A fleck of topsoil found its way onto Paloma’s middle finger. She rolled the dirt back and forth against her thumb, examining what was left of the cactus her mother delivered a few weeks before. Something for you to nurture, the note said. The crisp cursive script was centred on the scrap of a pharmacy receipt. The woman was precise if nothing else.
This was the third plant her mother had left on her doorstop this year. They usually came from her house, sometimes her own garden. Her mother kept a beautiful garden behind the house, full and lush and fetid. The fences were high.
There was no security in Paloma’s building. The front door barely locked in the winter. The landlord said he’d fix it, but there were holes in Paloma’s bathroom ceiling from two winters ago when the pipes froze and they weren’t going to be filled any time soon. The entire building was full of halfhearted craters. One day, someone would leave the tub running and then she would have to find somewhere else to live. Paloma prodded the desiccated cactus twice before she popped the bit of soil into her mouth. Her tongue didn’t recoil.
It tasted like salt. Her mother would’ve approved.
“You’re a killer,” Santana said, pulling her lower lip down in the mirror. A nail clacked against her teeth, testing them against a red, throbbing gum line.
“Killer for hire, just leave me alone with your loved ones for three weeks and something will happen. Or nothing will happen,” Paloma replied. “The negligent assassin.”
“I need to floss more,” Santana sighed. They hid in the bathroom whenever Mr. Cran decided to “hang” with the creative team for a “sesh.” Sometimes this could be an hour, but no one had ratted them out yet. There was still some solidarity on this floor of the building, a tacit understanding that their time was almost over. Flush+ was too big and running low on funds.
“I’m just getting tired of pitching a ‘toilet that knows you,’” Paloma said.
“You’re supposed to say ‘waste disposal unit,’ hon,” Santana said, pulling out her phone. “I swear to god if I keep doing this spinning shit, my legs are going to be thicker than my waist.”
Paloma checked herself in the mirror. Her legs used to be like that. “Waste disposal. The big emptying. The final drop.”
“Whatever you wanna call it,” Santana said. “Don’t blow all that content on me. What’re we doing for lunch? I am tired of the whole salad scenario downstairs.”
“Oh, I brought lunch today.”
Santana shook her head and turned away from the mirror. “A killer and a prepper now? They grow up so fast. You’re more than ready for the apocalypse. Save me a cot.”
Paloma laughed, but waited for Santana to leave the room before taking out her snack. She could hear Mr. Cran trying to banter about the latest strain of weed he’d learned about online.
Paloma took her time, savouring the moment alone. She listened to the tap drip and avoided the gurgle at the centre of her stomach. The pebble was cold in her mouth.
There were others out there just like her, she knew it.
“You can order whatever you want, you know that, right?” Jake said. The restaurant was what Jake called a bistro, like he’d been to France and realized there was more to life than plaid and flannel and maple syrup. A Mexican bistro, he’d explained over text, based on what was once just a pop-up at a farmer’s market. The table kept bouncing every time his knife dug into the chicken mole with coriander he’d ordered immediately after sitting down. Two months and she still had only been back to his place, a condo with nothing on the walls but a soccer scarf and a picture of Paris. Her apartment remained off limits for now. She did not need any more surprise deliveries or drunk men knocking at her door in the middle of the night.
You never invent anything on your own. Paloma knew that. She could probably even give some of the credit to Mr. Cran, the toilet whisperer. He knew what people wanted in their bathroom because he asked, because he interrogated, but also, because he listened. He knew he wasn’t the only one, wincing in the dark when the cold seat touched his puckered skin. He knew there had to be a better way to take care of your human needs in comfort. Wasn’t that what the bathroom was all about?
“I know, I’m just not that hungry. So, the nachos are fine. They are more than fine.”
Jake nodded, gulped, and kept plowing through his food. Sauce clung to his beard in globs.
There were others out there like her. She found them online, trading stories and tips and rules to follow. They knew which tricks worked best, how to conceal what they were doing from loved ones and coworkers alike, where the best places to find supplies were in the city. Eating the earth wasn’t for amateurs. You had to know what you were doing.
Most of them started with just a bit of dirt, an accidental mouthful of sand at the beach. Others found themselves absentmindedly sucking on pebbles or fingering the office plant and licking off whatever stayed on their fingernails. The unifying feeling was that it made them feel whole. In testimonial after testimonial, Paloma followed the words she wanted to hear.
Full. Whole. Satisfied.
After Jake finished and they hailed a cab in the cold, he pressed his face against hers. She ran a tongue over his teeth, searching for what she wanted. His hands found her hips in the elevator, riding up to the 14th floor that was really the 13th, and his fingers pressed inside her once they entered the bedroom, pulling her up tight against him. He didn’t wash his beard and she didn’t ask him to, even when he buried his face between her legs. The entire time he was inside her she thought about all the pebbles, rattling inside her.
Once Jake fell asleep, his naked body slumped in the fetal position, Paloma slid out of the bed, her feet padding softly across the imitation hardwood floor. Half-naked in the living room, she reached for one of Jake’s boots, her fingers probing the treads. She found a nugget of rock salt almost fully embedded in the cracked rubber. She ran it over her wet lips and then pulled it into her mouth with a hungry tongue. She could feel it beginning to dissolve even as she held it tight at the back of her throat. It wasn’t a stone but still better than nothing.
One weird trick, they told her. Pretend it’s just like a jawbreaker. Stretch your mouth.
There is always a bigger stone.
“What, you just eating Soylent or something now?” Santana said. She was examining her mouth again. “I think I chew more with one side of my mouth than the other. Is that a thing?”
“Probably,” Paloma said. Her phone buzzed with a text from Jake. He wanted to go out again on Friday to try Filipino barbecue. Long lists of adjectives attached to pork dishes filled her screen. Sweet and savoury together. She knew his condo hadn’t changed though. There were no potted plants, not even a river stone in the bathroom sink. She ignored the texts.
“So, what is it then?” Santana said. Mr. Cran was just outside the bathroom, explaining the how to vape covertly at a concert. He had a whole system worked out with his wife. She was the same age as the kids from his first marriage, but mature for her age according to him.
“What is what?”
“What have you been eating instead of lunch with me? I swear you’re shrinking on me.”
Paloma looked in the mirror. She looked the same, the way she had ever since she’d moved out of her mother’s place.
“I don’t know, I guess I’ve been snacking less maybe.”
“Yeah, it’s the damn snacks,” Santana said, slapping a thigh. “But they are my friends. I can’t abandon them.”
“We should ask the Cran Man about snacks,” Paloma said, dodging any more discussion about her lunch habit. “I’m sure he has some experiments to share.”
Santana shuddered and laughed. “Have you ever considered mustard and peanut butter, together? Or explored the exotic profile of rice chips and au gratin?”
Paloma laughed and tightened her grip on the pebbles in her pocket. She’d found them in the half frozen parkette near her apartment, appearing like berries beneath the snow. She wanted to savour them alone, but Santana wasn’t going to step out just yet. She would have to wait. These rocks were a little larger than the ones she was used to swallowing, but the forums said that was just a natural progression. The trick is to always stretch your jaw before bed.
“Pickles and what?” Paloma said.
“Just pickles, I mean, the Cran Man looks like a dude who could polish off a jar in one sitting.”
“He probably has,” Paloma said. “That’s one way to spend a lot of time on the john.”
Santana climbed off the counter. “Waste disposal unit. We’ve been over this.”
“How could I forget?”
Santana paced back and forth in the tiny space. Paloma clutched her stones tighter, her fist pulsing around her prizes. She needed to buy more dresses with pockets. Pockets were essential.
“I can’t just stay in here forever. You sure you don’t wanna eat with me?”
“Tomorrow, I promise. Just got a lot on my plate today.”
The door closed. Paloma could hear Mr. Cran describing how to make an appletini from scratch, without using any vodka. He was more of a gin man, maybe even a gin fanatic.
We all have our own tastes, Paloma told herself as she took two stones into her mouth at once. They pressed against her teeth as she stared into the mirror and began to swallow.
A succulent was waiting for her at home. The note just said For you and Paloma left it in the hall with the rest of the trash that accumulated over the winter.
“I am going to kill you one way or another,” she said to the plant. “Despite my best efforts.”
Another text from Jake to ignore, this one filled with question marks and a sad face. She didn’t bother replying. He wasn’t going to understand. He was not a part of her world anymore, if he ever really was. Just another man in a long string of wasted nights, night she spent waiting for someone, anyone to expose something about themselves, something she could recognize.
Online, it was a little easier. She had found her people, people who had tapped into something greater than themselves. It wasn’t so much about consuming as communing with one another, with the universe. When she said those words out loud, it sounded like a cult. It sounded strange and maybe even a little scary, so she kept it inside. She let the words rest in her brain.
She scrolled and scrolled, avoiding the topics about weight loss, avoiding the connections to chickens and other birds who swallowed stones. She knew what the wider world would say about swallowing the earth. We are different, she wanted to say. We are something more than your children trying to eat your keys, or your son swallowing a razor blade. Paloma was a lurker. She didn’t want to post just yet. She wanted to be ready, to make a real impact. Paloma sat and scrolled in the darkness, the succulent sitting beside her, judging each click and every decision she made. An email from a pizza chain popped onto her screen.
We miss you, it said. We want you to come back.
She deleted it and then yanked the succulent free from its tiny plastic pot. The plant ended up on the floor behind her, the only mess in the room. Paloma didn’t bother to clean it up. She scrolled past women at the Grand Canyon drizzling sand between their teeth, men flexing their cheeks around bits of quartz they’d found while hiking through the woods. Parents teaching their kids which dirt was safe to eat. A tutorial about distinguishing between loam and feces, followed by a comic strip detailing the ingredients in your local bakery’s stone ground wheat loaves. New secrets, old hidden truths, all pouring out into Paloma’s brain, reassuring her she was making the right choices. Her fridge was empty. The whole world was her pantry now.
When the sun came up, the black pot beside her was empty. The soil didn’t fill her. She had to prepare for something bigger. Paloma washed her hands and climbed into the shower. She clutched at her stomach under the hot water, hoping to feel the stones inside. Looking in the mirror, she saw exactly what she wanted.
“Why are you still here?” Mr. Cran said, quietly. Santana had already packed up her stuff the day before. She told Paloma that it wasn’t abandoning ship if you never even left the port. Most of the office was empty. Soon all of it would be.
“I guess I just really believe in Flush+,” Paloma said, almost biting off the words as they came out of her mouth. “I mean, I want to be here. I want us to succeed.”
“Me too, kid,” Mr. Cran said, gesturing toward the small sea of empty desks behind him. “Me too. That’s the thing about being an innovator, you get ahead of everyone else and then they make you look like you’re the one who’s behind. They can’t see you’re a whole lap in front.”
Her mother had stopped dropping off plants after the succulent. She had nothing left to give at this point, or maybe she just discovered her daughter really was a killer.
“You can’t stay here,” Mr. Cran said. She could see tears forming in the corners of his eyes. She reached out and squeezed his hand between her own.
“They don’t understand,” she said. “And why would they? They don’t want to know.” “Exactly,” Mr. Cran laughed. “I really should have had you there for the presentation.”
Paloma shook her head. “I don’t know how helpful I’d be.”
“The toilet who knows you. God, what was I even trying to do?”
“You were trying to show them a new way to live,” Paloma said. “To change.”
“I guess so,” Mr. Cran said, freeing his hand from her grasp. “Well, good luck I guess.”
“Thanks,” Paloma said. She patted her stomach. “Thanks, but I don’t need it.”
Paloma took three buses to reach her mother’s house. She waited in the bushes until the lights inside went out. Jake’s texts were almost just single words now, why repeated over and over. She treated it like a mantra. Paloma knew why. She was taking control back, taking her life into her own hands again, becoming part of something bigger than herself. She hadn’t brought any rocks with her.
After so many months lurking online, Paloma felt ready to make her debut. It all had to mean something. She was never going to swallow river stones from the Nile. Obsidian shards were outside her reach. And even though she always wanted to visit Hawaii, Paloma didn’t want to lay claim over another place’s stones. They would have to be her own. Each night she had been learning to flex her jaw further, wider and wider. She used a tennis ball at first, then expanded to larger plastic ones she found at the dollar store. Every night she was getting stronger. She was making space for something incredible to happen inside of her.
Paloma’s mother treated the garden like a sacred space, a place in which only she could exist. Paloma was rarely allowed into the backyard. But she was here now, on her knees in the dead grass. She propped her phone up against the edge of a rusted bird fountain, one she knew her mother had bought in its rusted state. She would never let anything fall into such disrepair all on its own. That wasn’t her way.
Paloma made the live-streaming account while riding the bus. She posted a link to the forum and then pulled her hood off in the dark. The light from her phone and the moon was just enough for the audience. She got down on her knees and yanked a smooth, wet rock from the edge of her mother’s empty fish pond.
Paloma pushed the stone into her mouth. It was the largest one she’d ever tried to swallow, larger than the tennis ball or even the playground stones she’d been passing in the mornings. She felt it grind against her sharp front teeth and grimaced against the pain. Soon everyone would understand. There were people she wanted to tell, words she wanted to express, but they were trapped now behind this stone. She pushed it further into her mouth, felt its cold end kiss her lips. She rocked her head back and forth like a pelican, waiting for her bounty to slide down her gullet. The rock was sturdy, but it would move. It would fall down inside her. It would satisfy.
Her mother would find her in the morning, phone tipped over, streaming nothing but the sky.
Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of the novel WASTE and the short story collection All We Want is Everything.