I’ve learned how to tilt my head at the right angle to lure someone in, how to fake a Duchenne smile. How to pretend to be prey when I’m anything but. Tonight, I’m out to dinner at one of the more high-end restaurants in downtown LA with a white guy named Kevin, and the only thing betraying my true nature is the side of deep-fried silkworm pupae that I’ve ordered.
“I’m an adventurous eater,” I say when he raises an eyebrow. Then, with the innocent smile he expects, I add, “I’ll try anything once.”
That gets a lewd grin out of him. “Oh?”
I nod. “I’m pretty open-minded.”
“I pegged you for the shy type. Vanilla,” he says. He takes a sip of wine and swirls the glass. Despite his cool demeanor, there’s something fake about him. If he’s hiding an animal inside him, it’s probably some kind of mite: successful, sure, but still gross and parasitic.
“Me? Vanilla?” I say in surprise, but of course I’m not surprised. People see my black hair, my pale skin, my “almond-shaped” eyes, and assume from that that I’m shy and meek, obedient and pliant. Like how all Asian girls are. I let them believe it, if only for long enough to get them where I want them. “Nah.”
He grins and sets down his wine. “Then what are you into?”
It’s the first question he’s asked about me all night, but even then it’s not really about me: he wants to know what to expect after dinner, how he’s going to get himself off. I look into those watery blue eyes, too pale to hold much real color, and disgust unfurls in my gut.
But I have to keep up this persona I’m playing. I mask anything that might betray my disinterest; I tell him what he wants to hear. I start with the standard fetishes; then, I move on to the ones that men think are kinky, but are still pretty standard—a flush starts to rise on his cheeks. I throw in a couple more fetishes, and finally, I lower my voice and lean in close:
“But honestly, all I want is to taste every part of you. I want to suck you up and swallow all of you down into me; I want to leave you in such a stupor that all you can do is lie there in bliss.” I smile. “I just want to eat you up.”
The glimmer in his eyes tells me I’ve caught him. After our orders arrive, I swear he finishes his entrée in a dozen bites; I’m only a third through mine, but I tell him I’m full even though I’m not. I sip my glass of water, my neck long and slender; as I put the glass down, I catch his gaze.
“Wanna get out of here?” I curl my lips into a tiny smirk.
We leave the moment the server comes back with his receipt, and soon we’re back at his place, a high-end apartment in a Spanish Colonial-style building—no doubt financed by Mommy and Daddy. He makes to get started immediately, but I draw things out. I shut the curtains of his apartment; city lights still twinkle through, but the curtains are opaque enough to mask our forms. I take my sweet time getting undressed, commanding his attention with every move.
I let him cup the curve of my hip with one hand, let him touch me all over. I suppress a shudder—I’m not attracted to him in the least, but this, too, is part of the hunt: hot blood, pumping thick with lust and adrenaline, satisfies my hunger longer than any other kind of blood. I get on my knees, flash a dazzling smile up at him, and get to work on him. I ignore the musk filling my nose; I take the salt on my tongue as a price I have to pay to get him closer to satiating me. He lets out a groan.
Any longer and he’ll start to cool down. I shift. As always, my transformation begins with my jaw unhinging. Before he can react and run off, I’m on six legs, his torso wrapped in my other two, my hunched back just short of brushing against the ceiling.
I did tell one lie: I said he’d be in bliss afterward. But when I’m done with him, all I leave behind is a husk that can’t feel a thing.
My first memory is of watching my father consume my mother. This was back in our old home in South El Monte, a squat little one-story house; there wasn’t much room, but it was enough for me, my parents, and my sister.
My older sister was already asleep that night. I heard sounds coming from the kitchen and took soft steps over, my feet slippered. I peered around the doorframe. Mama was murmuring something, whimpering almost, and even back then I wondered, How come she’s not fighting back? But with Ba looming over her like that, I suppose it would’ve been hard to. He had her pinned up against the corner of the counter with nowhere else to go.
I’ve seen my father transform many times since then, but that first time was still the most terrifying. The way he opened his mouth, the crack of his jaw unhinging, mandible splitting and growing into two ragged pincers. Skin tearing bloodlessly to reveal four more legs, each tapered to a fine point, all scrabbling against tile and granite to cage my mother in further. It only took a few seconds, and then my father was a hulking spider of a man, exoskeleton gleaming, sharpened and polished with practice.
My mother was silent when he went in to feed on her. He tore her mouth open with his, sucking her out tongue-first. All manner of viscous and disgusting sounds, thick slurps and everything liquid and flesh, and then she was gone. My father didn’t even leave a husk. I watched in terror, but even when I was that young, there was something about that event that sparked other sensations within me: a longing, a hunger of my own.
The transformation back was just as quick. In a moment, there he was again, all trace of spider gone: just a middle-aged man with a little bit of a stoop, the bald spot on his head growing ever-larger. He walked toward the dining room and I pressed myself into the dark corner by the kitchen door, my heart thumping as my father passed by me without noticing that I was there. Back before I grew up enough to understand the shape of the world and the way things worked, I was horrified by the fact that my father had just transformed from a gentle, soft-spoken man into a spider and back with so little effort—surely something had possessed him; surely he had switched places with a monster.
It was only when I was older that I realized there was no division between my father and the monster. That spider was inside him the whole time, just like how there was already a spider growing inside me, too.
Kevin leaves a bad aftertaste, and in a couple days I’m hungry again.
There’s nothing in my apartment that would satisfy me the right way. I could go to the grocery store, or maybe one of the restaurants near me. I’m in Pasadena these days, enough a part of the San Gabriel Valley to have all the perks of great food, but far enough from what I might call “home” to provide me with some distance from my father.
But it’s not my stomach that’s growling; food won’t help. I go through my texts and pick up a thread from another guy I’d been talking to who seemed decent. I ask Cory if he’s free tonight; my phone pings a couple seconds later—As it happens, I am. Were you thinking of meeting up?
Sure, I type, adding a winking emoji for good measure. We’ve been messaging online and via text for maybe a couple weeks, but I still haven’t met up with him yet. He comes off as a standard Caltech nerd in his photos, so I’m not expecting much in the looks department, but who knows about everything else—if anything, I swear it’s nerds who have the highest sex drives. I won’t have to do much to coax him to where I can feed on him.
We arrange to meet on campus. I live on the far side of Pasadena City College; it’s only a few blocks’ walk over to Caltech. His pictures don’t do him justice—he’s still very much a white bread kind of nerd, but in a sweet and wholesome way. Not so much scrawny as he is slender. His face lights up when he sees me.
“Hi,” he says. “Annie?”
I nod. “Hey Cory. It’s great to finally meet you.” I flash him my best smile.
“So, I was thinking,” Cory says, “we could grab dinner at Chandler—I mean, if you don’t mind; I know it’s not that fancy, but the food’s not bad.”
Via text, Cory had come off as a little boring, but I’m seeing now that there’s so much more enthusiasm and body language that didn’t come through in that format. He’s just so damn eager, but I guess I don’t mind. Better than the self-reassured assholes I’m used to picking up.
“No, that’s fine,” I say.
As we walk toward Chandler Café, his hand brushes against mine. I don’t know if it’s on purpose or not, but he apologizes profusely—“Sorry, sorry, that was an accident I swear. I mean, if I were going to hold your hand I’d ask first, promise.” I’m amused, if not a little charmed. He seems so flustered around me, and it’s flattering, in a way.
We separate to order our dishes cafeteria style, then join back up at a table by a window. Cory’s Mongolian barbeque could probably feed an army. When he catches me glancing at the pile of food on his plate, he grins.
“See, you only have one bowl to put your ingredients into,” he says. “But they didn’t put a limit on how high you can pile the ingredients.”
I laugh. After that, I expect Cory to start chattering about himself like most guys, but he starts the conversation with a question.
“Pasta, huh? You like Italian food?”
I nod. “It’s my favorite.”
I half expect him to talk about how he’s Italian himself and make some kind of innuendo out of that, or to say that he makes great spaghetti and that I should come over for a taste, hint hint, wink wink. But then I realize that I’m projecting a mix of my past experiences and the hooks my flirty persona would use onto him.
Instead, he recommends his favorite Italian restaurant and a couple others in town. Then, he asks, “So what do you like to do in your spare time?”
“Rock-climb and hike, mostly,” I reply. “There’s a climbing wall at the gym I go to; it’s really fun. And I love exploring, but I never have someone to discover cool things with.”
I’m surprised by how easy it is for me to talk to Cory. He seems to actually be listening to me, seems to be interested in more than my looks. Part of me feels suspicious, but another part of me chides me for being suspicious—Not all men are terrible, Annie. Maybe you’ve finally met someone nice.
“Have you ever been in Tech’s steam tunnels?” Cory asks.
Cory’s eyes light up. “Dude, have you never even heard of them? There are all these tunnels running under the campus; students have been going in and out of them for years, and there’s some pretty fantastic stuff down there. Murals and all sorts of Caltech lore. Want me to show you?”
I have to admit that I’m intrigued. Cory’s enthusiasm is contagious, and the tunnels do sound cool. I’ve been meaning to do more urban exploration, anyway.
“Please,” I say.
The hallway above had glowed a gentle orange, but as we descend the stairs to the tunnels, the light grows dim, illuminated not by lamps but by individual hanging lightbulbs.
“So,” Cory says, “here we are—careful of the pipes; some of them can be really hot. If we go on ahead, there’s a mural of Medusa.”
The tunnels are hotter and more humid than I expected, and cramped enough that I have to follow closely behind Cory and watch my step so that I don’t trip on anything. We reach a crude painting of Medusa, her hair wild, her tongue lolling. Cory reads aloud the sonnet painted beside it, titled “But Maybe I Won’t”:
“Medusa, wicked maiden, death within
Your gaze: you are a monstrous being. Too
Beloved your golden hair, it lured anew.
Athena turned you into living sin;
The Goddess, so enraged by sight of skin
Believed ’twas you, and not Poseidon, who
Bore all the blame. Medusa, chaste were you
To be in Pallas’ temple, sacred inn.
“But maybe it was not Medusa’s fault.
Did no one ever stop and ask if she
Accepted Neptune? Fault lay not with her
But with Poseidon and with Pallas. I halt
This tale and weep for her, her pain; for me.
Medusa lost the whole that once we were.”
I’d stop to contemplate the poem, but Cory’s already moving on, gesturing and speaking as if he’s given this tour a dozen times.
“The next mural I’m taking you to is a lot bigger—there are four Cow murals, but one’s kind of hard to get to and a broken pipe destroyed the other one a while back.”
We reach a rickety staircase; the clanging of our footsteps echo as we go down one level. True to his word, this mural takes up an entire wall. Block letters form the word LOVE; figures and symbols adorn the letters.
“As you might be able to guess, this mural is called Love; the two we weren’t able to visit were Hope and Faith.” Cory tells the lore behind each symbol, how they each represent one of the Houses at Caltech; I can’t help but feel that all of this feels like it’s part of some kind of fantasy novel. When I bring up the comparison to Cory, he snorts.
“Yeah, lots of people say that,” he says. He smiles, and a moment passes between us; we make eye contact for perhaps a second too long. I flush; I don’t know if I’m feeling awkward, or maybe some kind of attraction.
And then Cory says, “Wow. You’re beautiful.”
My eyes widen, and suddenly I don’t know what to do. I know how to read people who are expecting something out of me, who have already decided who I am; then, it’s just a matter of playing to their imagination and their stereotypes. But Cory seems genuinely interested and I’m at a loss; it’s like he’s seeing me and I’ve long since forgotten how to just be myself.
“May I…?” he says, and I nod.
He cups my neck and kisses me. It doesn’t send a shiver down my spine, but then again, the only kiss that ever did do that was the one I shared with my best friend on her sixteenth birthday. Cory’s kiss isn’t terrible either, not like some of the others I’ve had; I could almost call this enjoyable.
When we part, he smiles sheepishly, and I find myself blushing and looking away—so uncharacteristic of me.
“So,” Cory says, “um, I guess that’s Love—the mural, I mean!”
There he is all flustered again, and I can’t help but laugh. We make our way back up the stairs, and Cory leads the way to the next mural.
“I hope you’re not claustrophobic,” he says. The tunnels in this section feel cooler, no longer humid; I even feel goosebumps on my skin.
“No,” I say. I see better in the dark when I’m a spider; as a human, I remember that darkness holds no more terror than light. “Why?”
“There’s going to be a stretch where I’ll have to turn off my flashlight—the last mural is best viewed in the dark.”
“Huh.” I don’t know what that might entail, but I’m excited to find out. The lighting in the tunnels has long since gone; we’re relying only on Cory’s flashlight at this point—and then, when we’re some ways down the tunnel, he switches it off. The world plunges into absolute black; I hold my hand out before my face—I can’t see anything.
“You doing okay?” Cory asks.
I nod, but then I remember that it’s dark. “Yeah.”
“Great. Just follow my voice and footsteps.”
Tap tap tap; a couple more minutes, then the footsteps stop.
“Okay, stand right there,” Cory says. “And let your eyes adjust.”
I stand still and stare straight ahead, not sure what I should be seeing. I thought maybe it’d be some kind of glow-in-the-dark mural whose effect would be lost if Cory still had his flashlight on, but I guess it must be something different.
“What should I be looking for?”
“Just wait.” Cory’s voice sounds a little more distant. I squint at the darkness, and right when I’m about to whirl around and tell Cory off for playing an asinine prank on me, parts of the darkness grow a little lighter, to the point where I can make out some contrasts. Bold, black lines form the edges of block letters, no drawings within like with Love, and then I see it—
My heart skips a beat, and right at that moment, a clatter echoes against the concrete. I whirl around; I can make out a giant shape, but all I can tell is that it’s moving toward me, fast. I trust my reflexes; I dodge, and the thing crashes into the wall.
I back away. Now that it’s still, I can make out its shape: a scorpion, stinger held aloft, pincers pinned against the wall; my mind whirs, and in an instant, I understand.
I will my body to transform. The pull and tug, the way I elongate and reshape myself; it’s a burning sensation, a strange type of pain, but then there’s venom and power coursing through me and all I feel is anger.
I can see him clearly now as he turns back toward me: his eight eyes, every segment of his tail, the way his mouth parts clack open and shut with excitement. We circle around each other; I can barely make out the amber of his tail, the deep maple of his body—under any other circumstance, I’d call him beautiful.
I release a pheromone. You tricked me. It’s not a particularly nuanced way of communicating, especially across species, but there’s no way in hell I’m transforming back into a human in front of him.
You want to be food, he replies. I want to eat.
I bristle. You think I want to be food?
You do. You’re so easy.
He pounces on me; too late, I realize that he provoked me long enough, circled with me just so, so that I’m up against the wall when he attacks. I try to fend him off, try to push him away. But the more I struggle, the more he throws his weight on me and crushes me into the concrete surface. I’m on my back; he constricts me, pins my limbs to my side. I keep trying to fight, but soon I realize that I can’t do much, and panic starts to rise in my chest.
He leans in and clamps his pincers down. In a last-ditch attempt, I try to kick out against him, try to bite him, but he grips me so hard that I can’t move.
He brushes his stinger against me, white-hot and venomous; he releases a message: Stay still or die.
He starts to feed.
It’s such a violating feeling: an intrusion, him tugging open my pincers; suddenly I remember my mother being sucked out by her tongue and I wish I could scream, but in this form I have no voice. He’s sucking me down, burrowing his way deeper into me, and I want him out, I want him out and I won’t have him consuming me; I can’t let him—
But he already is, and I feel myself growing weaker; I feel myself being overwhelmed. As he grows fuller and fuller, he lets his grip slack, and in his greed he leaves an opening: I twist away from him, sink my pincers into his chest, tear open a gash; he retreats in reflex. I run out, back down through that dark tunnel, only it’s growing narrower and in a few paces I won’t be able to fit.
I have to change back. I’m so much more vulnerable that way, but I have no choice; my body shrinks back into human form. Jaw aching, entire body sore, I feel my way back down the tunnel, stumbling as I think to myself, Please, please don’t let me sprain an ankle; please let me get out. I hear a faint scrabbling coming behind me and know he’s gotten back up. He knows these tunnels better than I do, but I’ve got a head start and a decent sense of direction; it’s all I can do to make my way out as fast as I can.
When I can’t hear scrabbles anymore, I feel terror and not relief: he must’ve turned human again, too, and with his much smaller form, the sounds he makes will be harder to keep track of, too. I pass the staircase down to Love and my stomach twists; I can’t look back or let any stray thoughts into my head—all I can do is tell myself that at least I’m going the right way.
Then I’m running past Medusa and I hear footsteps behind me; I sneak a glance back and Cory’s close, too close—there’s a decent distance between us, but I wish I couldn’t even see him; I wish he weren’t even there—
I push all of my remaining energy into dashing toward the exit; I bound up the stairs in twos and burst out the door, back into the courtyard above. The air outside is cool, but against the sweat on my skin, it sends chills all over my body. A few people mill about; I don’t know anyone on this campus and I’m not sure how to ask for help: Please save me from a guy who can turn into a scorpion. Those of us who can shift keep it to ourselves; I don’t know who I can trust to believe me.
So I run. But before I get very far, I hear someone shout, “Cory!” and I can’t help but turn to see where he is.
He’s out from the tunnels, and the gash I left bleeds through his torn shirt; a girl rushes up to him.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, no worries,” he says, and he flashes her that same sheepish smile he used on me earlier—I might throw up. “Fell while in the tunnels. I’ll be fine.”
I turn to run again, but right as I’m doing so, I catch his gaze. It’s flint-cold and full of anger: How dare you get away. And in that instant, as he lets that girl walk him to the student health center, I understand: He won’t chase me here, not while there are people around. He’s going to keep playing the nice guy; he’ll find another person to prey on.
I make sure he’s not watching me to follow where I’m going, and I walk home. My mind buzzes the whole way, but I can’t pick a single thought to focus on. Only when my front door’s shut and locked behind me do I finally allow myself to sink to the floor and sob.
I don’t forget him in the months that come. I can’t suppress the memory of him like how I can hide away my disgust over Kevin, my nausea over all the others I’ve seduced.
And through it all, I still hunger. It’s maddening and brings up only the memory of Cory feeding on me; I can’t do that, can’t put up the walls that let me pretend I’m happy feeding this way, can’t inflict that on anyone else. I’m too busy making sure I can even function through the day to sum up the energy to pretend I’m somebody’s perfect China doll.
My older sister comes to visit at the end of spring semester. I don’t know if I’m up for seeing her, but I haven’t spent time in the presence of another human being for far too long. I normally keep my place tidy, but it’s become a mess recently; it’s all I can do to clear off the couch for her to sleep on before she comes over.
She gets to Pasadena in the afternoon and greets me with a hug. “Annie, God, it’s been way too long—even without traffic, the drive up is a bit long for my taste.”
Sara moved in another direction away from our home; she went south to San Diego. I hug her back with limp arms; sensing that my heart’s not all into it, she pulls back and scrutinizes me.
“Annie…” she murmurs, “you’ve lost weight, and you’re so pale. Is everything okay?”
Tears spring to my eyes. Absent our mother, Sara practically raised me herself; it’s only been once I’ve gotten older that I realize how much she cares about me.
“Hey, come on; let’s get inside.” She steers me to the couch and sits me down; I’d protest, but there’s never been any use fighting Sara when she’s in a mother hen mood. I hear the water running in the kitchen; shame steals over me as I remember that the sink’s full of dirty dishes, and I wonder if Sara’s judging me for them. She comes back with a clean mug—she must’ve washed it out herself; more shame falls on me as I think about how guests shouldn’t be doing chores. She sets the mug down in front of me.
“Warm water. It’ll make you feel better.”
I take a sip. Sara’s right; I do feel better, if only for a moment. The water washes salt from my tongue, draws back my tears. Sara sits beside me and rubs my back.
“Wanna tell me what happened?”
I open my mouth, but I can’t bring myself to speak. My tongue feels useless in my mouth; I end up shaking my head. Sara doesn’t say anything either, just lets me rest against her, mug of water still cupped in my hands.
After a long time, I ask her, “Have you ever fed on anyone? Like… like Ba.”
Sara furrows her brow. “No, I can’t say I have.” Then, she smiles: “I guess moths don’t really do that.”
I remember then that Sara’s not like me and Ba; she has a moth inside, a beautiful green luna moth. But my memory of her velvety wings only makes it all the more difficult to contemplate the other question on my mind: Have you ever been fed on? I can’t imagine that someone as strong and lovely as she is could have ever experienced anything similar, and if she has, it might break my heart to know.
So I don’t say anything more, and Sara doesn’t ask. We spend a week going to cafés and watching TV; I take her to Old Pasadena and the Norton Simon Museum, and she treats me to ramen and the best baozi I’ve ever had.
On our last day together, we’re sitting at a boba shop in Alhambra; she’s ordered Thai tea, her favorite, and I’ve ordered jasmine milk tea. The sky’s a soft, dusty blue, punctuated only with trails of cirrus clouds. I could almost believe that everything is fine.
Sara breaks the comfortable silence between us.
“Mei, you know I’m always here if you need to talk, right? Or if you just want to talk.”
She reaches across the table, and, instinctively, I place my hand in hers, twining my fingers with hers like how we’d always do as kids.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
It gets easier sometimes, dancing around my memories, playing at functioning, pretending there isn’t this hunger and hurt gnawing at me all the time.
I decide I’ll be neither hunter nor prey, but even so, sometimes I find myself falling back into my old ways and playing up other people’s lusts. But as I imagine consuming them, my chest goes tight and my breaths grow shallow; I can’t follow through with it and I end up saying good-bye at the end of the dates, choosing instead to spend the night curled up on the couch, watching but not watching reruns.
I discover I’m neither man nor woman, too, and I wonder if this would still be true even if this gnawing weren’t killing me, even if what happened hadn’t happened. But I suppose that no matter my past, my feelings in the present are still true.
Sometimes, when I see a scorpion, or when I catch a glimpse of Medusa, whether through art, through fiction, through anything that might remind me of her, I remember those tunnels and the art upon their walls.
Maybe I’ll succumb to the pain tearing through me too. Maybe I’ll give in to it, let it take over me and control my life, let it destroy me from the inside out.
Maybe I won’t. ❈
Originally published in Strange California, 2017.