by Evelyn Deshane
They called us shadow women. Trinket girls. When we checked into the hospital, the nurses whispered about us and our small bodies. Only a thin layer of skin separated us from our bones. As we stepped on the scales, we were weighed in double-digits. The staff wanted to know our secret formula, our magical cure for fat. But then the doctors diagnosed us all with anorexia nervosa and the nurses stopped asking questions. They stopped speaking to us all together.
From the hospital, we were sent to the institute – a large treatment facility just outside of a busy highway. We were to spend our days here, eating all our meals on campus, so we could return to normal life – and normal weight – all over again. We would have therapy. We would get better. Our parents dropped us off on the institute’s doorsteps after our electrolytes were balanced and our family GPs had written our condition down on prescription paper.
“Your daughter is sick. I can’t help. These people can.”
“Anorexia Nervosa is a tricky illness. It affects the body, but also the mind. It has the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness.”
“Anorexia nervosa is a permanent condition. You only cope. You cannot hope for a cure. These people will help your daughter to cope.”
The doctors talked about us like we were not inside the room, like we really were the shadow women the nurses saw. Everyone had had about enough of us, anyway. We were too visible to forget about, but not present enough to treat inside our homes anymore. So the institute welcomed us inside.
I was the last to arrive.
“Good afternoon,” a tall, blonde woman greeted me. She shook the hands of my parents first, before she looked down at me. Her eyes x-rayed my body, sensing all the bones under my clothing. She sighed, sadly, and then turned back to my parents. “We will take good care of her.”
My parents drove away without worry, as the woman, named Rhonda, and I walked around.
“I’m one of your counsellors. You will be given the best treatment here. Lots of therapy, lots of group discussions. You’re one of many, here. You won’t be alone.”
She said the last part more like a threat than a comfort.
“What will you do?”
“Me?” Rhonda smiled. “I help you eat.”
“How do you do that?”
“Don’t get too far ahead. You need to rest here.”
We walked through the sterile doorway of the institute. Black writing on all the doors marked rooms for therapy, rooms for examination, and rooms for eating. I felt as if I was walking into a fairy tale. The oak doors looked vaguely like gingerbread.
“The first case of anorexia nervosa was a girl who wanted to be a saint,” Rhonda began. “She starved herself because she thought it would take her closer to God.”
Rhonda opened the door at the end of the hall. We walked into a small kitchen with a long, rectangular table in the centre. The girls sat on the sides of the table, all of their eyes down. A different counsellor, one with red hair, sat at the head. Her name was Kellie.
“You’ve got to eat,” Kellie stated. She looked directly at me as she spoke. “The doctor told the first anorexic girl that she could honour God by eating. God is all around, even in our food.”
“We do not need divine light,” Rhonda stated. She moved towards the curtains over the windows, and closed them tightly. “Any more than anyone else. Please. Sit now.”
I sat next to a small girl with sharp bones protruding from her wrists. There were eleven of us at the table. We were missing our last apostle, our Judas. With the counsellors watching us, there were almost thirteen people in the room.
“You need your humanity back,” Kellie said. “Humans are hungry. They will always need to eat. Show us you are human. Thinking about the Divine is okay, but human – that is what you all are.”
“And what exactly are we to eat?” another girl, a patient with sallow hips, snapped.
The two counsellors looked at one another. They smiled.
“You will see,” Rhonda said.
“Just give it time,” Kellie echoed.
The next day, the first man went missing.
In psychiatry, many doctors believe that patients are forced to repeat their traumas, until they find what they are and face them. This is why confession is important. You must confess your indiscretions so you stop repeating them. Binging and purging was one of the many symptoms of an eating disorder. But, if you purged your anxieties, your family history, and your nightmares, then you weren’t sick anymore. You were ahead of the curve, ready to get better and face your fears.
As the days went on in the institute, the meals we all shared became our new traumas. They were our new rituals that we were all forced to repeat.
Meal times were half an hour. All food must be consumed during those times. Then, for half an hour after the meal, no one was allowed to leave the table. Even when we were lucky enough to go to the bathroom, someone would remain on the other side of the door, listening in to make sure the only thing we purged was our psychic revelations.
Our group therapy sessions were an hour long, with a break in between for snacks.
Three girls in group therapy claimed abuse when they were younger. Two were real, I thought. Another was a false memory produced from the ether, so the counsellors would stop asking questions.
Melanie, the first girl-victim, was abused by a man with dark hair. On Tuesday, during lunch, a man with dark hair was presented on the table. His thighs were cut, his skin peeled back to the bone, so the flank could be cooked inside the small kitchen in the institute. He was made into a victim, into a piece of meat.
Kellie set up the timer for the meal. “Three minutes, everyone. Then we can begin.”
As soon as the buzzer went, Melanie picked up her knife and fork. She ate the man so she was not a victim anymore.
The rest of us had our standard meals, issued by the institute’s dietician. Applesauce and egg sandwiches. Normal, bland food. Only Melanie, with her sandwich full of human meat, got to indulge in order to heal.
“How did you choose him?” I asked. “If we’re not God, then how are you playing his game?”
“He got too close to school children,” Rhonda stated. “He was bad news from the start.”
I nodded, considering this. Melanie grabbed another piece of bread, adding mustard to it, before she ate more of him. Her dark eyes turned blue. The colour came back to her skin. She was getting better – and we all despised her for it.
“In some parts of the world, some people believe that when you eat your enemy, you gain their strength,” Kellie said. “You are getting his strength, Melanie. You are becoming something different than before. No longer a shadow or a trinket. But real.”
She nodded and smiled. The clock ticked on, another three minutes to go before the meal was over. Melanie ate in a sudden fury, cleaning her entire plate as the buzzer rang.
We were no longer Gods, I thought between the sounds. But monsters.
There was a rose garden around the institute. I was always dropped off too early for therapy, so I followed foot trails made by other people, who often dragged their IVs behind them and left marks in the dirt. This morning, I followed a trail to the back of the garden, near the woods.
In between two pine trees, I saw a man with dark skin. His eyes were black and his legs were large, like the back haunches of a wolf. I stepped closer. We were too close to a highway for it to be a real wolf. The skin was too dark and the bones were too prominent. He looked like a dishevelled man with oil over his body, as if he had been tarred and feathered. As if he had been shamed.
“Hello?” I asked.
He extended one of his long fingers, pointing towards a hill. Fresh dirt lined the area. I walked closer to him, only to watch as he disappeared in sunlight. The creature was a shadow too.
I began digging where he had pointed me to. I got down on my knees, feeling the dirt against my skin. I found a finger bone first. Then, I found a jawline with teeth, rearranged and out of order. I kept digging, knowing that I would be late for therapy.
Was this skeleton of the man? I asked myself. Was he an old patient, one who had refused treatment, until his body had folded in on itself and starved to death? I didn’t know, but I grabbed the clavicle from the dirt.
“I will be back,” I told the bones. “I promise.”
Inside the institute’s examining room, I kept the bone under my arm, as if he were a part of me. When Kellie came into the room to weigh me, I asked, “Have you ever had men at the institute?”
“Anorexia nervosa primarily affects women. Young women.”
“But there are outliers, right?”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “You need to be weighed today. Don’t worry about the past patients.”
“Has anyone ever failed? What happens then?”
“Anorexia has the highest mortality rate for any mental illness. I suggest you not test its limits.”
“Take off your clothing,” Kellie demanded. “Put on the gown. Get on the scale. You should know the drill by now. We need to see how much you’ve improved. No weighing yourself down.”
Kellie came closer to me, her green eyes inflamed. “You are to wear nothing. You know what happens if you lie, right?”
I nodded. Even as she left me alone, I still held the bone close, under the stiff gown they gave me. When she came back in, I tipped the scales.
“What are you doing? What are you hiding?”
Kellie found the bone right away. She held it up to the light and then began to search through my stuff. I was pulled into a new room like a child, cornered like a dog, and treated like a criminal.
“I told you not to lie to me,” Kellie said. “Why didn’t you listen to us?”
“Is this where you want your life to go?” Rhonda asked. “Why are you preventing your own therapy? Do you want to die?”
“Or maybe you just like being thin. You like your bones, don’t you? You think you look good? You’re signing your own death certificate with this type of behaviour.”
“This condition is permanent. But it does not have to be deadly. We are only trying to help.”
“What else was I supposed to do in the mornings?” I asked, snapping out of the interrogation. “I’m bored. I wanted to be alone, so I went for a walk. And then I found him – I found his bone. I was walking because I wanted to leave, but I knew I would never get very far.”
Rhonda and Kellie exchanged looks. They questioned me more, but I refused to tell them where the rest of his body was. They called my parents instead.
“Her behaviour must stop. This excessive exercise, the secrecy… She will never get better at this rate.”
I stood in the corner of the room as they talked. They acted as if I was the one who killed him. As if I was the one who put the bones in the ground, instead of discovering them. I had uncovered atrocities, and they could only focus on the steps I had taken, the exercise I was trying to sneak in.
“It’s part of her condition. She must walk and walk and walk, as if she’ll run away from problems.”
“But I carried the bones back,” I argued. “I told you what I found. I kept them safe, under my arms.”
No one heard.
“What is wrong?” Kellie asked me after she hung up the phone.
“What are you keeping hidden? What are you running away from?”
I held my breath. I had no memories to bring forth, no confession hidden under my skin. Not like Melanie or the other girl-victims. Not like anyone else here.
“I have nothing to confess,” I said. “I have done nothing wrong.”
Kellie only shook her head. She wrote something down in my file and then slid it away.
“We can talk about this later,” she said. “For now, there is more work to do.”
As Kellie led me out of the room, I saw Rhonda devour the bone from the corner of my eye. When I looked back, she only smiled.
Every Thursday, we had something called “food desense.” Short for food desensitization. We would gather around and pick a forbidden food to eat. Not apples, not usually. According to the counsellors, we were all afraid of cake and soda and unhealthy things. So, to counter to most doctors’ orders, we were set out on a mission to gather junk food.
On an April afternoon, we were sent out beyond the institute’s walls. We held hands like wandering children, with Kellie at the front and Rhonda at the back. There was traffic all around us and a concrete bridge to the left – no escape possible. We couldn’t run even if we wanted to.
There were only eight of us now. After Melanie, two more girls had eaten their final meal to pass the test. Gained the weight to hide their bones. They were called cured and sent on their way home.
“Here we are,” Kellie stated. We stopped in front of a McDonald’s in a mall. Some girls groaned, but most had learned to be quiet about their food preferences this far along. We were only allowed two “dislikes” for the institute’s menu. Most people had used their “dislikes” for chocolate or milk; butter and gravy; sometimes brussel sprouts and green beans.
Valentina, a small girl with dark hair, had used her two dislikes for chicken and beef. She was the only person in the McDonald’s without a burger. She ate ice cream and fries, as the rest of us were given Big Macs and told to stay together.
We sat at another long table, stretched out, facing the jungle gym. We all ate sad beef and greasy fries and called it therapy for the eating disordered.
“Be normal,” Rhonda said. “This is how normal people eat. Not all the time, but every so often.”
“Shouldn’t we be worried about death?” one girl, Ashley, asked.
“The cows are fine. Don’t worry about them,” Kellie said. “All life must come from death. If you want, you can thank the cows for their sacrifice. You deserve to live too.”
“No, I mean the workers. The corporations,” Ashley said. She was a hippy. She had gone too vegan, eating nothing but salads before she came into the hospital walls. It was a simple mistake, really. Most of the girls that sat at the table were nothing but simple mistakes, spelled out with poor food choices and too few calories.
Rhonda and Kellie shrugged. “One life leads into another. Don’t worry. Just eat.”
“Even sacrificial cows should be worshipped,” Valentina said, sipping her milkshake. “When you sacrifice an animal, it must be well. You cannot use one that’s sick, or else it’s a bad omen. It becomes the conscience of the tribe or the group it represents. This is one of the reasons I can’t eat meat. I just can’t.”
“Why?” I asked.
She looked at me, almost begging. “Because my conscience won’t let me.”
“Girls,” Kellie said. She narrowed her eyes at us. Rhonda tapped her fingers, beating a tattoo like the time from the institute.
“You only have an intrinsic responsibility for your own life. No one else’s. And we are almost out of time.”
We ate the rest of our meal in silence. We walked back into the mall and towards the elevator that would take us outside again.
A woman with blonde hair approached us, staring intently, as she shook her head. “The stairs are right there, you know.”
“We know,” Kellie said. “Thanks.”
“Why don’t you use them?” she asked.
Kellie stared daggers at the woman. I knew that stare. It was the same one I had been given in the examination room, the same one that felt like x-rays. I looked away.
“I told you: we don’t need the stairs. We need the elevator.”
“But you all look fine,” the woman argued.
“You don’t know these girls,” Rhonda said. “You don’t know their stories.”
The woman sneered at us like we were leapers, as if we had grown a skin with disease over our shadows.
“It’s good to be healthy so easily,” Kellie said, staring at the woman. “Appreciate it while you can.”
I felt the hair on my neck stand up. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see what I knew was coming from inside Kellie’s threat. The woman muttered under her breath. Her flip-flops smacked against the tile floor as she walked down the stairs, just as our elevator came.
“Let that be a lesson to you, girls,” Kellie said when we were inside. “Never let anyone tell you you’re not sick. You all are.
And you must follow us in order to be well.”
On our way outside, we formed a line. The woman who had called us out before moved ahead of us on the sidewalk, her eyes on us. Disgust evident. As she stepped out onto the road, she was struck by a car.
We kept walking. No one said a word.
That night, Valentina ate the woman’s brains, finally breaking her vow of not touching meat.
And the next day, she was allowed to go.
I had dreams of food often. Real food – not what they gave us wheeled in on carts day in and day out. Not the fast food places or overly sweet cakes they gave to us. Not even the men that they put on the table as therapy. I wanted food, like the kind I ate before I got here. The kind my parents gave me for lunch every day. But the institute kept us starving near the end, knowing that it would cause desperation. No matter how much I said I wanted to eat, they would put it off.
“A calorie is a calorie is a calorie,” Kellie said with a wide grin.
“If you can’t eat what we tell you to eat, then how can we expect you to survive in the real world?”
Because I want to eat that food, I thought. I remained silent. She sat down next to me, placing a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“Eat the meal. Then you can go. We will know you’re loyal, then.”
“Loyal to what?”
“Your recovery. Yourself.”
I sighed. I thought I was loyal. I thought that was what turning up every day meant and ignoring the bodies and bones on the front stops. I wanted to get out so badly. I tried to be a model patient. But the rules they gave me made no logical sense. When I followed them, they changed. The only way I could leave was eat, but there were too many forbidden foods, too many meals repeated until they were traumas. Everything became divided. The food always had two sides, two stories. In order to get past all the trauma, all the things that had turned me into their patient with anorexia nervosa, I had to break the final taboo.
Alive and dead. Flesh and bone. Life and death. Monster and God. Even if I was still human.
“Anorexia nervosa is a permanent condition,” Kellie reminded me. “But not if you eat where you came from. Not if you eat someone healthy.”
“You are what you eat,” Rhonda said. She strummed her fingertips again.
The rest of the girls – there were only four now – stared at me from the table, their faces sunken in. They waited for my response, to see if they could get free too. We all needed one another, but not for comfort – for sustenance. We all needed to eat. We all needed to survive.
“Let me survive,” I said, turning to Kellie. “I want to eat. Please.”
“We need to confer with others. We need to see what the doctors would say.”
“Why don’t you trust me? I’ll eat.”
“You got yourself this way,” Kellie said. “You’ll get yourself right back if we are not careful. We have already worked so hard, we don’t want it all falling apart.”
“I am not a bridge or a building,” I said. “I don’t require an architect.”
“You are damaged.”
“I am not a car, either,” I demanded. “I am a person. And I want to eat.”
Rhonda and Kellie looked at one another. They looked back at the fridge.
“Okay,” Rhonda said. “You’re next.”
On Tuesday, the table was set. They brought out the body from the back cellar. The man was older, one of the oldest bodies yet. His skin was pale and his hair was grey. I heard the scratching of the counsellors’ pens as they wrote their field notes, judging my response like all the others.
“She has come so far.”
“She has gained twenty pounds since treatment began.”
“She can go home soon. Almost. She is so close.”
I looked away from the man’s eyes and his navy tattoos. I tried not to think about his backstory as I cracked open his ribcage. The noise was so sickening and yet so full of pleasure, like cracking knuckles. The counsellors smiled at me, proud of my accomplishment. The four girls looked at me with wide eyes, horrified and hungry, as I slipped my hands under the man’s skin.
I took out his heart. This was my designated piece to eat. The heart was one of the largest muscles, yet still a delicate organ meat. It looked too small, too light – and like it was still beating. I placed down on my plate as Kellie passed me a napkin.
“Go on,” she encouraged. “Eat up.”
I stared. I took another breath, fear gripping me.
“Are you okay? Do you need the tube?”
I blinked. The tube – no, I thought, shaking my head. Too many other girls had had the gastro-intestinal tube shoved down their throat like an amoral organ, where their liquid meals were fed into them before they were forced to swallow. I closed my eyes.
In my mind, I saw a creature from the woods. I saw the skinny body leftover from the program, a patient who had refused to become a monster and had died instead and was now buried like a bad omen. I saw the boy that had been tarred and feathered and forgotten about. He hovered over me like my conscience, reminding me not to become a monster.
“Are you going to eat?” Rhonda asked. “Or are you wasting our time?”
I looked up. The buzzer clicked on, the seconds passing by.
The black creature from the woods shook his head. He said no. But he was the thing to fear, wasn’t he? He was a totem of my death and permanent destruction if I didn’t do what I was told, right? I saw the boy covered as a shadow, a former self lost inside bones and under dirt. I turned away from the creature and looked down at my plate.
I raised my knife and fork in my hand – and then ate the heart of the stranger. I thanked the man I didn’t know for giving me life again, closing my eyes in a silent prayer. I tasted iron and rot, my nose filled with the smell of blood.
When I was done, I looked up at Kellie and Rhonda with blood around my mouth. I wanted to move onto them next, to tear them apart limb from limb. They were the ones who had made me into a monster, who had taken the very thing I thought made me who I was. But my stomach heaved.
Now, for the first time in a long time, I was full.
“Wonderful,” Kellie said, placing a hand on my shoulder. “You’ve done a great job.”
“Yes,” Rhonda agreed. She rose from her chair. The girls’ eyes followed her as she moved around the table and placed another hand on me. “I think you’re ready to go.”
I was silent. I worried my voice would never come back again, and if it did, I would speak in a language that was not my own.
When the bell rang on the buzzer, Rhonda and Kellie allowed me to rise. I gathered my coat and clothing that I had worn when I came into the institute. They gave me my discharge papers and called my parents. Finally, they took me out through the institute’s door, crossing over a small pond and bridge by the front parking lot where my parents would soon come.
“It’s okay,” Kellie said. “You don’t need to say goodbye.”
When they left me there, I turned around, back towards the glass. No one was there watching me. They had truly let me go.
I walked towards the rose garden and found the bones of the body I had left behind. He was incomplete now, because they had taken the bone I carried with me. All of my bones were gone, too, now hidden by layers and layers of flesh.
It was okay, I figured. I didn’t need to see them anymore to know that they were there.
When I looked up, I saw the black creature. He moved towards me slowly, his eyes dark and judgemental. I had eaten the thing I promised I would not. But I had done it to survive.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
The creature merely stared at me, like my own former shadow. I raised my hand, hoping he would touch it. He lifted his dark fingers, twisted like tree branches, just as a car pulled up. I blinked as a horn honked. Then he was gone.
“Hey, Emma,” my parents greeted. Their car engine idled. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Would you like to go home?”
“Yes,” I said. I raised my eyes. “I would.”
“Who were you talking to before?” my mom asked once I was inside. I looked out at the woods, from the backseat of the car, and saw the creature wave me a goodbye.
“No one,” I said. “Just a friend.”
Evelyn Deshane has appeared in Postscript to Darkness 5, Black Treacle, MicroHorror.com, and in The Human Echoes Podcast. Evelyn (pron. Eve-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is now attending Waterloo for a PhD. To talk about horror movies, writing, or NBC's Hannibal, visit: evedeshane.wordpress.com.