I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be touched. I don’t remember how a person feels. Soft? Peach fuzz-y? Raw, like a chicken breast? When I cook, I weigh the meat in my hand. This is flesh. If I hold it for long enough, it warms, loosens.
But it’s not flesh that wakes me up in a panic more nights than not—it’s teeth. Tonight, I stumble out of another nightmare, heart racing. I probe around with my tongue to make sure my teeth haven’t fallen out, that it isn’t just soft flesh where hard bone should be. I can never predict when I’ll have a nightmare, but I always know it’ll be about teeth.
My fingertips tingle with adrenaline as I lift my phone and navigate to my saved videos. “ASMR,” the folder is labeled. I choose a video featuring a girl named only “the Rtist.” She’s new to my playlist, but tonight I’m all hers.
My heartbeat slows as she adjusts imaginary dials on my face, all fluttering eyelashes and whispered consonant clusters. Her smile is sweet. All of her teeth are intact. As I watch and listen, warmth blooms over my body, collecting in a ring around my crown as if I’m submerged in a hot bath. Or as if she’s sitting on the edge of my bed, teasing the baby hair around my ears and neck with her long fingers, tweaking the dials until I become the kind of robot people want to touch. She’s close enough to count her freckles; in fact, I do. I count them like sheep until sleep comes.
As soon as I return to this world in the morning, I want to leave it again. It’s crunchy. Muddy. Harsh. Grainy. Noisy. Blurred.
Even before I open my eyes, I smell the dirty paper plates and greasy pillowcase. Overripe late-morning sunlight creeps in around the blackout curtain and illuminates dust motes. I always thought life would be better if I were on my own. Then everyone left, and the problems didn’t. I want to let the Rtist fill the silence, but she wouldn’t look right in the daytime; she’s a spirit of the night.
The garbage truck rumbles outside my single-pane bedroom window and I freeze. The sweet n’ sour stench of my kitchen trash hangs thick in the air. It’s too late. No communal dumpsters. I’ll have to bear it until Friday’s trash pickup. But then the knot in my gut pulls tighter. Friday’s a holiday. If I don’t catch that truck, I’ll have nightmares about not just broken and loose teeth, but also rotting pulp and gums for another week.
I thrash out of the bedclothes, pull dirty sweatpants over my boxer briefs, and run bare-chested into the kitchen. I fumble the knot once, twice as I struggle to remove the bag, and when the can topples, I don’t stop to right it. The asphalt sears the tender soles of my feet from the first step outside. Foul brownish liquid leaks out of the bag and drips down my leg. By the time I reach the street, the garbage truck is accelerating.
“Stop, for fuck’s sake!” I beseech the man hanging off the back of the truck, who watches dispassionately. Pressing his lips together, he signals to the driver and the truck slows. I catch up and thrust him the bag. He’s more careful not to touch me than he is the leaky garbage.
“Morning, sunshine,” he says. “Rooster didn’t wake ya up this morning, huh?”
All I can do is glare and pant, my scrawny, pale chest glowing in the sun like some deep-dwelling cave thing. The man hesitates, as if on the verge of asking why a boy my age isn’t at school, but then he looks away. Just as well; I wouldn’t know how to answer. The truck drives away with the rotting scraps of meat that felt almost alive in my palm a few nights ago.
I scrunch my head between my shoulders on the walk back, avoiding the eyes of my porchbound neighbors. But I mess up—I don’t notice my next door neighbor on the folding lawn chair on our shared porch until I’m staring her in the face.
She’s absent-mindedly chewing the straw of an empty smoothie cup, one leg slung over the arm of a chair that may have once been white. A bit older than I am, but chattier than a divorced retiree. Ruby, or something. Roxy. Definitely an R.
“Mornin’,” R says. This woman doesn’t blink enough.
“Good morning.” I look away and try my doorknob. It doesn’t budge. I blink incredulously, enough for both of us.
“D’ja lock yourself out?”
“No, why would I have locked it? I knew I was coming right back.”
The plastic cracks between her teeth and I wince. “Muscle memory can be a bitch.”
“Guess you’ll hafta go to the main office.”
“Yeah.” I turn.
“Hey . . .”
“D’you like ASMR?”
I have words, but they won’t hang together in a sentence.
R tilts her head. “Those videos with the whispering and stuff? Auto, sensory, meridian, response.” She lights her finger on each word as if it floats in the air between us. “A, S, M, R. Only like one in five people can feel it. You one of ‘em?”
My heart beats hard in my ears. Was she watching me? Are the walls that thin? Or did I fall victim to another unfortunate Bluetooth accident?
“Ne’er mind,” she says, returning to the phone in her hand.
“How’d you know?”
“Because I heard you listening to it in my dreams. Y’know the Rtist? Pretty lady, freckles. Looks kinda like my sister, but you’ve never met ‘er. Spooky voice.”
I vacillate, her logic not quite clicking into place.
“You do know who I’m talking about, don’tchu.” It’s a statement, not a question. Her smile is wide. She has all her teeth, but they’re too big for her face. If she ever got hit in the mouth by an errant baseball, it would be like a shotgun blast to the soft palate.
“I just started,” I confess. “Well, I’ve been watching ASMR for a while. But I only found the Rtist a few nights ago. I’m sorry if I kept you up last night. My headphones must not be working right.”
“I think they’re working fine,” she says. “And don’tchu worry, you didn’t bother me. Whatever the opposite of botherin’ is.”
My feet are insisting that we retreat inside, off the magmatic pavement. “Okay. Uh, it was nice talking to you, but I’ve got work to do.” I try the doorknob.
“Yeah okay, nice talk.” Whatever R feels about my second crack at the doorknob, her face is neutral. “By the way, there’s a whole forum for the Rtist’s videos, if you haven’t checked it out yet. You seen it?”
I shake my head.
“Here, gimme your hand.”
I see no choice but to obey. She produces a ballpoint pen from the pocket of her denim cutoffs and writes a web address on my palm in red ink, pressing so hard I suspect I may have my first tattoo. Her nondominant hand holds mine still. It’s warm, the skin softer than it looks. The goosebumps prickling over my skin do weird things to my nipples and I cross my other arm over my naked chest.
Afterward, she eyes me. “You won’t like everything on that site. My advice? Don’t watch anything after the peach one. Not yet.”
I nod, recovering my hand. After I leave, after I hang around in the office waiting for a handyman, even after I crawl back between my fetid sheets, I still feel the warmth of her hand under mine.
My laptop autoplays true crime documentaries as I scroll on my phone, waiting for nightfall. I balance in this limbo—aware but not, awake but not, actual but not—for the next seven hours, until it’s time for the night spirits to come out.
I close the laptop, stretching and prodding my skin to make out the scratchy lettering. The website, found at comfortably-numb.online, is not what I expected; my phone would look dead but for the centered search box. No banner, no logo, only black. Much like the Rtist’s videos, which have never (to my knowledge) included ads or product placements. The items she tap tap taps her acrylic nails on are always nondescript, labels removed. She has her own brand to uphold. Correction: she is the brand.
My thumbs loom over the keyboard. There’s not even a navigation menu. I type “ASMR” and hit enter, but nothing happens. Next I try my usual YouTube query, “the Rtist,” but the cursor just blinks as if impatiently tapping its foot. I chew my lip. The Rtist should bring a proper web designer on board.
All I can think to try next is “peach.” As soon as I tap the “h,” the search box disappears. For a moment I think it’s bugged, but then I see the off-black loading circle in the center of the screen. The video opens. This is the face I know, but it’s different. She’s dyed her ginger hair, now black on one side of the center part, a lighter strawberry blonde on the other. Her smile isn’t so sweet now, it’s smoky, and the ring light behind the camera washes her blue eyes out to a hazy gray. She’s . . . potent.
Why is it always beautiful young girls in ASMR? My age, some of them. What brings them to make that first video? And who decides which of them ascends to goddesshood? Why her?
The Rtist interrupts my thoughts with the eponymous peach. She whispers her secrets to it, so quietly even the microphone can’t pick out the words. Drags her rose-colored nails over the peach’s surface. I imagine the skin rising in bumps to match my own. Her eyes are full of love for the little peach and I can’t breathe. She’s sitting on the edge of my bed, moonlight captured in her strawberry hair, the peach’s fragrant skin not just perfuming but purifying the air. I am warm and safe. She touches it to her lips and nuzzles its fuzzy flesh. I feel her against my neck, my flesh, everything warm and safe.
She bites. Her teeth shred through the delicate skin, slice through tender flesh. Juices flow down to her chin. Then she pulls away, snapping fibers and tearing tissue. I can’t help it—I cry out. Through the wall, in the unit next door, I hear a woman’s muffled laughter. The Rtist looks at the camera and smiles. Fibrous tatters are caught between her perfect teeth. She swallows—a wet gulp— and returns for another bite.
I fumble with my phone until it turns off. My face and neck are cool and bloodless, my breath jagged. I wait for my pulse to slow and blood to return to my head. I’m still safe and warm. Everything’s fine. It was a peach. But when I close my eyes to sleep—vainly thinking I might do it on my own—it’s not a peach I see her bite. It’s raw chicken.
Eventually I fall asleep to videos by other ASMRtists (lesser ones, I can’t help but acknowledge) but it takes two hours, and even then my rest is fitful. I’m dreaming about teeth, but not the rotten, broken, cracked, splintered, loose, missing, jagged, fused ones I usually do. Instead my teeth are strong. I pace out my daily routine, stopping to experimentally nibble objects. I bite through my toothbrush like a candy cane. Through electrical cord like laffy taffy. I even prize a satisfying chunk out of the metal street light outside my apartment and chew it like rock candy, scraping against my teeth, tearing up my insides as I swallow—a screeching gulp.
Now I’m brushing my teeth. Spit. Mouthwash. Spit. I inspect them in the mirror, using my phone flashlight to illuminate my mouth. My gums twinge from last night, as if I’d actually bitten household items. And there’s another pain, too. I crane my neck to see a mark similar to a hickey under my ear, shaped like a shark’s displayed jaw bones. I bruise easily. I don a sweatshirt and arrange the hood to cover the not-hickey, take a deep breath in the mirror, and step outside to confront R about her fucked-up video.
What even was that website? I rehearse. I know ASMR people are weirdos, but that was messed up. Fucked up? No, too aggressive . . . “Shit!” I’m startled by R sitting on the lawn chair outside her apartment.
She raises her eyebrows. “I live here, yanno. Not like this is a chance encounter.”
“I know, I just . . .” The surprise robs me of conviction. “Didn’t expect you to be . . . so close.”
R doesn’t answer. Her attention flits back to her phone.
“I want to talk to you about the Rtist.”
She doesn’t look up. “Yeah? Heard you listening last night. Went straight for the peach video, huh? I say, ‘don’t watch anything after that one,’ so you go straight for it.”
“How can you watch stuff like that?”
“Like what?” Now she looks, eyebrows disappearing into her frizzy, blunt bangs.
“It was kinda fucked up.” Dammit, ‘messed up.’
“I’unno what to tell you, man. Don’t like it, don’t watch.”
“It had this weird, like, sexual energy.” Heat rises to my face. I’m beginning to feel stupid. “And then she bit into it and it was like biting into . . .”
“Sexual? Just cuz she’s pretty? Her face isn’t doing it specially for you, y’know.”
“Why do you watch, then?”
“Because she reminds me of my sister. Think I said that yesterday. Mama had a peach tree in the backyard and when me and my sister visited, we’d eat peaches.”
“Oh.” Who ‘visits’ their mom?
She giggles. I recognize the laugh as the one that jangled through my wall last night. “No matter what you’re looking for, it’s on that site. And everything you’re not lookin’ for, too. ” The mirth on her face evaporates. “So don’t come to me if you stumble on something not made for you.”
“How’d you find the site?”
“Friend at school showed me, ‘look how much this girl looks like Charlie.’ He was right. Then I kept watching as a joke . . . then I watched for real.”
Her story has an uncanny resemblance to my own. Watched as a joke, to see what bizarre thing the ASMRtist came up with next . . . then for real. The transition was imperceptible.
R goes on. “Back then she was just a shy girl with Walmart cameras and a dozen viewers. She’s grown into her stage name, hasn’t she?”
“Now she has leagues of followers. She uses some of them in her livestreams now, actually.”
“Yeah. Every few weeks she picks a super fan and makes a video with them. I’m still working myself up to those, but wouldn’t that be somethin’?”
To be in a video with her . . . for those smoky eyes to see into mine for real. But . . . “What if she didn’t like me?” As soon as I say it, I’m horrified I did.
R pauses. “What if you didn’t like her?”
I frown. I know the Rtist; I’ve seen her every night for weeks. In my mind I watch her tuck her hair behind her right ear, pinky pulling delicately away from the other fingers. As soon as she does, her hair looses itself, commencing an endless cycle of tucking, untucking, tucking, untucking. Pinky, pinky, pinky.
Perfect, placid smile.
R’s back to checking her phone. Her own long nails clack against the screen and suddenly I’m less anxious to leave.
“How . . . if someone wanted to be in her videos, how would they do it?”
“Same way you pick up a girl at a bar.” My stomach clenches, overpowering the chills from her clacking nails.. “Get ‘er attention.”
I disentangle myself with some difficulty. So much, in fact, that now, safe in my apartment, I wonder whether she’s as starved for conversation as I am for touch.
I spend my day trawling the internet for glimpses of the Rtist outside her native site. She’s elusive, like a ghost in a windblown forest. I can’t tell between her and a puff of air. I reverse search every thumbnail from her YouTube channel. When that doesn’t work, I move to past profile pictures cropped from screenshots of that channel. Either she’s like me—removed from social media, practically dead in the eyes of society—or she’s savvy enough to separate her personal and professional (magical?) lives.
When the sun sets, it takes me by surprise. I could’ve been in a coma all day and I’d feel no different. Time is getting slippery on me. The darkness creeps into my apartment. With each blink my room gets a bit duskier. I still don’t turn on the lights; it’s as good an opportunity as ever to sleep, I suppose.
This has become the ebb and flow of my life. I spend my waking hours waiting for sleep, and then the nightmares rob me of whatever pleasure I’d get from that. But this space, this twilight between the sour, grainy day and the toothy night, is supposed to be mine. It’s not too late to reclaim this limbo from the Rtist. There are other ASMRtists. Better ones, even if I haven’t found them yet. Ones that don’t make videos that burrow under my skin like a botfly larva, squirming, swelling, gorging.
But if there are, I can’t find them. My old favorites seem amateurish now. My skin prickles not with goosebumps but with secondhand embarrassment for these women pretending to be what the Rtist is so effortlessly. Their voices are rasping; their microphones cheap and scratchy; their hands like pig’s hooves; their teeth yellowed. To my horror, the Rtist’s early work, the videos that have unerringly put me to sleep for weeks, aren’t much better. The botfly squirms.
I relocate the peach video, hoping my anticipation will dull the blow of the first bite. My wish comes too true—the effect is diluted to nothing. I need something new. After the peach video, another automatically queues up. The publication date shows that it was posted a scant three days after the peach video. I ignore R’s warning and hit ‘play.’
The camera is pitched vertically, looking down. A blonde wooden cutting board rests on a pink background, laden with kiwis, strawberries, and mangoes. A ceramic knife rests beside the board. I recognize the Rtist’s hands—pale, slim, decorated with many silver rings that clink as she flutters her fingers before the camera.
“Hello, hello, hello, my friend. It’s wonderful to see you again.” She grasps and tugs in the foreground as if pulling me into the screen by my ears.
But I can’t see her face. I’ve almost decided to skip to the next video when she suddenly drums her long nails against the wooden board. Wood sounds—my weakness. She taps teasingly, one at a time. Then faster . . . faster. Faster, faster.
She stops with a sigh, as if to say no-no, dinner before dessert. Next, she tinks along the knife blade, before dragging her finger smoothly, deliberately, along the edge. I clench my jaw as the thread of blood emerges, shocking against the white ceramic.
“Oops,” she whispers, a laugh hiding in her voice. She’s not sitting on the edge of my bed tonight, but lying behind me, hands around and before me, big spoon whispering into the little one’s ear. “Let’s start, then, darling. Shall we?”
Her whispers are indistinct now. The kiwi is first. The blade incises through the fruit’s skin as easily as hers, as if the fruit voluntarily yields to it. The knock of ceramic against wood goes to my head like a shot of hard liquor. A few short, bristly hairs stick to the knife. Sweet juices collect in the grooves of the polished board.
The fruit parts again for the blade. The Rtist’s finger is still bleeding, and scarlet droplets bloom in the puddles of juice. With every wet plunge, air hisses between my teeth. I feel the slice but I don’t want it to stop. I’m a teething baby, pained and relieved by each loving bite.
As she finishes the fruit, kiwi then strawberry then mango, I wonder what else her archives hold, what more horrifying and beautiful things the enchantress can do. But then she pushes the neat cubes off the cutting board (into a pink sea) and replaces them with a chunk of meat. It’s bleeding onto the wood. The depressed channel around the perimeter turns deep red. I want to turn it off, but I can’t leave this warm place.
She arranges the meat tenderly. Red collects and deepens in the crannies around her fingernails. Her blood infuses with the animal’s, the being that was, until quite recently, alive. When she brings the knife down, it’s not the blade’s long edge that sinks into the flesh, but the point. Slow, serene stabbing. Like a skilled butcher slipping a knife between the jaw and neck bones of a pig, severing all the soft parts within, killing sweetly. She’s beautiful and gentle, a smile always plain in her voice. My vitality drips away.
I am gone.
I taste blood. So much fills my mouth, flowing from my wounded, glass-studded gums, that I can’t speak, can’t breathe. It doesn’t matter how much I drink, I can never keep up, until my belly is full of crunching glass shards and my lungs full of blood. I drown.
A lawnmower growls outside. My room is too warm, and my sweatpants and chest are damp with sweat. I’ve slept for twelve hours, according to my phone’s clock, and my senses are blunted by lingering grogginess. There’s only a blank spot in my memory where my dreams should be.
I haven’t slept this deeply in years. I’d forgotten what it’s like to wake up with dried drool on my cheek and muscles stiff from disuse. As I blink the sleep out of my eyes, I feel like a drowsy baby bird in the Rtist’s hands—cherished now, but crushed to death in an instant if she so chooses. Yet every night, she chooses love. I suddenly need her to know how grateful I am for that.
I dress and brush my teeth. The sun outside bears down like an interrogation light: “Three days outside in a row?” it seems to ask, “What are you doing? Who put you up to this?”
At first, there’s no answer when I tap tap at R’s door. I shuffle my feet on our shared porch, feeling very dumb. A full minute after anyone else would have tried again, I bring my fist back to the door, louder. In the moment before R opens it, I sense her on the other side.
“Seriously?” she says. Her hair looks like a place wood mice would like to live. “It’s not even eight. Not everyone goes to sleep with the sun, y’know.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I wasn’t thinking. I can come back later. Or not at all.”
She shakes her head. “I’m already up, just spit it out.”
“So, I know I was put off by the first video, of the Rtist, I mean, but then I went back to make sure and . . .”
“You were listening to the Rtist again last night. Fine, let’s start there. What d’you want from me?”
I’m asking this woman for a favor before the sun has even properly risen. The least I can do is not waste her time. “I want to talk to her.”
She leans against the doorframe, arms crossed. “You an’ everyone else who watches. Y’know there are thousands, prolly millions of people who feel the same way. She means the world to every, single, one of ‘em.”
“I want to tell her what she means to me. I want her to know my name.”
“Okay, so why are you talkin’ to me?”
This is a good question. One I probably should have considered before harassing her. “Because . . . you said you’ve been a fan for a while. You knew about the secret website and everything. And it’s not like I have anyone else to ask.”
R raises her eyebrow. Now she wants to be coy? R’s the one who (somehow) listened in on my ASMR sessions. She’s the one who ambushed me as I retreated into my home. Who set the Rtist loose in my head.
All of this, I swallow. “Please.”
R rolls her eyes. “Come on, d’you really think I’d fall for the whole puppy dog thing?”
Shame heats my ears as if sunburnt. I wasn’t trying to be endearing or cute, but polite. I’m vulnerable, not a puppy but a worm squirming on the sidewalk after the rain passes, slow-roasting to death under the interrogative sun. Not for the first time, I remind myself that this is why I don’t talk to people.
R watches this unfold as if my scalp and skull are made of clear plastic, revealing the thoughts as pink and gray gumballs rolling around inside. “Hey . . .” she says. Now her voice is almost as soft as the Rtist’s. “How old are you?”
“Uh,” I start, surprised. “Seventeen.”
“Where are your parents?”
My ears warm even more, if that’s possible. “Not here.”
“Are they coming back?”
“What are those?” She points to my forearm, limp at my side. I inspect it with the same concern evident on her face. It’s hashed with cuts, deep and short, as if made with the point of a knife. As soon as I register this, it stings.
“I dunno.” I’m not sure what expression this elicits; I can’t tear my gaze from the crusted wounds.
R exhales. “Look, you’re young, so I’ll tell you somethin’ I’d expect a grown man to know. I get that y’aren’t gonna listen, but you’ll wish you did someday.” She pauses as if anticipating protest, but I’m still distracted by my arm. “Confessions never go the way they do in your head. No matter what happens, you’ll be disappointed. Besides, I’m not gonna to help you pester a woman just livin’ her life. Okay?”
“But I’m not—”
“You gonna do it anyway?”
“I don’t want to pester her. I just want to thank her. That’s it.”
R presses her lips together.
Back inside my nest, I wash my forearm with warm water and soap, wincing. Part of me is glad R let it go so easily; another part resents her negligence. Seems I could slit my belly open and the unhappiest person to hear the news would be whoever had to replace the carpet. I set my phone alarm to remind me to order delivery pizza when the place opens, and then I start my letter to the Rtist. With or without R, I am going to reach my goddess of sleep.
Progress is unsteady. It feels, impossibly, like I’m deleting more than I’m writing—like a hateful little bird is pecking at the keyboard each time I bury my face in my hands, just so I have more bad, wrong, mortifying words to erase. As I write, I realize how lucky I’ll be if she only deletes it without reading, when she could publicly humiliate me for thinking I deserved a moment of her life. But she wouldn’t do that . . . right?
I order the pizza, charging it to a debit card linked to the trust account that supplies all my needs. Between bites, I steal glances at the Rtist, sitting on the couch beside me. Her eyelashes flutter and her cotton dress rustles against the upholstery. I speak to her in the language of clicking plastic keys, and I tell her everything. She nods along, whispering unintelligible words of sympathy, hope, and encouragement. Twice she scoots closer, until she’s all I see when I turn my head. Her lips graze my ear and her voice fills my head with warm fluff, which expands until the neurons are too far apart to converse.
It’s not the lawnmower today, but the weed whacker that wakes me up from the couch. My phone is dead on the coffee table and the screen of the open laptop is black. A fly washes its hands in the grease collected in a cup of pepperoni on the forgotten pizza. Digging goo out of the corners of my eyes, I sit up.
With a wiggle of the mouse I prod my laptop awake. It’s not my desktop or word processor but my email inbox that greets me. It’s full of the usual junk—bigger penis, ACLU, Ukrainian babes, Groupon for Seaworld—except for a single grayed-out email at the top. “Please don’t throw me away,” says the subject line. Dread constricts my throat. I read the initial email, sent from myself to firstname.lastname@example.org, which contains my letter. As my eyes stumble over the words, my head sinks deeper into my trembling hands. I didn’t use my usual signoff, the generic “Best,” but instead the melodramatic “Silently yours,” then my name. If I really try, maybe I can crush my skull and brain and all its dumb thoughts between my hands.
Below is her response. I scroll up and back down, squinting at the timestamps for each. It was sent barely a minute after I sent the letter, which is at least a few pages long. It says, “I see you. I’d like to put you in my newest video. I’ll come to your home soon.”
I click dropdowns at random, searching for missing, intermediate messages. As far as I can tell, I never asked to be in her video, or told her my address, or decided on a time to meet. I read my letter again, cringing. I can’t see this visit as anything but pitying. This isn’t how this was supposed to go, I wasn’t . . .
The doorbell rings.
Roslyn sighs as the hot water streams down her back. She hears whispering in the water and closes her eyes, savoring the suspended moment until the water turns cool. Afterward, she changes into pajamas, makes a cup of caffeine-free rose hip tea, and curls up on the couch, headphones ready.
Earlier, the Rtist announced another livestream with a superfan tonight, and for the first time, Roslyn will tune in. Maybe, by some miracle, the boy next door will have convinced the Rtist to feature him. That poor boy—lovesick for a chimera. But he’ll learn soon enough. If the woman behind the Rtist is half as sweet as her persona, she’ll set him straight without shattering him.
The lights are off; it’s beginning to rain outside. The heat from the teacup doesn’t quite burn Roslyn’s hand. She navigates to the website on her tablet (the bigger the screen, the better the tingles), turns on the blue light filter, and tunes the volume just so. “Livestream,” she searches, and today’s stream comes up as though the website knows just what she wants.
The stream hasn’t started yet. Roslyn prides herself on never being late for anything, even if she’s the only one who’ll know. She sips her tea and waits. Unlike others’ livestreamed events, the Rtist has disabled the live chat function. To each user, it feels as if they have the Rtist to themselves, that she’s speaking to them alone, right at this moment. Everyone knows the truth, but the lie is comforting. It is theater.
As always, the video opens with hands. Roslyn always hated hers, her triangular nail beds and warped fingers. By contrast, her sister’s are beautiful. She used them to teach Roslyn how to tie her shoes. The sound of fabric pulling tight still sends cool trickles over Rosyln’s scalp. Roslyn watches the Rtist’s hands now with sadness and love.
“Hello, Charlie,” Roslyn whispers. The intended recipient will never hear.
But she leans into frame with a mysterious smile. “Hello, hello, hello, my friend. It’s wonderful to see you again. Today I have something special to show you. Are you ready?”
“Yes,” murmurs Roslyn, eyes already half-closed.
Something tinkles, like porcelain beads gently shaken in a jar. It comes in a pattern: clinkclink clink. Clinkclink clink. The Rtist sings along, breathy and soft. Roslyn can’t make out the words—it may be nonsense—but she allows the ASMR current to creep from her scalp to her toes, pulsing with the rhythm.
“Let’s do something new tonight, okay? Something just for you.” Eyes still shut, Roslyn hears the Rtist unscrew the jar, the tink of the metal lid. She feels the cool, smooth glass in her hand, soothing like cold tile to a feverish forehead. There’s chaotic clinking as the objects are removed. Then a new sound—wet, crisp, puncturing.
This isn’t the hardcore experience Roslyn expected. The forums warned about the Rtist’s late work as if it were grotesque, but so far, this one’s tame. Subdued enough to put Roslyn to sleep, though it’s still early. A sleepy, relaxed, hypnotic session that doesn’t even expect her to keep her eyes open. But Roslyn does open them, because this is her first livestream and it would be rude to fall asleep five minutes in.
In the center of the frame is a length of lean meat, bloody but precisely cut. In the foreground are hands, and in the hands are makeshift jaws—two halves of an apple, round sides together. Each is studded with small, dingy-white teeth. The Rtist inserts the last few with the accuracy of an acupuncturist, each with a satisfying, penetrative crunch. Each making a spot along Roslyn’s spine tingle, then go numb. She finds she can’t move, that every insertion freezes another locus of her body. She finds she doesn’t care.
The Rtist clicks the teeth together like delicate castanets, interrupting the stream of murmurs to giggle. She places the bottom jaw on the tabletop, arranges the meat over it, then sets the other on top. Roslyn’s first pangs of anxiety come a half-second before the Rtist pushes down with both hands, leaning into the pressure with all her diminutive weight.
The teeth crackle wetly, as if a small animal were crushed under the Rtist’s hands. Teeth grind against apple, against gristle, against each other, a tight, tense sound as the animal turns to crunchy pulp. Again. Again. Roslyn tries to turn the tablet off but her arm is too heavy. Tries to look away but her neck is locked in place by the needles that aren’t in her back. In the morning, she will find tiny red pin pricks when she looks in the mirror.
The teeth bite, bite, bite through the meat until it’s all mangled, the fruit-gums bloodied, shreds of tissue wedged between the incisors. The Rtist’s whispers pause as if she’s preparing to say “the end.” And then she speaks, intelligibly, ending the letter she’s been reading throughout the stream: “Silently yours, Andrew.”
Karris Rae writes from Japan, where she lives in the “snowiest city in the world.” Her hobbies are collecting moments like pretty seaglass and making collages of her favorites in the form of fiction.