We’re getting back to nature this week on the Drabblecast, with Michael Piel’s original story, “Watch Anya Blume.” Enjoy!
Anya Blume showered, slept, and showered again. Yes, she thought, she was beginning to feel human. Exhausted, sure, but human. She popped five Advil and closed the medicine cabinet. There, at the bottom of the mirror in sharpie, were the words: I will be my best self…
Watch Anya Blume
by Michael Piel
Anya Blume showered, slept, and showered again. Yes, she thought, she was beginning to feel human. Exhausted, sure, but human. She popped five Advil and closed the medicine cabinet. There, at the bottom of the mirror in sharpie, were the words:
I will be my best self.
Anya squeezed the bathmat between her toes, inhaled the lavender scent of her skin, and feeling not quite refreshed but at least somewhat determined, noticed something strange on the mirror. She thought it was a smudge, a thumbprint, maybe, from a recent visitor, but she hadn’t had one of those since Dan. She wiped the glass. The smudge remained. She wiped again, then noticed when she moved, the smudge moved, too. First above my, then best self. She squinted, leaned in, and let out a short cry.
A mushroom. There was a mushroom attached to her back.
Anya didn’t think. She couldn’t. She seized the spongy stem and snapped it. Like a portobello, she thought. Anya tucked in her shoulder, craned her neck, and to her horror saw a circle, small and pale, flush with the flesh of her back. Part of the growth was still inside her. She dug. Dropped bloody pieces into the sink. Five. Six. Until at last there remained a crater where the mushroom once grew. She observed the mess, the cold pain in her back like a tooth’s exposed root, and blacked out.
She told no one. Booked an appointment with SkinGrin’s second-best-reviewed dermatologist and left. No one noticed her slip into the office. It was a Monday, and she had a workflow to complete, two calls to make, and 182 emails to respond to all before a meeting at 2pm. She put on headphones, chose something instrumental, and before she knew it had entered a sweet unconscious flow state. Still, she caught strange fragments of conversation. A sunrise hike, yoga, falling asleep on grass. She opened and closed tabs. Drafted emails. I will be my best self, she thought. But a copse of tentacle-like grass had grown from between her laptop’s keys and wrapped itself around her arms.
Anya jolted awake. The office around her buzzed. Just need a change of scenery, she thought, a walk. She stood, left her desk and headed for the breakroom.
“Anya!” cried Hector as she entered. “How’s that platinum paunch?”
She half-smiled, feeling stupid for not understanding. “Hi, Hector,” she said. He ate noodles at a nearby table. She got her lunch from the fridge, but she wasn’t hungry.
“Salad?” he said.
“Ate so healthy this past weekend I felt like I needed a carbo-load, you know?”
“Totally.” If he doesn’t speak again, she thought, I can leave.
“I do feel refreshed, though,” he said. “Not just food-wise but spiritually.” Anya sighed. She sat. “We get so mixed up in work and all this crap that we forget how important it is to get back to nature, you know? To reset and just… be with what is.”
Anya nodded. She’d heard this before. Dan had wanted her to see the outdoors that way, too, the mountains, the trees. And there’d been a time when she’d wanted that, but people can’t change you. Only you can change you. Hector was still talking, but she wasn’t listening. Because at the end of the day, the only thing you had was yourself, right? So why the hell was she listening to Hector?
“All that to say,” he went on, “you gotta love the yearly retreat.”
Anya stood, a small victory. “Maybe I’ll go next year,” she said, and moved to leave.
Hector tucked in his chin. “What?”
Izzy, a despondent blonde from HR, drifted into the room. “Didn’t expect to see you,” she said. She patted Anya’s arm.
“Me?” asked Anya. She didn’t think she and Izzy had spoken since Anya was first hired. Izzy put down her lunch and walked out.
“Did you go out after we got back?” asked Hector. “You look kind of tired.”
It took Anya a moment to realize he was talking to her. “No. What?”
“So you just went to bed?” he asked.
“No, Hector, I don’t understand–” but suddenly, Anya Blume couldn’t remember what she’d done the night before. She’d done laundry, sure, showered, slept, but that was all she had. In fact, she couldn’t remember anything since leaving work on Friday three days before. Panic flooded her chest. She stared at her salad and felt a sudden revulsion.
“I guess I would’ve tried to block out whatever that thing was, too,” said Hector. “I can’t believe you drank that.”
Anya looked up. “What did you say?”
“I can’t believe you drank that?”
So that was it. Six months of wine on weekends only and she’d had a bender. A work happy hour, maybe? In a low voice, she asked, “How much did I have, Hector?”
But he laughed. “No, Anya. The creek! You drank that nasty creek water.” And she might have disregarded this as another of his offbeat office jokes had his tone not snagged something in her mind. Anya backed up quickly.
“Whoa, easy,” said Izzy, standing in the doorway. “Anyway, what do you think?” She held out her phone. “Early Bird or Lo-fi? Early Bird? Lo-Fi?” She switched between filters. Anya didn’t notice. In the picture Izzy held, there were six people: Izzy, Hector, Louis, Darlene, Conny, and at the end, Anya Blume, herself, in front of some cabin somewhere in the woods.
“Is that me?” asked Anya. She hated the outdoors, always had.
To which Izzy responded, “Whoa, girl, what’s beneath your sweater?”
Anya Blume stood in the bathroom. She’d run into Izzy with her hurt shoulder, and now there was something wet seeping through her clothes. She slid off the cardigan. Felt like nails on a sunburn. She lifted an arm, took off her top. Stars blotched her vision. She peeled away the bandage. The crater in her shoulder had grown. It now accommodated a huddled mass of infant mushrooms, which running into Izzy had either bruised or snapped off. She gagged, cleaned the edge with paper towels, and reattached the bandage. She splashed water onto her face.
Did she leave the office early on Friday?
“Yes,” she said, water dripping to the porcelain sink top. “I took a half day. That’s why all the work today.”
Did she drive with Darlene, Izzy, and Hector?
Did she stay the weekend in a cabin two hours north of the city?
“Yes. On a pull-out couch.”
Did she sleep?
Did she hike the first full day?
Did she lag behind, not having hiked for years, and walk a ways alone?
Did she forget a water bottle?
Was the day hot?
Did she come upon a creek?
Was there something about the water, the way it spun and shone that seemed to call to her, to make her feel safe?
“For Christ’s sake.”
And did she finally, against her better judgment, kneel beside the creek, cup the water like an offering, a blessing received, and with trembling hands (much like they were trembling now), lift the water to her lips to drink?
Anya was itching her forearm. She stopped. There were spots beneath the skin.
Looked like splinters, but they’d come from inside her, not out. There was an alteration in the air then, a change in cabin pressure. She was dying. No other explanation.
Suddenly, her phone chimed. She’d almost forgotten about the appointment.
The itching got worse. In the cab, she did everything to ignore it: corrected the window height, surfed the touch screen, adjusted and readjusted the volume. Her phone said four more minutes, but she could see it now, bloodied fingernails, exposed bone. The car pulled over. Anya leapt out. She buzzed SkinGrin’s second-best-reviewed dermatologist’s door. Felt a familiar sense of relief. As a teenager, she’d had terrible migraines. She’d become convinced they were caused by a brain tumor, but as the doctor finally told her, the cause was dark chocolate. Anya buzzed again. Maybe it would be that simple.
“Excuse me,” said an older woman behind her.
Anya stepped aside. “Dr. Rzeznik?” she asked.
“Dr. Rzeznik is out,” said the woman. “She won’t be in again until September.” The woman walked in and closed the door.
Anya checked her phone. Sure enough, she’d made the appointment for next month. She was losing her mind. “You’re ok,” she whispered. “You’re good. Get a hold of yourself. You can get a hold of yourself.” She needed to catch her breath. To sit for a moment and think. A voice said, “Anya?” She massaged her temples. “I will be my best self,” she said. “I will be my best self.” It was corny, maybe, even trite, but it helped. A hand touched her elbow. “Hey, Anya?” She jumped.
A man stood beside the office. He was in a suit, face ruddy and razor burned. Still, Anya recognized him, even without the beard. “Dan?” she said. “What are you doing here?”
He pointed at the building. “I live here.”
And she realized why the doctor’s picture had been so inviting. It shared a building with Dan’s apartment.
His voice softened. “Everything ok?”
This wasn’t how she’d imagined seeing him again. Not that she’d imagined seeing him again. Their last meeting hadn’t gone well. “I need to–” she said but stopped, because she suddenly felt something strange swelling in her throat.
“Hey, do you need to come up?” he asked.
Anya vomited a fistful of black seeds.
The landing smelled like it always had, dusty, familiar, and with the faintest sour of the landlady’s cigarettes. Dan’s apartment, however, was entirely new. No take-out containers, no clothes on the floor. Anya didn’t recognize the furniture. Where were his hiking boots? His camping bag? His tower of DVDs? But there, in the back corner, was the same sun-faded recliner she’d always sat in. He brought her mouth wash. She swished and spit into the kitchen sink. “I have some of that chamomile left,” he said. “I don’t like it, but–”
She collapsed into the chair. “Chamomile’s great.”
“I wasn’t saving it,” he added quickly. “I mean, I was going to throw it out, but that seemed wasteful, and I figured in case someone ever visited–”
She shook her head. “No, no, it’s perfect.”
“Something wrong with your arm?” he asked.
She hadn’t realized she was scratching. She pulled down the cardigan’s sleeve.
“You sure it’s just food poisoning?” he asked. “That looked kind of… I don’t know, wild.”
“Could I stay here for a bit?” she said. “I’m sorry if that’s weird, but it’s been a weird day.” She tried to laugh but yawned instead. “Anyway. I didn’t mean to come.”
The kettle whistled. “No, no,” he said. “You just happened to be in the neighborhood.”
“Just need to close my eyes,” she said. “I understand if you don’t believe me, but honestly, I just need to rest. Twenty minutes, tops. Then I’ll go.”
He set the tea on the coffee table. “Ok.” He pulled the shades shut. “But if I’m not here when you wake up, for god’s sake, take the chamomile.”
She slept within moments, and when she finally woke up, the sun outside gave off a cooler, softer glow. Dust drifted by the window. Anya stretched.
Her skull felt looser, her thoughts more clear. What a difference a nap could make.
There was a birdsong outside the window. A simple thing, just the gentle warbling of a house sparrow, but it made her feel better. She stood, sheet dropping from her shoulders. She’d heard birds in the city before, but not like this. In fact, she didn’t think she’d ever listened. Like, really listened. She pressed her face against the window. It was beautiful, she thought, and as she heard the song, she could’ve sworn she saw it, too, like finger paints across the sky. She tried to see into the garden below.
“You were tired,” came a voice. Anya started. Dan walked into the kitchen in a t-shirt and boxers.
“Jesus, Dan, knock,” she said.
“I live here,” he yawned, and opened a cabinet. “You hungry?”
She froze. “What?”
“I tried to move you to the couch around midnight, but you wouldn’t–”
“No,” said Anya. “No no no.” She glanced around the floor. “I need to shower. I need to change. I need to–goddammit, where’s my other shoe?”
Dan put out a hand. “Anya, wait.”
“If I leave now…” She searched under the chair. “…be home in 30, take a car, be at work for–”
“Anya!” he cried. She stopped. He pointed. “What’s that?” She looked.
There was a tangle of flowers, yellow and bright, growing from the side of her arm.
There were petals on the chair, too, sprinkled about like bits of confetti. Lower down, where Anya had been scratching, the skin was red and irritated. Green succulents poking through like reemerging divers. Dan walked towards her. Anya hid her fingernails. “Wait.” He brushed his fingers against the points. Anya felt a strange pressure inside her arm. He touched the flowers, and when he bent aside the branches, she felt that, too.
It’s the roots, she thought. He gripped a stem. “Wait, Dan–”
He pulled. Not hard, but Anya screamed. It felt like he were peeling away her skin.
Dan recoiled. “The hell?”
“No, Dan, just listen. Ok?”
But she didn’t hear his response. Because the bird song. My God, she thought, it was like The Beatles, or Bach–intricate and perfect. It filled the room, a cosmic xylophone that knitted itself from the air around her. The world was changing, she realized. She forgot about the pain, about work, about the skin beneath her nails.
“Has this always been here?” she whispered. “All along?”
Dan clipped away a branch, then another. He broke off each mushroom, dry-heaved into the sink, and redressed the bandage. Then, they left.
There were no trees along the expressway. Anya watched the concrete pass below. The traffic was light, and soon the hospital appeared along the skyline.
“Why not tell someone?” Dan was saying. He put on his blinker. “Why go to work?”
She shrugged. “I always go to work.”
He checked his rearview. “It’s insane, Anya. Like, truly insane. I know I’m not allowed to judge, but I thought I was the one who–”
Then, for an instant, there it was. The birdsong. She’d lost it when they’d gotten on the expressway, but for a moment she heard it as clearly and thrillingly as her own name whispered. “Wait,” she said.
“I mean, I’m that way,” he said. “Everyone is. We get so focused on one thing or another that we forget what the problem even was to begin with, and instead–”
He glanced at her. “What?”
She grabbed the wheel. “Go straight.” The car swerved.
“Anya.” He tried to laugh. “Hey, Anya,” he said more seriously.
“Go straight,” she said. He tried to take the wheel back but couldn’t.
“Wow. Ok, I’m not doing this,” said Dan, lifting his hands. “No way.”
A car horn blasted. Dan reentered the lane. The exit passed. Anya released the wheel. After a moment, he said, “People don’t do that. People don’t act like that. Human beings, you know, they talk. They don’t just do things.”
The GPS said, “Recalculating.”
“No shit,” he muttered.
“Go 5 miles,” it said, “then take exit 78.”
Anya closed her eyes. “Don’t take it,” she said.
“What? Why not?”
She didn’t know until she said it. “Because they can’t fix me there. Only I can fix me. And to do that, I’ve got to go back to where I got it.”
He laughed. “No. We’re going the hospital.”
“Dan,” she said. “What I need is for you to keep driving. I know I was fucked up to you last time, I know that, but if any bit of you still cares about me, any little piece, you’ll drive. You’ll do that, like a friend would, like you said you wanted to be, and you’ll help me.”
So, they passed exit 78. The exits that followed, too. Anya rolled down the window. They’d done this drive before, the last time they’d been together. She’d resisted, then there they were, trunk full of freeze-dried food and water jugs. She’d told him again and again how much she hated the outdoors, but he’d insisted. So, later, around the campfire, the whiskey bottle almost empty, she’d said exactly how she felt about him. This time he’d listened. That was six months ago. And now here they were again, him driving, her in the passenger seat. It was like nothing had changed. Though, that wasn’t entirely true. She brushed a patch of moss from her pinky.
“Left,” she said. The asphalt turned to dirt, and Dan had to carefully pick his way along the two track. “Here.”
“You sure?” he asked.
She nodded. She remembered everything now.
He parked in the driveway. Anya stepped out, and when she removed the cardigan, yellow flowers sprung up.
“This isn’t real,” said Dan. “I feel groggy, or like I’ve had too much coffee.”
She took his face in hers. She kissed him. Felt his breath. She wanted him to know what she was feeling, but he lurched back. “T-the hell?” he said. There was blood on his lip.
She touched her own. Felt something sharp beneath the skin, moving. “Come with me,” she said.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No. Please. You’ve got a choice here.”
He was right. She could cross the grass, step over the stone fence, and walk into the wood, or she could go back and live whatever life was still left to her.
She walked. I will be my best self, she thought. She passed beneath twisted junipers, hoary pines. She passed through dense growths of maple-leaved viburnum and sunbathed clearings. She felt her heart flutter, her muscles loosen. Light struck her like rain, and with each step she took, the birdsong grew.
She removed her shoes. Felt the grass. The song ran through her like a current and her eyes filled with tears. She thought, the words. They were older than the hills, the mountains, the valleys. They’d been written on the backs of river stones and forgotten long ago, lost, until the water had brought them back up. They’d called to her–she, Anya Blume. They’d known her by name. There’s still a chance for you, they told her.
The pond appeared before her. She felt something inside her shifting, making room.
It was a strange feeling, but not unpleasant. She walked until the water reached her knees. Squeezed the mud between her toes. She inhaled the wet, marshy smell of the pond, and felt the words moving up from her feet into her stomach, then her chest, then her throat. They would come out like birdsong, she thought, and grinned. She opened her mouth wide, and there was a brief moment of pain then, of fear, but like all things, it didn’t last.
Dan walked around the pond once, twice, and finding no sign of Anya, sat beneath her. The scene was idyllic. The tree’s trunk reaching out over the water. It was strange but beautiful, its elegant branches reaching out above him, too, like tens of loving arms. His eyes closed. His breathing slowed. A dampness fell, and after a time, Dan slept. The sun set. A cricket chirped. Dan awoke. He saw the bundle almost immediately. Terror gripped him. He pushed his way through the grass.
Mud and filthy water pooling around his wrists. A turtle dove into the blue-black. A fox jogged by, then another. But Dan didn’t see them. His eyes were fixed on the cardigan, tattered and bright, woven into the tree’s roots. He paused and sat back on his heels, and from somewhere high above a bird sang out, stunning and clear.