I wake up to the remnants of another reclusive night. The taste of stale chips lingers in my mouth, a bitter and reproachful mucus coating my tongue. A book hugs my chest with a certain weight that, in the moments before I fully wake, reminds me of a baby’s head. I believe in the company with such zeal that I commit my subconscious to the child’s steady breathing on my neck, the tender memories we share.
As soon as I shift under my covers, the hard binding burrows into my armpit and I understand that I am alone.
Yet, a muted presence lingers in my room, a pair of underdeveloped eyes filtering the sunlight like webbed skin, a placental red squinting at me from a hidden corner.
The book topples off my chest, its pages splayed open as if it’s been pinned to my hardwood floor. I become aware of my heart in my chest, tripping ahead of my thoughts.
No one has called me that since the last time I was home, all those years ago.
“Yeah, you. Don’t think I can’t see that pack of chips in your bed, you slob. You got crumbs all over your covers.”
My eyes roll around the room, trying to locate the source of the noise. For a moment they land on the photograph of my mother. I had put it on the nightstand after driving down to her house last month. It was the only thing I claimed, I left the rest for my siblings.
“Not that it’s much of a loss. When was the last time you did your laundry? What’s that stain over there? Yeah, that one, by your knee.”
For a moment, the voice is unmistakably hers, possessing that same shrill, demanding timbre that haunted me even after I finally moved out.
I look down at my left knee, give the bug bite on it two scratches, and look back up again, this time to the houseplants underneath my window. The tips of their leaves curl upwards like a smirk, mocking the planes of dusty sunlight pouring in through the smeared glass.
“I was just snacking.”
My voice is insubstantial, barely audible. Yet the response still comes, the words pressing against the walls of my skull.
“Yeah, I’ve been decaying here for a while now. I know what just snacking looks like, and this ain’t it. Those maternal instincts of yours are really going haywire, huh?”
The voice shifts subtly, almost as if it’s mimicking my own. I notice that it sounds vaguely muffled, as if its owner is teething on a piece of cloth or speaking from inside one of the lemons on my lemon tree.
The tree is barely that at all. It reached up to my hips when I brought it home last year and refused to grow with an ornery stubbornness. Surprisingly, though, the lemons grew to be about the size of small breasts, their color nauseatingly vivid, their rind taut as if they were on the verge of bursting. I’d been waiting a few weeks to finally pick them.
“I don’t have maternal instincts,” I speak again, the sentence like a seed I slowly push through my pursed lips.
There is no answer. I try to pinpoint which lemon is hollowed out, study each one individually for signs of quivering, pulsing, swaying with the sticky breath of whatever inhabits it. I wonder whether the humidity inside tastes acrid or sweet. I contemplate the presence of teeth, worry the acidity is wearing away at their enamel.
My clock throbs mechanically. My walls sigh, their ancient structure swelling with a newfound breath. Outside, a neighbor’s wind chimes bustle awkwardly.
The lemons remain still — as if thinking of a response.
cover art by Chloe Kim