Here it was, the opportunity of a lifetime to finally have everything that I wanted. No more of the desperate longing to look like the images I saw on Instagram. My self-doubt would be gone, replaced by an inner confidence that only I would know about. I had done everything possible on my own to pass and fit into what society deemed presentable but had always come up short. This long-awaited advantage would even things out for me and save me years of wasted time and money. So when it was my turn to order, I didn't berate myself.
“I’ll have a chocolate-chip frappuccino please.”
“What size?” The barista looked at me with a judging eye.
“Large.” I know that I confirmed her suspicion of yes, a fat person wants a large. Go figure. But I would have the last laugh.
It might take away a little of my health, but it was a bargain that I was prepared to accept because, as they say, nothing feels as good as being skinny. Skinny, to me, meant having the body I had always longed for. My current body is flabby and husky by JLo and TikTok standards.
I am not a size two nor does my waist have that trim hipbone that sticks out or those ab muscles that peek out from below a tight crop top. My legs feel like tree trunks with soft skin trying to desperately hold in rippling cellulite and jiggling as I walk. I do walk, I do try to exercise and make my body transform, but it just won't and my will power is always lacking. I love salty chips and puffy cheese doodles, and I can never say no to anything sweet. I love a well-toasted sesame bagel with cream cheese and a side of Taylor Ham. I’m a slave to French toast with warm butter and silky syrup. I am weak, a pitiful fool around food and the delicious carbs that seem to wake me even from sleep to consume. So yes, I’m obese according to the BMI charts at my doctor’s office. I blame society and my iPhone for the way I am. The combination of technology and societal expectations makes me compulsive, helpless, and constantly seeking pleasure with apps, games, social media, and addicted to self-indulgence.
I stand waiting patiently for my drink and look around at the people in the shop. All trim with yoga pants and ordering what they want. Why don’t they have to worry? Why don’t they have to think constantly about their bodies? I can’t wait to be like them.
This is why, when the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it no matter the cost. It’s what the world expects of me and I will not let it down. Before they can even call my name, I grab my drink and scurry to my car to enjoy it. I check my phone waiting for that text message with the address of where to go. The lady told me to have a high-fat meal before arriving so this should be plenty. I scroll through my phone to remind myself of what the goals are and what’s at stake. I need to pass, I need to fit in, and in order to do it I must be thin. I felt nervous suddenly; this would be the last time that I would look like this. After today, my whole life would transform. I looked in the back seat at the duffle bag with the money. I had worked so hard to get the eight thousand dollars for the payment. I would owe two more and then all my money could go towards my new look. I would finance it from my followers who were eager to see my transformation.
My phone buzzed in my hand. “Chinatown. Text when you arrive for the rest.”
“Okay, leaving now,” I sent back. I set up the navigation. It would take me an hour. I took a big sip of my frapp and set out.
The drive was usual Jersey stuff, nothing I couldn’t handle. When I arrived in the bustling Chinatown district, I sent a text. Parking on the street would be hard so I left my car in the nearest garage for safekeeping. I got out and walked to the street and looked around at the open markets and the array of fish. I wondered if I would feel like having lunch afterwards, maybe some Dim sum or something else yummy. I kept a close watch on my phone just waiting for the final address. The duffle bag felt heavy on my shoulder and I hoped that no one would rob me. It’s all the money I had.
The text came in with a street address and apartment number. I quickly pulled up my navigation on my phone and started walking. It was about three blocks away. I adjusted the strap to the duffle bag and took a deep breath. All journeys start with a step forward and this was the way to my dreams, I told myself nervously.
I arrived at the address and took the stairs up to the third floor. Out of breath and sweating, I knocked on the door.
“You got the money?” a voice behind the door asked.
“Yeah. It’s all here.” I had counted it a few times and was sure.
“Once you come in, that’s it. I take the money no matter what you decide. Do you understand?” The voice sounded serious.
“I know. No takebacks, I’m not changing my mind,” I affirmed.
“This is it, okay. I’m gonna open and you are going to give me the money and then we will get down to business.”
“I understand. It was explained to me.” I could hear the chain and locks on the door turning. My stomach felt heavy with dairy and chocolate chips. I moved the strap off my shoulder and prepared to hand over the money. I took a deep breath as the door opened up to reveal a dirty apartment. In the center of the room was a chair like a dentist would have and big lights above it. Inside there were three people, two men and a woman.
“Money.” A tall man with red hair approached me with his big hand out.
“It’s all there,” I said. He grabbed it and turned around to a table with a money-counting machine. He ran the first bundle of money through it.
I noticed he had a gun in the back of his jeans. The seriousness of my situation began to hit home. If they didn’t deliver, there would be nothing that I could do. No one knew I was coming out here today and whatever happened, I was on my own. The sound of the machine counting was the only sound in the room. When it finished, the redhead spoke up.
“We’re good. Your next payment is due in two weeks. I will text you the drop-off location.”
“Okay, I understand.” The woman approached me and gestured for me to sit in the chair.
“Now, you do not go to any medical doctor. You better not show up at any hospital or urgent care. The first couple of days are rough but you have to deal with it. Got it.”
“Yes. Is it gonna hurt?” I asked. The other man in the room approached and strapped my hands and legs down. My heart started beating faster and my body felt hot.
“You have your choice of a blindfold or not. You decide, but once we get started we won’t be able to stop to cover your eyes, so what do you want?” the redhead asked. The woman standing next to me showed me options for the blindfolds.
My mind raced; part of me wanted to see what they would do but the other part of me was terrified. “What do most people do?”
“Varies. Hurry up and decide so we can get started.” He came over to check the restraints. Assured they were tight, he walked back to the kitchen area. I could hear things moving around and banging on the floor.
“What’s gonna happen? Can you tell me what to expect?” I looked over at the woman hoping she would have some compassion for me. “Please, tell me,” I pleaded.
“You're going to be skinny and perfect. Your body is going to transform into exactly what you’ve always dreamed of. Look at me.” She lifted her shirt to reveal tight abs and a perfect torso. “You can change anything once you do this.” She stroked my hair and offered me the blindfold again.
It was exactly what I needed to hear. I looked at her again and knew I was making the right decision. “No blindfold, I’ll be okay.”
“Everything is going to be fine. Just listen to my instructions.” She placed her hands on my face and tilted my head back. “Now, it’s best to keep your mouth open as wide as you can until I tell you to close it. Just don’t bite down and relax your jaw muscles.”
“Yes, I can do that. Will it hurt?” I could deal with pain, but if I knew how much then I could prepare myself.
“It hurts and then it may burn. It will hurt later in your chest and then in your stomach for about three days. After that, you’ll be fine.”
Somehow that helped me calm down more. I could focus my mind on getting to the three-day mark when I would feel great again. A shitty week was a price I could pay. The other man came over and stood behind me.
“He’s going to hold your head steady. I will direct you and Red will drop it in, understand?”
“Yeah. I’m good.” I felt big hands over my ears.
“Good, tilt back and open as wide as you can,” she said.
I did as she asked, feeling the pressure of the restraints tighten against my skin. My eyes wandered around the room and I saw a large glass container with liquid in it. Red’s footsteps approached. He stood over me with metal tongs holding a large slithering snake-like creature. I felt something heavy against my stomach.
“Here it is. We got you a good-sized one so it can get to work quickly. This type of tapeworm usually takes a few months to grow to this size so you got lucky.”
Red used his big hands and held the bottom of its tail, trying to keep it still. It was about a foot long with shiny black skin. It was black with a strange mouth. Smaller tentacles protruded around its body and it thrashed violently against the tongs.
“In the Amazon these things live inside all kinds of animals for years and grow as big as the animal they inhabit. It’s not going to hurt you; it’s going to learn to live in symbiosis with you and take all those extra calories away from you. Once it’s full then it will allow those nutrients to go to you. You think you can do that?”
I was terrified. Didn’t think it was going to be this big or this scary looking. I wanted to back out. I wanted to scream, “No!”
“Easy now, it’s not going to hurt you. It’s just hungry and I think you have enough calories ready for it to eat. Open wider.”
“It's okay, open just a little more,” the woman said.
My head was trying to thrash “no” but the hands on the side of my face put plastic blocks in my mouth preventing me from shutting my mouth.
“Promises made are promises kept. Just think about how skinny you are going to be. How perfect your body will be. You can shape yourself anyway you like, look the way you have always dreamed of. Make yourself great again.” The woman tried to ease me again but the slick body of the worm scared me. I could see the square head with an eye in the center. The tapeworm looked at me and we locked eyes to my horror. The top of the head all of a sudden produced spikes that protruded all around it dripping with a clear mucus. I screamed and the man holding my head yelled out to the redhead to hurry.
“Drop it in headfirst, otherwise it won't go down like the last one,” he said.
“No!” I screamed.
“Open your mouth wider!” Red commanded and I watched the head of the tapeworm come closer.
My body shook in protest, and I pulled hard against the restraints to get away, lifting off the chair and thrashing around.
“Do it now! Transition to greatness,” the woman howled.
The smell of the worm reminded me of formaldehyde and the stale smell of a high school biology class pig dissection. I tried to turn away from it and watched the spikes around the head retracting. I could taste on my lips a sourness, and there was a pungent smell coming from the worm. Everything in my body fought to resist, but the slimy body was already squirming against my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I screamed again and felt the spikes of the worm's head cut the roof of my mouth and tongue. I shook, feeling pain rip through me, begging them to stop but my screams were garbled by the tapeworm.
“It’s going down, stop screaming so it doesn’t hurt you again. It’s distressed trying to defend itself. Calm down so this can end quickly,” Red begged.
Blood flooded my mouth and I was choking, my esophagus having spasms fighting against the intrusion. I couldn’t breathe and it hit me; I am going to die.
“Breathe through your nose, it’s going in,” the woman’s voice called out.
I couldn't. The pain in my throat burned me. I was suffocating.
“Try to swallow the blood down with the worm. Keep trying to swallow.” The woman tried again, but all I could see was the body of the worm sticking out of my mouth. Red had dropped the tongs, which meant the worm was almost completely in my mouth. My neck and throat hurt so badly that my eyes felt huge and flaming, and the blood from my mouth had smeared all over my face and chest. The tail of the tapeworm whipped around. I tried to take small breaths from my nose but there wasn’t enough air. I wanted to throw up; the gagging reflex made my stomach spasm and I felt the man holding my head wrap his arm around tighter to keep it tilted back farther.
“It’s almost in, just a little longer and you’ll be able to breathe better,” the man holding my head whispered to me. I kept gagging, unable to throw up with my head in this position. I felt something deep in my neck making it impossible to swallow. I gave up fighting, resigned to die in this chair, just willing the pain to stop. After several agonizing minutes sitting like this, I could feel myself start to breathe only slightly easier. It felt like forever since I had been able to catch my breath a bit.
“Okay, it’s in. It’s going to take a few hours for it to settle. Don’t eat or drink for the next five hours. It’s going to make its way down to your intestines. Some do it faster than others but once it’s in place you won’t feel it any more and you can go on with your life. But your body is going to try to fight it. Your body has a defense mechanism that’s going wild right now, so expect a fever, diarrhea, stomach pains and spasms, like the worst flu ever. That’s all normal, just ride it out and you’ll be okay. Don’t flake out and go to the doctors because they will remove it and get us all into trouble. We don’t want trouble, you understand me. We don’t want anything to get in the way of our business. In two weeks you bring us our money. Do you understand?” The redhead was looking me in the eyes, and I knew if I didn’t agree he could finish me off right here and now.
Tears streamed down my face and with blood still dripping from my mouth, I nodded. I was feeling outside of my body at that moment. The woman’s hands went to my mouth to remove the guards, allowing me to finally bring my lips together. A copper taste mixed with the lingering sour taste of the worm, and I still struggled to catch my breath. I felt a knot in my throat that burned and made my whole chest hurt. I could only take shallow breaths with hiccups.
“That’s your diaphragm trying to expand; it will get better as the worm makes its way down. Just keep taking small breaths. Now, since you were such a trooper, I’m gonna offer you a discount for every new customer that you bring to us. Now you can work off your debt that way by bringing us customers. For each one, I’ll knock off two grand. You understand? You gotta work that social media and bring me serious customers with cash. Now you get good at this and we can make a whole lot of cash fast. Got it?”
I just listened to him. I felt sick and my body was exhausted. I just wanted to lie in my bed and forget any of this ever happened. My head pounded with an excruciating pain anytime I moved. The toll and the cost of this felt heavier than I had imagined. My quest for perfection felt empty and hollow. Being thin seems ridiculous compared to this torture. The other man released the restraints and helped me sit on the edge of the chair.
“Easy now, you will be lightheaded. All that adrenaline is slowly leaving your body. The fever is going to start soon. You gotta get back to your car and get home.” The redhead gripped my arm to help me stand. “I'll text you from a burner phone so make sure to answer. We stay on the move.”
The room spun as I stood; I felt terrible. My throat burned and the pain radiated through my body in waves. “Teddy here will walk you a few blocks to your car. Then you haul ass home. You look like dogshit.” The redhead walked back to the kitchen and was ransacking through it filling the duffle bag full of money.
The woman helped him and they walked out of the apartment. My body didn’t want to move. I felt frozen in my pain.
Teddy started to pull me forward. “Hurry up or I’ll leave you out in the street. Remember small breaths and keep moving. We don't want to draw attention.”
My feet dragged and Teddy half-carried me down most of the steps. Once outside we walked until I ran out of breath and stopped so I could clutch a wall. After a grueling three blocks we reached the parking garage. I turned to tell Teddy which one was my car but he was gone. I reached into my pocket for some cash and my ticket for the valet.
The man came over to me. “Yo, you okay? You have blood on your shirt. Dude, you need an ambulance?”
“No, just my car. Please hurry.” My voice was hoarse and low. I felt something move in the back of my throat.
“Okay, okay. Just hang on a minute.” The valet hustled to get my car out to me and I slowly moved into the front seat. I shivered and turned on the seat warmers to the highest setting. I pulled the seatbelt and clicked it into place. My hand kept shaking as I set the car to self-driving. It was all I could manage to do before collapsing in the seat. I curled into it with cold sweat covering my body. I couldn’t get warm enough.
I don’t know how long I sat in the driveway of my apartment complex. It was dark out when I awoke in a daze. My body hurt everywhere and my breathing was still very shallow. The knot in my throat would not go down. I turned the visor down and looked in the small mirror. I was horrified by my appearance. My nose kept running, and I could see a bulge in my neck just above the collar bone where the tapeworm was still resting. My lips were tinted blue and I struggled to breath. Panic hit me, but I was too weak to do anything. My mind raced with thoughts to punch the worm and make it move down, but I was afraid of its sharp teeth-like spikes. I looked again at my reflection and noticed the bulge move in a snake-like slithering. I slammed the mirror shut and attempted to open the car door. I needed to get in my bed fast.
When I entered my apartment, I made it to the kitchen and collapsed on the floor. Lying there on the tiles on my stomach made it easier to breathe, and I fell into a fitful sleep full of nightmares.
I awoke wet with sweat and slowly lifted myself from the floor. I reached for my neck, feeling the same pressure as before and wishing this was all a dream. My stomach hurt urging me to get to the bathroom. I pulled myself across the floor and stumbled to the toilet and sat listening to what had to be my insides falling out, a stream of diarrhea and pain, my body trying to empty out the pathogen without being able to. Evidently, the worm was still making its way down, avoiding this level of defense from my body.
I was still so cold and reached for a towel to try to warm myself. The urge to fall forward and never wake up was tempting. I didn’t know how I would get through three days of this. I got up and cleaned up as best as I could. I shuffled forward to try to get to my bedroom. I needed my covers.
I don’t know what day it was or how long I had lain in bed. I was dreaming of food and felt thirsty and hungry. Still weak, I moved slowly until I was standing in front of the fridge, looking for anything edible. I took a slow swallow hoping the worm had moved. My breathing was better and I attempted to drink some water. I couldn’t taste the water; something strange had happened to my tastebuds. My throat felt raw but the cold water was soothing. I licked my lips and felt something on the corner of my mouth. I touched it and felt a tentacle that whipped around my face. Scared and having nothing left inside of me to scream, I sobbed, regretting every decision I’d made. The tentacle reached towards the fridge whipping around, and it dawned on me the worm was hungry. Scrambling through the shelves, the tentacle wrapped around a carton of eggs. I opened it and ate them raw, shoving them in my mouth. I bit down eating the shell and all until the carton was empty. The tentacle crept back out of my mouth again, still hungry. I ate everything I could find—half-full Chinese food containers, an old rotisserie chicken, a raw steak, leftover pasta—and I went to my small pantry to devour all the chips and junk food I had. I burped feeling the food rise in my throat and quickly being sucked back down.
I sat on my couch, dizzy from the exertion and tasting my breath. It was different now with the scent of the worm mixed in with all the food I had just eaten. How often would the worm need to eat like that? Would my breath smell this bad all the time? Would that tentacle hang out of my mouth? I searched for my phone in my pocket and scrolled through Instagram and other social media, searching for the guy who referred me to Red and introduced me to all of this. I looked at all of his pictures searching for any clue if his experience was anything like mine. Nothing, just a perfect body and some filters.