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One Long Sting

From the time I learn how to bleed I keep a scab in the fleshy inner curve of my ear. Small, coarse, red-brown. I tend to it like I should tend to myself. When I am lonely, or need something to ruin, I dig a fingernail into the cartilage, tear the scab. Little blood, bearable pain. I like being in charge of how I feel. If this is being selfish then I am definitely selfish.

At my job, I pick the scab and squint at it on the tip of my thumb while selling lime green diet pills to women who can talk for hours about their skewed body image. I am required to tell you I get paid for this, I tell them. $7.50/hour. They tell me this is terrible compensation for all I put up with.

I keep the scab a secret because I once told a boyfriend and he asked to see it. When I showed him, he licked my ear, and the scab fell into his mouth, and he swallowed it whole. He blinked at me in surprise. I felt an unbearable pain.

There is no medical cure for having a body, the women who don’t need diet pills tell me. This is how I will look—and feel—for the rest of my life.

As a kid, I kept the scabs in an empty gum tin under a loose floorboard. Sang them lullabies.

One of the women buys three whole bottles of lime-green pills every month. I think she is in love with me. Tell me something you wouldn’t tell any other customer, she says. I check to see if my boss is watching. I tell her about the scab. She asks what caused the injury. I ask, What injury?

We meet for coffee in autumn, then winter, then spring. In summer, she asks me to take a trip with her. The diet pill company has gone under and my scab has doubled in size. It requires a little more force to extract; one long sting.

The flight is delayed. I check on the scab in the airport bathroom. I dig around in my ear. It’s nowhere to be found. Fingernails etched in blood. I tell the woman that I have to go home, that something terrible has happened. Take me with you, she says. Your ear is bleeding. A feeling along my legs, prickling, like I’m shaving with cold water. Good luck with your body, I say. In the cab, I make a phone call. And what’s the reason for your visit? After a moment of thought, I say: Disappearing parts.

The doctor asks me what’s wrong. His last name looks like “apricot” but is not pronounced the same. I tell him that the scab in my ear has disappeared. He says, You’ve healed? I try to explain that it’s not the healing I’m worried about; it’s the absence of pain. He shakes his head, like he’s disappointed, and scribbles a prescription out onto a pad. I take the paper and grip it hard through the hallway, through the waiting room, through the parking lot. In the car, I unfold it and find he’s written something absolutely illegible. Absolute gibberish.

Sometimes, when I try to remember what it felt like to be in charge of the removal and the regrowth, I imagine the paper said something like: It’s okay that you’ve handled things wrong. It’s okay to get worse, and worse, and worse.

Emma Stough is a Midwestern writer with work out in SmokeLong Quarterly, Foglifter, Pigeonholes, Barrelhouse, and others.

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