By Jennifer Hudak
Ten days after her family installed themselves in their summer cottage on Greenpenny Lake, Leena separated from her body for the first time. She peeled from herself like a sticker from its backing, and hovered inches from the ceiling. Meanwhile, her body stretched out beneath her, lumpy under the threadbare blanket: the rise of her belly, the slack softness of her cheeks falling back toward the pillow, the thickness of her neck. Then she plummeted back inside her breathing, sweating flesh.
It was the lake water, the doctor said. Not the separation — she hadn’t told them about that — but the vomiting and diarrhea that had preceded it. Something about blooming algae, E. coli, something else that started either with a G or a K.
Swimming in Greenpenny Lake was unpleasant in all kinds of ways, even before Leena swallowed a stew of dangerous microorganisms. Seaweed clogged the water near the shore, and shells from the invasive zebra mussel lurked in the silt, waiting to slice open an unwary bather’s foot. Leena had read, too, about the bodies in Greenpenny Lake — rumor had it that every year someone drowned and the water was so deep that no one ever found them. Leena had protested this vacation for the first two stifling days by wilting inside the un-air-conditioned cottage, perspiring on the stained furniture and fighting to find a reliable Wi-Fi connection, before grudgingly following her father’s advice to get outside and go for a damn swim.
She wouldn’t separate until a week afterwards, but Leena knew: this was where it happened. That first swim in Greenpenny Lake.
Her bathing suit had shrunk during the off-season, or else Leena had grown; the fabric strained and sagged in all the wrong places. The oatmeal she’d eaten that morning was a huge mistake; even without the sugar and raisins, it was too much to hide under a bathing suit. She wrapped a towel around herself from armpit to knee as she walked down the dock and only removed it when she was ready to slide into the murky lake.
Underneath the water, her thighs ballooned. Leena ducked down so that the water covered her up to her shoulders. A pair of small girls chased each other along the sand in front of the next cottage, their bellies proudly pooched out in between the tops and bottoms of their little-girl bikinis. In contrast, Leena felt heavy and ungainly, a sinking weight anchoring itself in the silt.
That day on Greenpenny Lake, Leena had hidden beneath the water and wished she could make herself evaporate: skin, muscle, and the dimpled layer of fat in between. She’d wished for freedom from her body’s bulk, and then some bacteria or parasite or virus seeped in through her mucus membranes, hijacking her digestive system so that it emptied over and over again, until her body vomited up Leena herself. She bobbed like a cloud near the ceiling and looked down at her body, bloated and soft and alien. Here in Greenpenny Lake, she’d made a wish, and that wish was answered.
The doctor at the clinic seemed unimpressed; he wrote Leena a prescription and told her parents to make sure she stayed hydrated. Her mother bought off-brand ginger ale from the cramped grocery store in town to entice Leena to drink. Leena turned the bottle to look at the calories printed on the nutrition label, and her stomach rolled over at the thought of all that sugar. “I think I’ll just have water.”
“Bottled water only from now on,” her mother announced. “I just bought a case of it.”
Leena’s father poked his head into the kitchen. “Sweetie, the tap water is perfectly safe.”
“I don’t care. I’m not taking any chances. No tap water, and no swimming.”
“We still have the cottage for two more weeks!” her father protested. “If we can’t swim, we may as well go home early.”
“No,” said Leena. She wasn’t even sure she spoke out loud until she saw her mother pause with one hand on the refrigerator door.
“You’re sick, honey. Don’t you want to be in your own bed?”
Outside the window, the sun was setting over Greenpenny Lake. Leena’s stomach cramped and her vision blurred, but the pink and orange painted wavelets held the promise of release, of escape. “I’ll be fine in a day or two. I promise. And it’s nice here.”
Her mother’s eyes narrowed with worry. “Are you sure you want to stay?”
Leena nodded, making the movement as small as possible and breathing through her mouth to ease the nausea.
“Well, okay,” her mother said, “but if you change your mind . . .”
Leena didn’t wait to hear the end of her mother’s sentence. She murmured a quick “thank you” and dashed from the kitchen to the bathroom, where she imagined that her insides were being scraped pink and clean.
The trick was in the timing. Leena learned that if she didn’t spend a certain number of hours inside her body — talking to her parents, sitting on a lounge chair next to the lake, pretending to eat and drink — then her mother would threaten to take her back to the doctor, or worse, back home. But the longer she spent inside her body, the more she noticed her skin quivering like jelly when she walked, her organs sitting heavily in her body cavity, the claustrophobic wrapping of her muscles around her bones. Every second she spent in her body was an agony of weight, and the longer she stayed within her skin, the more she worried that she’d forget how to shed it. Earlier that afternoon, it took her half an hour to separate, and in those aching minutes, Leena imagined her body swallowing her whole — digesting her slowly, thunderous and full.
Leena would never let that happen. She would peel herself like an orange before she let her body trap her again.
Because she didn’t know whether it was the lake water or the tap water that had gotten her sick, she drank both, refilling the plastic water bottle on the sly so that her mother wouldn’t be suspicious. She palmed her antibiotics and then fake-swallowed them with more water. She drank until she sloshed, and she kept drinking until her stomach began to pinch and twist and rebel and she vomited all of the water back up again.
Every time she swallowed, she imagined millions of wriggling, squirming microorganisms sliding down her throat, expanding the colony she already had growing inside her. And when she climbed into bed, the ceiling spinning above her, she pulled herself from her body with a gentle tug.
Once her body released her — grudgingly, like mud releasing a sneaker — Leena could see herself clearly. Beneath her, on the bed, her body was all angles and knobby protuberances. The twin points of her hip bones rose like the stakes of a hammock with her belly slung between. The creatures in the water were carving away the excess — sharpening her cheekbones and her elbows, polishing her joints, whittling her fingers down to twigs — until both she and her body distilled to their purest, sharpest essence.
Late at night, when her parents’ voices stopped murmuring in the other room and the house hushed, Leena tried floating out the open window, but before she reached it, an invisible leash snapped taut. Every time she yanked against it, it yanked back. Even separate from her body, she found herself still tethered to it. Frustrated, she squirmed against the corners of the room. Meanwhile, her body glowed in the moonlight, inert and inescapable.
Underneath the covers, underneath her skin, the colony grew, replicating itself, forming a nation.
The next night, after drinking four bottles of lake water, she locked herself in her room again. This time, she reached the window frame before the leash pulled taut. She lingered there, half in the room with her body and half outside with the lake, until morning.
Leena sat on the plastic lawn chair with a paperback in her hands, rubbing her fingers along the frayed pages instead of reading. Inside the house, her parents argued, unaware of how their voices carried onto the lawn.
“She’s sleeping too much, don’t you think?” her mother said.
“She’s still recovering,” her father answered. “Plus, she’s on vacation. Sleeping too much is what vacations are for.”
“But have you looked at her lately? She’s lost so much weight. Her clothes are hanging off her. Doesn’t that worry you?”
“The doctor said this would take a while to clear up, remember? As long as she’s eating and drinking, we don’t need to worry.”
Leena’s stomach cramped again, and she crept to the bushes on the far end of the lawn to vomit. Her mother had taken to hovering outside the bathroom every time Leena used it, and Leena hadn’t yet figured out how to retch quietly. But here in the bushes, the children playing in the water and the echoes of the motorboats across the lake masked the sound.
She sat down, raw and empty and weak. The lake glittered in the sunlight, deceptively clear and blue. She worked her way over to the breakwall and leaned over, dipping a cupped hand into the seaweed-choked shallows. She couldn’t see the microorganisms swimming in the water, but she tasted them, felt the grittiness of them against her tongue. When they joined the organisms already in her stomach, she heard the colony’s welcoming song, and she understood each aching, industrious syllable.
She scooped up another palm-full of water. The more she fed the colony, the more quickly they multiplied inside her — tracing her outlines from within, busily redrawing her boundaries. She approached a tipping point when the microorganisms would outnumber her own cells. When Greenpenny Lake would fill both chambers of her heart.
After she drank as much lake water as she could hold, she trudged back to the lawn chair and sank into it. Her body released her instantly, flinging her skyward. She’d never separated outside the cottage before, and for a dizzying moment she thought she might lose her body completely. Then the leash once again snapped into place. With her body anchoring her to the earth, Leena drifted lakeward. The breeze blew through her as though she were made of gauze, insubstantial and floating.
A shriek and a giggle drew her attention down below, where one of the young girls ran across the dock and leapt into the air. To Leena, it looked as if the girl hung suspended at the apex of her jump, before gravity pulled her down into the lake with a splash. Leena remembered what it was like to wear her limbs like a comfortable sweatshirt, to inhabit her body so joyously and thoroughly. She remembered what it was like to be whole.
When she returned to her body, it felt like forcing a foot into the wrong shoe, one that pinched the toe and blistered the ankle.
That night, she tried to cling to her ill-fitting body, but it expelled her as soon as she lay down in bed. The air in the room shimmered and thickened, like silt-disturbed water. Leena hovered over the husk of her body and watched it transform into a corpse floating just beneath the surface of Greenpenny Lake: bloated and discolored, eyes wide and unseeing, swollen tongue protruding from grimacing lips. It absorbed water like a sponge, rounding and distending, until it burst, releasing billions of microorganisms back into the lake. Then her skeleton, with its remaining shreds of skin and tissue, sank like a stone to the bottom. She felt the leash that tethered her to her body begin to loosen and dissolve, or perhaps it was she who was dissolving.
Leena grasped for herself, tried to knit herself back together, but her hands were no longer her own; they belonged to Greenpenny Lake, and the water weighted her down like a blanket.
In the morning, Leena’s body rose from the bed without her. It walked into the kitchen and accepted a plate of scrambled eggs and buttered toast from her mother, and then ate the whole thing — without weighing it, without scraping off the butter, without asking if her mother had used skim milk or cream in the eggs. Leena watched her mother blink back tears and hug her body, watched her body return the hug. The physicality of the scene nearly overwhelmed Leena where she bobbed overhead. She tried to remember what it felt like to eat eggs and toast, but she had no teeth to chew, no tongue to taste. She tried to remember what it felt like to receive a hug, but she had no shoulders or waist to encircle.
At the end of the week, Leena’s body packed her clothes into her suitcase and piled it in the trunk of the car. Then it sprawled in the backseat the way Leena used to, legs stretched out, shoulder resting against the window, seatbelt gently holding everything in place. Leena watched her father start the car and maneuver it down the pebbled drive toward the main road that led back to the expressway.
Wait, she called, come back, but her voiceless words sank into Greenpenny Lake, where the algae bloomed and the colony sang, where wishes are granted, and where the things that find their way to the bottom never rise to the surface again.
About the Author
Jennifer Hudak is a speculative fiction writer fueled mostly by tea. Her work has appeared on both the Locus Magazine and the SFWA recommended reading lists, and has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from Boston, she now lives with her family in Upstate New York where she teaches yoga, knits pocket-sized animals, and misses the ocean.
About the Narrator
Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.