Felt in the Jaw

Felt in the Jaw by Kristen N. Arnett

Tammy thought her backyard never looked so much like a vacant lot as it did at twilight. The grass stood tall and weedy in some parts alongside bare patches of dirt where the ground was scraped and dead. Anthills poked up at odd intervals, the ants threading back and forth between them in red and black highways. At dusk the sun sat like a fat Easter egg, its dye running burnt orange through the branches of the trees.

“Out of the way.” Tammy pointed at her oldest with the end of the tent pole. “Get your sister a marshmallow.”

The air was thick with humidity and the smell of damp leaves, which probably meant rain. It wasn’t ideal weather for an outdoor party, but it was too late for a change of plans. It was her youngest daughter’s birthday. There was no cake and streamers, just Tammy and her two girls camped out under the stars.

“Can we split a candy bar?” Laura waggled the bag of minis in her face.

“No,” Tammy said, then ignored when her daughters opened the bag anyway.

They were using the red pup tent she’d gotten her youngest as a birthday gift. It had cost less than thirty dollars, which was good because her budget was already stretched thin. There’d been few present options that didn’t seem cheap or meaningless, so when she’d finally found the tent sitting alone on the shelf, it had felt like kismet. She’d stood in the store aisle, holding the box, dreaming up memories with her daughters that would last a lifetime – gathering wood from their yard for a campfire, crunching on trail mix in ziplock bags, breathing in the cool night air and drifting peacefully off to sleep. She’d picked up a few dollar flashlights and a tiny igloo cooler for sodas and figured she’d assemble the tent around noon, which would give them plenty of time for activities.

It had taken three hours to set up. Tammy had wormed the rods through the small plastic openings as the grass and weeds itched her ankles. Bugs would fly directly at her face no matter how hard she’d swatted at them, attracted by the sweat beading above her lip and along her hairline. There were mosquito larvae wriggling in the puddle water out back by the shed, their bodies rolling in the plant detritus and muck. By the number of bites dotting her arms and legs, Tammy imagined she’d have malaria by the end of the night. But her youngest daughter’s face had lit up with excitement once the tent finally stood upright on its shaky legs and the torture had seemed worthwhile.

Sitting inside its warm red glow, it felt like a cozy cabin. Tammy wanted to read the girls from the Little House books, but they rolled their eyes at her. Instead they’d wanted to tell each other scary stories with the flashlight pressed under their chins, their missing baby teeth turning their faces into hollowed out jack-o-lanterns. Tammy didn’t think this was such a great idea. Laura was her oldest and she loved to scare her younger sister – she was smart and loud and quick to get angry when people told her no. Maggie was her youngest and her sweetheart, though she cried easily and hated doing anything that might make her sweaty. She was already complaining about the dirt on her shorts after the first fifteen minutes of sitting outside, and Tammy was beginning to feel sorry she’d cheaped out and planned a backyard camping trip instead of just taking the girls to an amusement park.

But there’d been s’mores, and though they’d been messy, they’d been delicious and the girls had each had four. She’d been able to coax fire from the damp wood with the help of some strangled bits of newspaper, crunched up in her kids’ sweaty palms. They’d eaten hotdogs cooked on bent coat hangers and they’d tasted okay and the kids had actually eaten them. The fire had a comfortable smell that made Tammy feel happy, like bundling up under blankets. Even the choking, smoky parts fed her nostrils like Christmastime. It reminded her of cold nights when her father had played the guitar for their family and they’d sat around the fireplace and eaten popcorn balls. She and her girls sang silly songs, commercial jingles and patriotic anthems, and when they’d gotten tired out they’d all crawled inside the tent together. It was just as cozy as she’d imagined; the three sleeping bags piled nearly on top of each other, her two babies snuggled on either side of her. For the first time since her wife had left, they’d felt like a family again. Tammy was able to smile and mean it for a few minutes before she’d drifted off in the sweltering plastic of the tent.

When the bite happened, Tammy hadn’t even opened her eyes. She’d stayed in the barely cognizant place between wake and sleep, rubbing at the spot with one hand twisted up behind her back in the sleeping bag. It had felt like the start of an ingrown hair or maybe a pimple. The pain was sharp and sudden, but not anything worth waking the kids over. Tammy decided to ignore it, burrowing down, pulling the sleeping bag over her face and dropping right back to sleep.

Tammy woke again abruptly sometime later, her stomach roiling. She sat up and pressed a hand against her back. It ached, as if she’d slept with her spine curled around a metal pole. It was black in the tent, but she could feel Maggie’s leg beside her. It was kicked out from her sleeping bag, which made Tammy think she’d just gotten an accidental strike to the kidney. Then her stomach pitched again, and she wondered if it would help to use the bathroom or if she could even try to do that without waking up either one of the girls. Maybe she’d had too many hot dogs – or maybe they’d gone bad? She’d bought the grocery store off brand because they were cheaper. She hoped her kids wouldn’t get sick, too.

Her stomach lurched and she scrambled to sit up. Tammy fumbled for her flashlight, fingertips skimming the slippery tops of sleeping bags and grazing the soft skin of an arm. After digging between the pillows, she finally she found her phone. She brought it up to her face and clicked one of the buttons, and the blue glow made her eyes want to seal closed again.


“Go back to sleep, baby, it’s fine.” She nudged her youngest daughter’s head back down against her pillow. Maggie’s hair was drenched with sweat.

The screen on her phone told her that it was after two in the morning. There was a heavy feeling in her bladder and a sharp pain behind her eyes. Tammy worked the sleeping bag down her legs and immediately started shivering. Her fingers trembled and the phone screen shook in her hand. There were two emails from work that she ignored and a curt text from her ex about when she’d be by the next day to pick up the kids. Tammy put down the phone and crawled to the front of the tent, sliding her knees slowly along the ground so she wouldn’t pull anyone’s hair or smash any fingers. The tent’s front was zippered closed and she fumbled for the tab. When she found it, the zipper stuck in three places before finally opening a hole wide enough for her to crawl through. It was drizzling. As she peeled apart the tent flaps and pushed her head through the gap, fat drops of water fell into her hair from off the top of the tent and her teeth chattered violently.

Overhead the moon was a pale smudge behind the low hanging clouds. She wasn’t wearing shoes and she hadn’t mown the grass in a few weeks, so the weeds slapped wetly against her legs. Tiny moths and other bugs floated up from the ground, drifting past her face as she made her way to the house. Melissa always used to mow the lawn—that was her thing, and Tammy had taken out the garbage and cleaned the bathrooms. Now Tammy had to do all those things and work full-time and plan a camping trip in the backyard with half of the money it took it do it. Everything felt too hard all the time, like trying to do three people’s jobs. It made her tired and irritable, and she felt like running away from all her problems. Tammy wasn’t sure how she’d get anything done if she was actually sick.

The sliding door looked like the entrance to a cave. She flattened her hands against the glass and felt her back twinge sharply, as if someone had grabbed a fistful of her muscles. She’d left the air conditioning running in the house, and the cold combined with the humidity of outside dragged up a layer of goosebumps on her skin. Her teeth began to chatter again, and she couldn’t get them to stop even when she gritted her teeth. It was dark in the living room, but she knew her way around even without the light to guide her. They’d owned the house for seven years, and even though Melissa wanted to sell it, Tammy had outright refused. She’d shaped the way the furniture sat in every room, picked the rug for the front hall, and brought her babies home to their freshly painted rooms. Their childhood artwork cluttered its walls and their growth was marked on the wall next to the garage.

Her eyes burned as she clicked on the wall switch in the hall bathroom and the buttery yellow halogens came on over the mirror. Tammy had avoided looking at her reflection for a while now. Her appearance was always shocking to her – the enlarged pores on her cheeks and nose, the stray dark hairs sprouting up under her chin – things that she hadn’t noticed even six months ago. After Laura, her flesh gone a little doughy, but after Maggie it had permanently dented and dimpled at her waist and hips. The creases in her neck looked like the trunk of a tree. As she leaned in, she saw that the whites of her eyes were flushed bright pink, and as she moved in closer to get a better look, the muscles in her back seized up. She fell against the sink, banging her hip against the edge of the vanity.

“Oh god, shit.” The pain came in waves, cresting and falling before building up again to something unbearable. She reached her hand beneath her shirt and rubbed at her back. There was an ice pick feeling that ran down her spine as if someone had stabbed her. When she pulled up the hem of her t-shirt and twisted sideways, there was a mark in the center of her back. It was an angry red, streaked and dark, like someone had pressed a lit cigarette to her skin. She touched it gently with the tips of her fingers and blinked to clear the sleep from her eyes. She’d left her glasses in the bedroom, hadn’t thought to bring them out into the tent where one of the girls could step on them in the middle of the night. It hurt to touch the mark; it was radiating heat and looked puffy.

There was ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet. The bottle rattled loudly. Only three pills left. She thought about the grocery list she always kept on the fridge and how there was no one left to go to the store. Melissa used to pick up groceries and Tammy had written the list. Tammy had loaded the dishwasher and Melissa had unloaded it. One of them would take the garbage cans out to the curb for pick up on Monday evenings, and the other would drag the empty cans back up to the house the following afternoon. Tammy missed their easy routines almost as much as she missed having a body beside her in bed every night. There were other medicines up in the cabinet, leftover prescription bottles that weren’t hers that were probably expired. Melissa used to make her keep everything, old leftover oxycodone from a root canal, hydrocodone from a pretty miserable ear infection four years ago. When she’d tried to throw them out, Melissa had been livid.

“What if one of us gets hurt?” Melissa had dug the orange plastic bottles out of the trash and wiped the coffee grounds from their sides.

“Then we’d go to the doctor.” Tammy thought that was self-explanatory.

“What if we couldn’t afford it?” Melissa had asked. The prescription had been old already; the typescript on the label had begun to fade. “What would we do then?”

Tammy looked at those bottles now and understood. She set them both on the counter, just in case the ibuprofen wasn’t enough. She swallowed down the three pills with a handful of water from the tap, and when she bent over to drink from her palm, the slicing pain up her back almost made her choke on them.

She walked back through the darkened house. Colors swam in her eyes, so she stopped behind the couch and pressed her hands down into the cushion while she tried to reorient herself. Her phone was still in the tent with the girls. She wondered if she’d have to call for an ambulance or if she’d be able to drive herself. How did a person know it was time to call the hospital? Didn’t someone else usually make those decisions? Her insurance hadn’t kicked in yet at her job, the new overpriced plan she’d had to take since she couldn’t be on Melissa’s insurance anymore. How much would an overnight visit be out-of-pocket?

Turning to look outside, Tammy pressed her face against the sliding glass door and let the coolness soothe her. When she lifted her forehead, she saw she’d left a rectangular smear of grease. Her hair was dirty and tangled. When she brushed it off her face and neck, her skin felt like boiled chicken.

“I need a shower,” she said. “I can’t go anywhere like this.”

Instead of bathing, she walked back out into the yard. She was unsteady, leaning forward, hoping that would help her back not hurt as much. There was a large branch that had fallen after a thunderstorm the previous week, and bits of broken stick jabbed her bare feet. When she reached the orange tree in the center of the yard, her stomach protested and she leaned against the trunk and threw up. What came out was a mix of hot dogs and barely digested pills, which were chalky and bitter. The taste of it made her gag again, so she wiped her tongue on the hem of her t-shirt. She stayed bent in half for a second, panting, worried what would happen when she tried to stand up again.

“Mom?” Laura poked her head through the flaps of the tent. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, go back to sleep.”

“Are you sick?”

Tammy’s oldest was a noted hypochondriac. If someone complained of a sore throat, suddenly Laura had the flu. When Maggie had broken one of her fingers in a slammed car door, Laura had worn a sling around for a week and claimed she’d broken her arm falling off the backyard tire swing.

“No, just trying to cool off. It’s hot in the tent.”

“I’m hot, too.”

“I’m coming back inside,” Tammy said. “Don’t wake your sister.”

Her girls needed her. There was nothing else she could do. Tammy stood up slowly, the muscles in her back spasming violently. Laura had found one of the flashlights and was shining it in Tammy’s face, nearly blinding her.

“You don’t look so good.”

Tammy fought the urge to throw up again. “Move, please.”

Laura backed up and Tammy got to her knees and crawled inside the tent. She opened up her sleeping bag to climb back in, and then thought better of it.

“Give me the flashlight.”

Laura handed it to her and Tammy pointed it at the inside of her sleeping bag. At first all she saw was piled up felt and a hole where the stuffing had started to pull loose in one of the corners. Then her eyes focused and she saw a dark blob near one of the middle seams of the sleeping bag. She brought the light closer and made out spindly legs and a black torso – the crushed body of a spider. She prodded it with the front lip of the flashlight to see if it was still alive, and the legs jerked. Tammy brought down the flashlight and crushed it. Laura leaned over her to see and Tammy snapped off the light, pitching them into darkness.

“What was it? A bug?”

“No, just a leaf that was poking me. Let’s go to sleep now before you wake up Maggie.”

“I’m awake.” Maggie rolled over onto her side and put her hand on Tammy’s leg. “I’m thirsty.”

Tammy’s teeth were clenched and her jaw ached. Whenever she tried to relax her muscles, her teeth started chattering again. She used the side of her hand to swipe out the remnants of the spider and then climbed back into her sleeping bag, pulling it up to her chin.

“I’m hot, I want to go inside.”

“Me too.” Maggie’s voice was near her ear. “Momma, I’m thirsty, though.”

“Please go to sleep.” Tammy pulled the sleeping bag up over her head. She couldn’t handle dealing with the girls, not with how she was feeling. The last time she’d been really sick had been the time Maggie brought home the flu from pre-k, and they’d all come down with it. It had been miserable – throwing up in different bathrooms, the body aches, huddling together in their big bed and watching cartoons until Tammy wanted to scream at them all to get out and leave her alone, to let her be sick in peace. At the time she thought that nothing could be worse than that feeling.

One of the girls prodded at her back with their fingers, and she bit into the stuffing of the sleeping bag to keep from yelling.

“Momma, please. I’m thirsty.”

“I said go to sleep.”

Tammy didn’t use that voice very often, and it wasn’t one she’d ever used on her daughters. She was the nice mom, the one who let the girls stay up late and eat cereal for dinner. This was the tone she once used on an unfriendly dog that had come up behind her when she was out jogging. It had pressed its open teeth against her leg and growled and she was so scared that she’d used the deepest, worst voice she could think of to get the dog to leave her alone – a voice that said I am meaner than you think I am, and if you keep doing what you’re doing I will hurt you.

Maggie rolled over and cried into her sleeping bag.

Tammy’s teeth chattered and she pressed her hand up into her cheek to massage the growing ache. It was a burrowing pain, like she’d bitten down on something and her jaw had cracked. She hoped that there was still something left of the ibuprofen in her stomach from when she’d thrown up in the yard. Getting up to get more medicine seemed impossible. Tammy counted the seconds it took to breathe in and then breathe out over the space of five lungfuls of air. She repeated it until she finally fell back to sleep.

When she woke again, it was still dark in the tent. She’d been having a dream that she was at a chiropractor and he was digging his fingers deep into her back. She asked him to stop, but he just kept pushing, saying it always hurts at first, but then the hurt makes it feel better. She wanted to get up from the table but her legs were in stirrups, like how it was when she’d gone to the OB/GYN, or when she’d had her babies and Melissa had hovered over her like a restless bird. When she cracked open her eyes there was nothing to see, just noises: rustling coming from the left side of the tent nearest to the fence, scraping and crunching in the dead leaves. A stick fell over in the fire pit she’d had with the girls and made a clang when it banged against the metal lip.

There was a wet patch by her face on her pillow, the pillow from the bed that she’d taken from the house. There was just the one pillow left on her side now, because Melissa had taken her two when she’d left. For the nine years they’d been together, Melissa had two pillows and Tammy had one, so that when they slept side by side their heads were always raised at two different angles. They’d never been able to sleep comfortably because of it.

The pillowcase was dirty. She hadn’t washed her sheets in weeks. It was hard to remember to take care of things for herself without Melissa there to remind her. She always remembered things for the girls – their chewable multivitamins, brown bag lunches for school – but never remembered to give herself medicine, or make sure that she ate the right amount of vegetables, or even to bring a sweater with her in case she got cold. Tammy could remember her mother caring for her when she was young, but mostly she remembered Melissa putting her hands against her fevered cheeks. She could remember the way those cool hands felt when they smoothed along the hot column of her neck. Tammy wondered if anyone would ever touch her neck again in just the right way that made her feel okay with her body. The kind of touch that understood all the bumps and ridges and dips, the way that she could remember the hands on her now without physical contact.

Melissa was supposed to pick up the girls tomorrow in the early afternoon and the house was a wreck. She wasn’t going to be able to clean it in a way that made it look like she was doing fine on her own. They’d been together so long that she didn’t know how to be by herself anymore, didn’t know how to react when she talked with people or had to do things like make dinner. Now everything was for three or for one, odd numbers that confused her after so many years of even amounts. But she also didn’t know Melissa anymore, definitely not the person who’d taken so few things from the house when she’d left. No furniture, no mementoes, not anything they’d bought together. Just enough clothes to fit into a single bag, the kind of luggage you took for a carry-on for a flight that would bring you back in three or four days.

Drips of sweat pooled in her lower back and her skin itched. When she reached behind her to swipe at it, the muscles in her back clenched and her teeth came down hard enough to bite through her lip. The blood tasted sharp on her tongue. Tammy tried to imagine the pain in her back as a tangible object; one she could push through her body and out of her mouth, tried to make her muscles relax back to their normal shape.

She was used to visualizing pain. Melissa had gotten migraines every few months. Tammy would darken the room and put the lavender powder on the sheets, and pull out the cooling cloth for her forehead. Then Tammy would sit on the side of the bed and feel the downy-soft hair at Melissa’s scalp, scratching at her like she would one of their cats. The month before she’d moved out, Melissa had cropped off nearly all of her hair. The soft maple sugar curls that had been Tammy’s favorite thing, sweet ringlets like a doll’s hair, shorn off into a buzz cut that had turned her partner into a stranger. In moments where she was honest with herself, Tammy had wondered whether Melissa was sick, if maybe she had some kind of cancer, and Tammy hadn’t wanted to know about it. She’d hoped Melissa wouldn’t tell her, because all she could think about was how hard it would be on her and the kids if they had to watch Melissa collapse inward while the rest of the family orbited her like a dying star.

The noise outside the tent kept pulling Tammy in and out of sleep. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on where the pain was coming from, radiating through her lower back, but also in her legs. The tightness of her cheek and jaw was terrible. She wondered if she should call someone. Her parents lived four hours away, and her brother and sister both lived out of state. Their friends had been their friends and that made things hard. She couldn’t stomach their pity.

Tammy pressed the speed dial for Melissa and wondered what she would do if someone else answered the phone – a voice she didn’t recognize, or worse, a voice that she might know. The phone rang and rang and then it went to voicemail. Not even Melissa in the message, just a robotic answering service telling her she could leave a callback number.

There was a little bit of drool leaking from the side of her lip from where she was clenching her teeth and she wiped it away. The phone glowed bright all of a sudden and she saw Melissa’s face close to her own. It was a picture of her partner from a few years back, a side shot in the sunlight with the kids at an amusement park. It had been a last minute stopover on their trip back from the mountains, coming home from a vacation that hadn’t gone well. The amusement park had been rundown and it was off-season. There’d been an animal safari tour where they hadn’t seen a single animal aside from some ratty looking squirrels, and the girls had ridden on swings with long rusted chains that squealed every time they’d shifted in their seats. When she’d taken the picture, Melissa had been holding up a drippy waffle cone for one of the girls to lick, and she’d been frowning as the chocolate dripped down into her sleeve. Tammy had thought the picture was cute because it showed how aggravated Melissa looked all the time, but now it just seemed like she looked really unhappy, and maybe Tammy could have looked at this picture before Melissa had left and known what would eventually happen.


“What’s wrong?”

And the voice was like calling home from far away. It reminded Tammy of being at camp during summers when she was young, how she’d missed her family and would call them to come and get her. Everyone’d sounded really tinny and unreachable. Melissa’s voice was like hearing home from a very long distance and wondering if she’d ever get back there again.

“Is everything okay? Are the girls sick?”

“No.” Tammy had to hold her breath so she wouldn’t cry.

“Then what is it?”

Tammy listened to hear a second voice breathing in the background, a voice that might be in the bed with Melissa, maybe wrapping an arm around Melissa’s middle, because even though Melissa was taller than everyone she knew, she always insisted on being the little spoon.

“Are you drunk?”

“No, I’m not drunk.” Talking this much made her jaw ache. “Something happened.”

“With the girls?”
“No, with me.” Tammy could feel Melissa evaluating whether this was still her problem. “A spider. I think a spider bit me. It hurts.”

“How do you know it was a spider?”

Tammy shifted and the muscles in her back creaked and groaned like an old mattress.

“There was a dead spider in the sleeping bag. It’s a fucking spider bite, okay? Jesus Christ.”

“Do you need to go to the hospital?”

“I don’t know.” Her whole body was on fire. When she rubbed her hand against her leg, it came back sopping with sweat, like she’d been doused with a hose.

“I’ll be over in a minute.”

Melissa hung up in her ear. Tammy didn’t know whether she felt relieved or disgusted with herself.

She must have fallen asleep again, because the next thing Tammy knew was that there was something touching her leg through the sleeping bag. It was aggravating, like being trapped by a seatbelt. When she kicked her leg to free herself, the muscles in her back clenched into one big cramp. She moaned low in her throat.

“Do you need me to come inside?” It was Melissa. She’d stuck her hand through the gap in the tent flaps and grabbed onto Tammy’s ankle.

“No,” Tammy said. “I can do it.”

She forced herself to sit up. Melissa’s fingers wiggled at her as she crawled across the sleeping bag between her two daughters, their two daughters, and remembered so many things about those hands. How they’d touched her face and her thighs, how they were tough enough to open jars of spaghetti sauce, how they could play Skylark on the piano in their living room. Those hands had been in the delivery room, one holding Tammy’s hand and the other one holding their firstborn baby, smiling down at her through watery eyes and a grin so big you’d have though Tammy had won an Olympic medal and not just pushed out a kid.

She let Melissa pull her up through the tent flaps and into the oppressive humidity. It was still dark, but Tammy could see that Melissa had driven over in her pajamas and that her hair had grown out into a softer, curlier cut than the last time they’d seen each other. Melissa helped her across the lawn and touched the small of her back, and it hurt Tammy to think that Melissa could still treat her so carefully, even though the last time they’d spoken over the phone the discussion had devolved into a screaming argument over whether the girls could stay with Melissa for an extra weekend next month.

Inside the house, they both walked straight to what had been their bathroom. Melissa dropped her hand and Tammy felt the disconnect like someone had carved them apart. Her own fingers trembled, so she clenched them into a fist.

“Did you take any of these?” Melissa held up one of the old prescription bottles.

“No, I took some ibuprofen, but I barfed them up.”

“Do you know what kind of spider?”

“I don’t know, it looked black, maybe?”

Tammy leaned against the counter and tried to take smaller breaths. Whenever she filled her lungs too full, she could feel them pressing against the muscles in her back, muscles stretched so tight that they felt rigid and breakable. The smell of Melissa was in the room, too – like bread right out of the oven. When they’d first started dating, Tammy had called Melissa her Pillsbury dough boy and Melissa hadn’t spoken to her for a week afterward.

“Is it okay we left the girls outside?” Tammy didn’t want them to wake up and be afraid.

“Yeah, let them sleep.” Melissa opened one of the prescription bottles and gave her one of the yellow pills. She filled up one of the little paper cups from the tap and handed it to Tammy.

“I don’t think you need to go to the hospital – I think you just need sleep.”

“I’m not sure.” Tammy looked at the pill. “What if I get too sick?”

“I’ll stay here. I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“You don’t have to do that.” Tammy thought about the possible warm body waiting back at Melissa’s apartment, the probable friend that she knew, maybe a person of her acquaintance.

“It’s fine, I’ll stay.”

“Don’t you have someone waiting for you?” After she’d said it, she couldn’t look at Melissa’s face to see her reaction.

“It doesn’t matter.”

The ache in Tammy’s jaw intensified. It was sharp and pinching like all her feelings were being crushed between her back molars. She clenched her jaw and swallowed hard so she wouldn’t cry in front of this person who owned nearly ten years of her life. Then Tammy opened her mouth and took the medicine. When she saw herself in the mirror over the sink, she couldn’t reconcile what she saw with her own body – how her hair was greasy and dark, with white at the temples, like a dog that had suddenly aged without the owner’s knowledge. Her lips were pale. She wondered how she was supposed to rework herself to promote what she had to a new person, like Melissa had done. How did people give everything of themselves to someone, their comfort, their sweetness and their horribleness, and then expect to give it to someone else all over again?

She leaned back against the counter. When her hip hit the granite, she cried out. Melissa grabbed her upper arms so she wouldn’t fall over, and when she felt her hands on her skin, Tammy collapsed inward. She pressed her nose into the crook of Melissa’s neck and inhaled. Melissa’s hands were strong on her back and she felt something give, like a rubber band tensed to snap. Tammy’s jaw unclenched, and it felt like it wanted to unhinge from itself like a snake and swallow Melissa whole.

Kristen N. Arnett is a fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Tin House, Kenyon Review, and Lambda Literary Foundation. She was awarded Ninth Letter's 2015 Literary Award in Fiction and was named an honorable mention for Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, The Greensboro Review, Portland Review, Grist Journal, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett