her phone in Helen’s face. It was a black-and-white photo of John McCain as a prisoner of war, his face handsomely shadowed. If Helen wasn’t aware of the context, she might have guessed it was a noir film still of a movie star with his lips parted in pain or ecstasy or both. It dawned on Helen that most of the men who Maureen found attractive were incapacitated in some way. There was the young hedge-funder whose feet were shackled in a courtroom because he pushed—or didn’t push—his girlfriend out of a high-rise condo. And the famous skateboarder, puffy eyes weighted by heavy, girlish eyelashes, hooked up to a ventilator after failing to land a complicated trick.
“He looks depressed,” Helen said, before lighting up with another fact: “Depressed men are five times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.”
“He doesn’t drink,” Maureen said. “He’s Mormon.”
“No, he’s dead,” Helen said. “You’re thinking of Mitt Romney, dummy.” She rubbed her forehead and was relieved to feel that the bump was gone.
Helen ate her lunch in the mall food court, as she did every workday. She chose a table beside one of the towering faux palm trees that lined the perimeter. Toddlers shrieked in a nearby play area. A gaudy water fountain roared in the back. She avoided the shrimp lo mein and settled for a slice—not only was it cheap, but it made her feel cheap, and she liked that; the pleasure pattern of defiling herself, then redeeming herself, to herself, over and over. Later, at home, she might recalibrate by creating a spa-like experience in her bathroom with votive candles and an expensive face mask, then degrade herself again by squeezing pus out of the ingrown hairs on her bikini line or watching porn on her phone. As an act of self-forgiveness, she’d make a nice cup of green tea and splay a book across her silk pajamaed lap. But, before she even made it to half a page, she’d switch on a reality show about drunk twenty-somethings humping one another on a deserted island. And on and on until she died.
Look at Helen: long-necked and elegant, hair coiffed into an appealing mess of heat-styled waves, lips pursed while chewing to keep her lipstick from smudging. Somewhere in the back of her mind, the swampy neglected part, she had been waiting—for over twenty years. To be discovered, right there in that obscene food court among the crying babies and trays of egg rolls, by a modeling scout or talent agent and made a star, of what, exactly, she didn’t know. To win, though she had not entered any contests, one of those gigantic checks from Publisher’s Clearing House or an all-expense-paid trip to that island with the little thatched huts suspended over crystalline ocean. To find a mysterious email in her spam folder inducting her into some hall of fame of Helens or inviting her, by sheer force of her Helen-ness, to be the first person to live on Mars.
Her phone buzzed with a text from Maureen. Wedged between an assault of emojis—flames, confetti, bashful monkeys, an inexplicable corn on the cob—were the words: “I’ve been promoted!” At first, Helen was confused. Promoted to what? Their manager, Tasha, whose main duty was to appear out of thin air and scare the shit out of them at the most inopportune moments, was still alive, spooking around nooks and crannies, last time she checked. Then she remembered that job opening in the corporate office, an assistant something or other in this or that department, which she hadn’t applied for or even wanted, but now that Maureen had gotten it, Helen’s face began to itch. She scratched lightly, then harder, makeup collecting underneath her manicured fingernails. The bump, which was on her forehead this morning and nowhere to be found this afternoon, had landed on the summit of her right cheekbone.
Helen resented Maureen for thinking she might be happy for her—she wasn’t her fucking mother, ready to exit stage left and applaud from the wings. Although, Helen thought, she was old enough to be her mother, her grandmother even; that is, if she had been a teen mom and her hypothetical daughter, which would have been Maureen’s hypothetical mother, had also been a teen mom, a disturbingly young one, probably the victim of some unspeakable crime, and, Jesus Christ, at this rate, she was about to become somebody’s great grandmother. It was too much to think about. All these poor teen girls becoming impregnated by God knows who. She scratched her cheek still and watched as an elderly woman in compression socks and orthopedic sandals wobbled behind a skipping pig-tailed child, both on their way to the Sbarro, and felt acutely that she was closer in age to the elderly woman than the child by decades.
Maureen nearly toppled Helen over with a hug when she returned to the makeup counter. “Aren’t you excited for me?” she asked, plunking her dumb head into the nook of Helen’s neck, as if she expected to be, what, caressed? “I’ve literally worked so hard for this.”
“I’ve never wanted a desk job,” Helen said. “I like the artistic side of things.”
Maureen blinked at her. “Oh, I didn’t know you painted?”
Helen glimpsed her face in the mirror, just to watch it crumble, like she loved to do as a child, admire herself in the throes of pain. Her cheek looked painful and raw, as if she had been swiped by a feral cat, but before she could investigate further, a woman of her genre, which is to say a middle-aged woman, a descriptor so laced with contempt that she refused to utter it, even in her own mind, especially now, perched herself on one of the stools at the counter. She asked to be matched to a foundation. Helen held her breath, aware of the pizza she had eaten, and sponged the woman’s face with a shade much lighter than her complexion, but instead of wiping it clean with a cotton pad and trying another, she smeared it all over.
“How about a whole makeover?” Helen asked.
The woman perked up. “Sure!”
Helen swept red blush across her cheeks, all the way up to her hairline, far past what was acceptable, then retraced her steps—up, down, up, down—for good measure. The woman smiled and said, “That feels good.” Helen resisted the urge to scratch her bump, the woman’s face. Then, with a black pencil, she drew on a pair of arched eyebrows that were less human eyebrows than they were a conceptual simulation of human eyebrows. She finished the woman off with a mocha-colored lipstick that made her look dead. Made her look how Helen felt.
She stepped back and beheld her creation.
“How do I look?” the woman asked.
“Awful,” Helen said, startled by her own cruelty.
Back at her apartment, Helen lay on the couch and Googled her psychic pain but could not find the words. “Feel very said.” Backspace. “So sad.” Backspace. “Fifty-five-year-old woman.” Search. In the first few rows, there were bedraggled mugshots, X-rays of arthritic bones, skin-cancer wounds, facelift transformations, and, for some reason, a dog with a tennis ball in its mouth, which she was feeling too fragile to click on, but, as she scrolled, she was relieved to see a photo of a rosy-cheeked Julianne Moore. Somewhat satisfied, Helen moved on to her physical pain, searching “bump that moves.” It was either a lymphoma, cancer, or an Adam’s apple. She got up to make herself a turkey sandwich, though she was not hungry—just deeply uninhabited—and ate it in front of the television in her pink terrycloth robe, letting the crumbs fall between her cleavage. She thought she saw a dark creature skitter past her oven, which was in clear sight of her couch, a sad commentary on the size of her apartment that hadn’t hit her until now. But, of course, nothing and no one was there.
Before she could become too listless with this farcically bleak nothing and no one business, she heard a knock on the door. It was Bob, thinking it romantic to show up unannounced, not realizing such gestures had gone out of fashion long ago—and were possibly considered criminal, who knows. He was obscured by a dozen red roses. A man holding a dozen red roses always looked like a joke to Helen, a ridiculous sight gag.
“Helen—what a woman!” Bob said, slipping a cold hand underneath her robe.
Could Helen return the compliment: what a man? No, not exactly. To Helen, each man was less a man than he was a summary of every man who had come before, all of them calcifying into a sweaty mass of chest hair and bald spots and arms and legs and baseball caps and once a fedora and pubes astray. So that when she hugged Bob, he could be anyone, really. If she closed her eyes, he could be Brad Pitt for all she knew.
“Bob, what a … Bob,” Helen said.
“A rose wouldn’t smell—or would smell?—I can’t remember, but either way, it smells, and sweet, like you,” he said, handing her the plastic-wrapped roses. She tossed them in the kitchen sink behind her. Then Bob, hands now free and wild, pulled her closer and kissed her neck, his mouth hot against her skin. In that moment, she understood why Maureen preferred men restrained or bedridden. But she went along with it anyway, because Helen let the universe drag her around by the ear like a disobedient child until she obeyed. And obey she did. Straight into her bedroom, scattered with flung undergarments and receipts for ill-fitting pants, Bob leading her by the hand, throwing her on the mussed-up sheets and burrowing his head into her robe, between her breasts, only coming up for air to check if her face was contorted in pleasure—it was not—but then Helen remembered to feign, and so he dived back in, licking up and down her torso, no doubt collecting crumbs along the way, a few of which had fallen inside her bellybutton, poking at it miserably.
An inspired move, Helen thought, before she disrobed and straddled this calcified mass of man scraps known as Bob or Bill or Dave or Steve or whoever. Or was this the grand finale Bob? Maybe. There was still a plot and a plot twist to get through in Helen’s reign of Helen. She grabbed a throw pillow and pressed it over Bob’s face. Suffocation by feather-down is a nice soft cozy death, she thought, like making out with a cloud until the cloud siphons you to heaven.
But then she’d have to get rid of Sal, too.
Yes, Bob had a twenty-something-year-old wife named Sal and Helen was his mistress. They hadn’t moved in together until after their quickie marriage, Bob had told Helen, in Las Vegas, and his new wife’s eating habits, among other things, disturbed him. “She eats like a child,” he complained, referring to her proclivity for Easy Mac and Pop-Tarts. “She doesn’t have a job and leaves string cheese wrappers all over the house.”
Helen removed the pillow from Bob’s face because, well, she wasn’t a murderer.
“Kinky!” Bob said with a laugh. He smacked the side of Helen’s ass, and she flinched in pain. So easy to harm, a body is a damn fool—a fool for love, a fool for hurling itself into the dumb unknown every day expecting not to die, but that’s what makes it a miracle, and so they intertwined their feeble idiot miracles together, Bob undressing to join Helen in her naked obscenity, their arms and legs straining for dignity, like drunk but ambitious dancers, reaching for the sex gods somewhere up there, no, the ceiling fan cord, because the room was very hot, and then, struck by a sweetness in this staticky amateur porno, he faintly caressed the fragile skin of her—
“What’s that?” Bob asked, fingering the bump, now on her neck. She pushed Bob’s hand away, embarrassed.
“Is it a goiter?”
“A rash, I think. Or something I ate. I don’t know,” Helen said.
“Hm, it looks”—Bob, still pinned underneath her, brought his eyes closer to the bump—“should I squeeze it?”
“Leave it alone,” Helen said firmly.
“Get that thing checked out,” Bob demanded. “At our age, everything is cancer. Look at this”—he gently thrust Helen off his body and pointed to a jagged white scar above his hip bone—“melanoma, could have killed me.”
“Our age?” She repeated. “You’re old enough to be my teen dad.”
“And you’re old enough to be a real nut, but I love it.” Bob rolled over onto his stomach, bland, deflated butt on proud display, and asked Helen to massage his back. It made her feel queasy, all this vulnerable epidermis on her bed that did not belong to her but that she was now responsible for. She kneaded a fist into his hairless shoulder. Bob let out a low grumble and, soon enough, he was snoring. Helen lay awake for a long time, nudging the bump as if she was trying to rouse it from hibernation and out of her neck, freeing it into the dark, dark world.
By morning, Bob was gone. The sun shone through Helen’s blinds, striping one side of her body, half in and half out of the sheets. Her mouth tasted as if one of her organs had mildewed deep within her. She turned flat on her back, eyes still closed, and absent-mindedly flung a hand on her chest, where she felt a fleshy protrusion. No, no, no. She lifted her head, so heavy this early, and squinted at her sternum: there it was, cradled peacefully between her breasts. She pressed down on it, which must have agitated whatever evil or resentment it harbored for her, making it itch horribly.
Helen hurried to the bathroom and pinched the bump between her fingernails until the belly of it was bone-white. She stabbed it with the tip of her eyebrow scissors, which she was too impatient to sanitize, reasoning that something nastier, like a bacterial infection, could very well usurp it from its habitat. But no liquid, not even blood, seeped out. She soaked a cotton ball in nail polish remover and applied pressure to the bump, wincing in pain, praying for it to shrivel up and die. When she removed the cotton ball from her chest, the smell of acetate pungent in the air, Helen’s mouth, because of what she saw, made the shape of a scream but, as convincing as that shape was, no scream came out, which made her wonder: is there anything inside of me at all? Well, yes, there was. Finally was. Because the little creep, now swollen and glistening, twitched.
Hours later, Helen sat on the examination table at the dermatologist, the paper roll crinkling under her ass. Her phone vibrated with texts from Maureen that escalated in alarm and exclamation-point abuse—you late? Where are you, slut?!! OMG, are you DED!!!!!—but she ignored them. Instead, she thought about what she’d do after this thing was hopefully zapped off her body forever. Never return to work again? Cash in her meager 401k and bop around Europe? Open a quaint bakery in an under-the-radar ski town? No matter, this, whatever it was, felt right. Her life wiped clean, as antiseptic as the room she was sitting in. Like a bucket of bleach doused on what had been mildewing inside of her all these years.
The doctor walked in and, Helen, not wasting any time, opened her robe. She couldn’t help but feel like a pervert flashing him like this.
“Hm,” he said.
“My bump,” Helen said, surprised by her use of the possessive.
“Yes, looks irritated,” he said. “Have you been poking at it?
“No,” Helen lied.
With a latexed finger, the doctor tapped the bump over and over as if it were an elevator button and he was a businessman late for an important meeting. He then stepped away and stared at her coldly.
“Probably a cyst.” He shrugged. “You can keep it, if you want.”
“Why would I want to keep it?”
“It might add more than what it takes away.”
“Are you saying it has je ne sais quoi?”
“No. I meant the excision scar it leaves behind could be bigger than the cyst itself. But sure, why not. I once had a patient who had a giant lymphoma on his head. Totally harmless. He put a miniature top hat on it and went to a party.”
Helen went on to explain the bump’s week-long tour of her body. “It slithered this morning,” she said, recoiling at the memory. “I swear.”
“Ah, migration! Now that, I don’t like,” he said, but the tenor of his voice betrayed him. He sounded excited. “Have you traveled anywhere tropical lately? Gotten any mosquito bites?”
“I was in Punta Cana last week with a man named Bob. He has a wife, and I am his mistress,” she said, almost flirting. Best to be fully transparent, Helen thought. This was the 2020s, after all, a nightmarish dystopian future in which anything could happen. It wasn’t nuts to think that some deadly virus might shapeshift into men named Bob who infiltrate dating sites, targeting women over fifty, in a sick plot to wipe them off the face of the earth—because that’s what the earth wanted, wasn’t it?—resulting in the great Bobdemic of the twenty-first century.
“It could be a parasitic nematode—basically, a parasite’s larvae that grows into, well, a sort of worm that burrows into the skin.”
Helen gasped. She visibly shivered underneath her paper gown.
“Don’t worry, it’s no big deal,” the doctor reassured her. “Dogs get it all the time.”
He left the room and returned with a tray of polished apocalyptic tools. He swiped Helen’s chest with alcohol, then blasted it with a numbing agent. “The word ‘parasite’ is really a misnomer,” he said. “They’re mutualistic, giving as much—if not more—than what they take. If anything, we’re the parasites.”
It wants me, Helen thought. My bump. Even as she had struggled to latch onto what exactly it was that she wanted, her bump (or was she its bump?), at least, wanted her. Had she ever had anything or anyone who really did?
“Wait!” Helen held up her hand. “Maybe I should keep it?”
“No, this guy wants out,” he said. “I’m afraid you’re a terrible host.”
But she could better herself. Helen thought vaguely of green juice and sit-ups and French lessons—enough to drum up a misty vision of the future, but she liked mist, how it smudged the edges. Obscured reality to make hope possible. From this day forward, she would dedicate her life to becoming a more suitable host, a more suitable Helen.
The doctor prodded the syringe into the nodule and Helen watched helplessly as it chugged down a pinkish liquid with surprising thirst. She averted her eyes when he rested the edge of his hand against her breast to gain purchase on the needle. A burning sensation tore through her, then she felt what could only be described as release, but not the orgasmic kind, more like a meager, almost pitiful gasp. The final breath of the smallest man alive. The doctor rolled backwards on his wheeled stool and held his gleaming forceps up toward the fluorescent light above. Helen, seized with purpose, reached her fingers toward the long ugly threadlike body wriggling between them, but before she could grab it, the doctor snatched the forceps away.
Margaret Meehan‘s fiction appears in Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading, Joyland, and Fence. She received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Felipe P. De Alba Fellowship and taught in the undergraduate creative writing department as a Teaching Fellow. Her work has been supported by Tin House and The Hemingway House in Ketchum, Idaho.