Exclusive Excerpt: Some Side Effects May Occur by Fiona J.R. Titchenell
Rachel Blum isn’t beautiful — yet. But she’s got it all figured out. All she has to do is save up enough money as a medical test subject to have her nose fixed, and make sure her friends and family don’t notice that she’s stopped eating. It’ll all be worth it if she can get chosen as a promising new talent by the Public Aesthetics Endowment, giving her access to all the loan money she’ll need to have her body made fully camera-ready, so her acting career can finally begin.
When one of the labs she works for begins trials for a miracle beauty supplement called Swan, Rachel’s skeptical of its claims. No more starving. No more sweating. No more surgery. She’s heard that pitch before. But this treatment is different. There’s no denying it when she drops fifteen pounds and grows three inches overnight. There’s no denying it when she scores both the next lead role in Roberts High’s legendary drama department and the attentions of its uncontested leading man. And there’s certainly no denying it when her newly out-of-control appetite for flesh starts becoming murderously selective.
Prepare for a grisly and haunting tale of one girl’s quest to be good enough at last.
With nothing in it but a packet of stevia, the coffee’s flavor is reminiscent of wood pulp and bile, but it’s strong and energizing, and its warmth sends pleasant, fortifying tingles through me.
Almost fortifying enough to prepare me for Sophie’s inevitable question when I take my seat beside her.
“Hey, are you hungry?”
If I could excise two words from the English language, “hungry” would be the second one.
Particularly its use in that question, “Are you hungry?”
I feel like I’ve been asked it at least once every day for seventeen years, and I still don’t understand what it means.
When I was little, I used to think it meant, “Do you want to eat?” So naturally, it became a family joke, the way I always answered, “Yes.”
Who wouldn’t? Food is delicious.
When I got a little older, I thought I had it cracked. It meant, “Does your stomach feel empty?”
That was probably my most dangerous guess. Those were the years when I believed with all my heart that it was right, normal, my responsibility even, to keep my stomach full.
The way my parents, my friends’ parents, my babysitters all hurried to feed me, or anyone else, when we said yes, we were in fact hungry, it was so much like the way they hurried for Band-Aids when I scraped a knee or elbow. I was sure that meant it had been an accident, a mistake, to let myself get that way in the first place.
I know better now.
My latest theory is that it means something close to, “Do you choose to eat now?”
That’s how I’ve come to answer it, anyway. After all, there has to be some correct combination of quantity, timing, and type of food, right?
And knowing that combination, I can choose to stick to it, no matter how unpleasant. It’s not like my body will eat things all by itself without my permission, no matter how my mouth waters or my stomach aches. I’m not fighting cancer cells here, some microscopic struggle my mind can hardly touch. No, for the fat to exist, at some point I have to choose to put the calories in my mouth, chew, and swallow.
What could be easier to control?
The right combination is clearly not the one my taste buds and growling stomach cry out for, but the balance has to exist, the one that will keep me thin enough to catch an Endowment or agency scout’s eye, and to live a real person’s life of romance and adventure and accomplishment in the meantime. Thin enough to be capable of anything, without landing me in the psych ward with my hair falling out.
I can’t let that happen to me either. I can’t lose it, can’t push too far and eat my single apple a day until I pass out in front of a crowd and the doctors come to get me, to make all those agonizing choices about my hunger for me.
I’ve met girls who’ve gone that way.
They’re beautiful, the ones who live, anyway, in their fragile, mysterious, tragic way. People like them, pity them, are fascinated by them, but they don’t trust them. There’s always the unspoken fear that they could be nursing a fresh psychotic break, and it keeps them at arm’s length from everything.
Sometimes they do get picked by agencies or the Endowment, more often than fat girls, anyway, and the ones who get picked or can afford their own extra surgeries do scrounge up some good acting work, but with the endless therapy, the outpatient treatment, the special accommodations required whenever they do anything, their method of existence looks almost as restrictive as being fat.
And I couldn’t afford that kind of help anyway.
So I’ve mastered the science of eating, through the same methods I use on everything: study and stubbornness.
And I mean I’ve mastered every part of it.
I know how many calories are in a five ounce baked potato, how much fiber, how many carbs, where it falls on the glycemic index, what fraction it is of the daily maintenance allotment for my BMI.
More importantly, I also know how to order it like someone who doesn’t.
It’s phrases like “hold the butter,” “easy on the bacon,” and “lowfat sour cream” that give you away. Ask for it with “nothing on it, but with green onions on the side and leave the bottle of malt vinegar,” and if you sigh just right when you take the first bite, enough but not too much, like you’re normally above noticing food, but this almost changes your mind, you can actually convince people that that’s how you like it best.
That you couldn’t care less about the subtle, childhood comfort aroma of the American cheese pooling on the plate of the person next to you.
When I answer that question, “Are you hungry?” to the effect of yes, no, or a little, based on a predetermined mathematical formula drawn from chemistry, biology, and the all-important variable of social obligation, no one could possibly tell that my words are anything but spontaneous honesty.
I am an actress, after all.
I think this must be what all the most naturally beautiful people do. We act almost the same, and soon we’ll look almost the same, so there’s no reason to assume we’re that different inside. It must be an act of sheer will for anyone to be anywhere close to beautiful without help when the alternative is so easy and restful and tastes so good.
Occasionally, I wonder. I wonder if there are people who really are as indifferent to food as I pretend to be, who honestly don’t want more than beauty allows.
I wonder if beauty allows more for them than for me.
I wonder if there’s meaning for them in words like “no thanks, I had an eggnog latte yesterday,” words which I can only repeat phonetically.
I wonder if I’m an imposter, trying to be something close to a natural, potential beauty by starving about as effectively as I could be a mermaid by holding my breath.
Mostly, I wonder if someday I’ll slip and tell the truth, if someone will ask me that awful question, “Are you hungry?” and I’ll answer, “Perpetually.”
But only sometimes.
Then I remind myself who I am.
I am Rachel Blum, future household name.
I am the girl who can do what it takes.
I am the girl who makes things happen.
I am the Endowment’s next big thing, whether they know it yet or not.
I am the girl who can trump genetics and money with sheer force of will.
If I can’t do it, no one can.
I will be chosen, because there is no alternative, and once I am, everything will be okay.
Yeah, I know, take that, million others like me.
I answer the question for Sophie with a shrug.
“Not really. Stop for something if you want to.”
Fiona J.R. Titchenell is an author of young adult, sci-fi, and horror fiction. She graduated with a B.A in English from California State University, Los Angeles, in 2009 at the age of twenty, is represented by Fran Black of Literary Counsel, and currently lives in San Gabriel, California with her husband and fellow author, Matt Carter, and their pet king snake, Mica.
On the rare occasions when she can be pried away from her keyboard, her Kindle, and the pages of her latest favorite book, Fi can usually be found over-analyzing the inner workings of various TV Sci-Fi universes or testing out some intriguing new recipe, usually chocolate-related.
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