A Haunting Too Close To The Heart
Illustration by Lauren Raye Snow
She dreams of mutilation. She wakes up and can pluck each dream like ripe fruit to examine in her mind, they are so familiar to her. She does not. She leaves them be. She tries to roll over but is impeded by the hefty noise-cancelling headphones, which are still pumping out discordant jazz, muffled slightly by the earplugs. She cradles the hot water bottle to her chest, it needs refilling. She tries to blink the dreams away, pleading with herself for a little more sleep, perhaps even a little less dreaming.
People often have asymmetrical breasts. It is very common. ‘Normal.’
Ellie was told so when she quietly asked her friend Jennifer Kelly about it in high school, a hot blush rising in her cheeks. It was normal, totally normal, she was told again by internet searches at 1 a.m. beneath the covers. She was normal.
She didn’t like it, her lopsided body. She didn’t like having breasts at all, really. She wanted her body to be ramrod straight. Something efficient and severe. She wanted her body to be sharp.
But she would have lived with it, been normal, and coped, she is sure, if it weren’t for the dreams. The dreams and all that came with them.
A quickening of the pulse, a tightening of the skin, a crawling feeling—like when you sense someone is behind you and turn quickly to catch them. Except, she doesn’t feel like there is someone behind her.
They are inside her.
Hiding in her soft and pliable flesh.
The dreams became more graphic as she grew older. A gaping hole in her left breast, beside the nipple, and inside it might be all fuzzy-wet and yellow, almost crystalline, like an infected cut that has dried. Or sometimes there would be an abyss. Sometimes the glint of an eye.
Wrong-feeling dreams came every night after her breasts had fully developed at fourteen. Dreams that smelled like dust and damp. She would twist her neck and tilt her head upwards to be as far away from the smell of the breast as possible. She would wake up sweating, with a crick in her neck, she’d slap her boob to see if it was still there. It looked fine. That large, flopping breast. Normal. Completely normal.
Being a teenager was meant to be difficult. She knew that much. Everybody hated something about their body, it seemed. Maybe the dreams were all tangled up in that, the dizzying cocktail of changing bodies, hormones and rapidly evolving sexualities.
Chloe Dillard hated her ankles with a passion, wearing boots whenever possible.
Jo Benson had wanted a nose job since the age of eleven.
Matty O’Sullivan complained quietly about the acne that scattered across his back, appearing beneath his shirt collar in an angry red constellation.
And Jennifer Kelly, who hated her own small chest, who shamelessly took off her shirt when they were both drunk and 16, pointed at her nipples and complained they were far too long for such a flat chest and, like Ellie’s, lopsided.
Ellie stayed silent, envious of Jen’s innocuous chest.
Yes the right nipple pointed a little more straight, the left a little lower, Ellie could see if she really, really concentrated. It was kind of sweet, like two moles, noses sniffing in ever so slightly different directions.
Nothing sinister about it.
They had kissed that night and Ellie fell asleep drunk and happy and wondering if perhaps they were all in the same boat. Perhaps everybody’s bodies betrayed them a little. She knew somewhere in the back of her mind, it wasn’t the same.
It wasn’t until the nipple became consistently bullet hard and erect that she went to the doctor. She was 18 years old and taking a year out to decide what she wanted to do with herself, working in a local cafe that served full English breakfasts for £6.95.
There was nothing physically wrong with her, according to the doctor. Perhaps she was allergic to her detergent, he proffered, frowning. She didn’t bother asking how she could only be allergic in one nipple. There was no point.
She went back to work that afternoon and ate a mountain of hash browns and fried mushrooms, letting the grease leak down her chin. Her stomach felt swollen and heavy. The doctor was wrong. Everyone was wrong. She knew that if someone, anyone, kept looking for long enough, they would find something incredibly wrong with her left breast.
With the left breast. It ceased to belong to her. And yet somehow it was also at her core.
She became very clumsy, ignoring her arms and legs. The rest of her body was nothing but peripheral vision. It lost her the cafe job. Too many customers were scalded with tea or baked beans.
She cried for nearly a full day, wiped her raw face and got on with things.
She found another job at a call centre in town. She was sure whoever sat to the left of her was always turned slightly away.
She went through a short phase of one-night stands. Ellie would try to lose herself in the act, in the drink, but always became analytical, watching for proof. Soft kisses and hard bites would somehow divert around the left breast. It was left cold and alone. She gave up on those moments of quickfire intimacy.
It was colder, she was sure of it, than the rest of her body.
Ellie met Clara at the call center. Clara, thick bodied with a laugh that could crack glass. Clara who loved, loved, breasts. Of all kinds. It bordered on obsessive, Ellie thought. Clara was the kind of person who received ceramic boob mugs for Christmas, an apron with the body of a buxom beauty on it for birthdays, a stress ball with a nipple on just for fun.
Clara would make Ellie giggle ‘til her belly ached. She made her feel like she could perhaps leave the house that day, at least to get to work.
Clara would be so beautifully attentive to Ellie’s right breast, smothering it with tenderness, hands and mouth praying to it, all the while never as much as glancing at the left.
After sex, four months into the relationship, Ellie asked Clara about it.
‘I don’t know,’ Clara said, ‘I just feel more drawn to the right.’
‘Are you disgusted by the left?’
‘Of course not!’ Clara had rolled her eyes, but her teeth started to tear at the quicks of her fingers, telling Ellie a different truth.
‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Clara said.
Ellie had been accusing Clara of being afraid of the breast, again. She had collected evidence, saved up in the notes on her phone. She reeled off the list of incidents to Clara:
– ‘When we got a shower you stood behind me and put soap on my skin, onto my right breast and did a large circle around the left.
– In bed you only spoon me, never me spooning you so that you don’t have to feel it pressed up against you.
– You always hug me from behind or from the right.
– I grazed you with the left breast in the hallway and you flinched, you shuddered.’
‘This is too much, I’m sorry, I can’t handle this. I think you need to see someone. There isn’t room here for anything else—you know? It’s unhealthy. Like a kinda paranoid obsession? I don’t know. There’s a self referral service someone told me about, you could try that? I’m so sorry.’
Clara put a hand to Ellie’s face, brushing a thumb over her cheek and then squeezing her earlobe. It’s the last time Ellie remembers being touched.
Ellie did need help. But not the kind Clara meant. The rest wasn’t true though. It had driven Clara away. That thing that dwells inside her. It wants her to itself.
The dreams became more violent once Clara was gone.
Ellie would cut it off with garden shears, or some other sharp and violent tool, in each night’s dreamscape. Sometimes it would develop row upon row of serrated teeth and contort itself round to gnash off her poor little right breast.
She tried sleeping pills, to get so deep that the dreams couldn’t touch her. For a while, it just about worked.
She was beating it, she thought.
And then, of course, it started to hum.
It was quiet but sad, mournful. It would hit unnatural tones that turned her stomach and begged for the attention she refused to give it. She bound her chest up in bandages to muffle the sound so she could at least leave the house. So she could go to the shop. To work.
Everywhere she went, she sang, even though she could not hold a tune. She found herself speaking more loudly to people she interacted with, trying to mask the warbling sound, her breast strapped down tightly. She never went out for long and the humming only got louder, punctuated by whispers that she couldn’t quite make out, sniggers and gasps.
She left the call centre. Got another job doing the same kind of thing but from home. Calling people with thick headphones on, holding the microphone to her mouth from below so that it was as unlikely as possible to catch the sounds coming from her chest.
She knew it wasn’t hers. Something that couldn’t let go had lodged itself in there, freezing it to the core. Even with the bandages, the erect nipple could be seen through her t-shirt. Cold and hard and full of its wailing song. She spent her money on noise cancelling headphones, she built a bra full of foam to quieten it. She tried to soundproof herself.
She stayed indoors.
She stays indoors today, listening to her loud, erratic jazz. Anything with a regular rhythm seems to wear down, allowing the grotesque sounds back in. She turns the music up to full volume as she gets out of bed, knowing that sleep has left her now.
She makes herself toast with peanut butter and drums her fingers along to the music. She watches birds through the window of her flat, landing on the bird feeder in the flat below’s garden. Little blue and brown bodies flit back and forth with a sweet yet nervous energy. As if moving in time to her music. She would like to go outside.
Tonight she will dream of mutilation.
She is learning to be alone.
But, of course, she’s not.