Sinking

Yawen Xue

**content warning: implied suicide/hospitalization**


When they catch you escaping for the first time, you have glow worms up your sleeves. 


“The worms are for guidance,” you tell them when they demand to know. “Dad always told me dead people live in the stars and the stars guide us. I figured since I can’t take stars with me, I’ll take the glow worms.”


They exchange uneasy, maybe pitying glances and leave.


In private, you tell me it’s bullshit.


“I don’t even remember my dad anyway,” you say, twirling a lighter between your fingers. “Anyhow, they’re worms. What do you think worms are for?”


I give you a blank stare.


You sigh, deep and long-suffering and with maybe the faintest twitch of your lips. “You’re hopeless.”


“You’re the hopeless one here.”


Beat.


“They’re bait, idiot,” you tell me. “Worms are fish bait.”


Later, I lie awake and stare at the moon, white-like fish eyes, dead-like fish eyes. You’re bullshitting again, I know, like you always do. You catch fish with earthworms, not glow worms.


You’re an escape artist. Even when they’ve got you locked up in a cage smelling of twitchy fluorescent lights and cold sweat, you get away. There are little pinches of the good stuff inside your glow worm jars. Little flecks dusting insect thoraxes, bright like sickly stars against twitching bug legs.


The second time you escape, you go a little too far and I’m too busy crying over integrals to catch you.


“Your friend might not make it,” they say to me the next morning, toneless.


You’re wrapped up in a cocoon of plastic tubes.


But you’re fine, in the end. You wake up even skinnier than before.


Forgive me, I’d like to tell you. Forgive me for letting them pick out my brain and replace it with a coil of sticky pragmatic spidersilk. I can’t talk to you like this.


Don’t do it again, I don’t tell you, because that’s what they always say, and it never works.


Want to talk about it?, I don’t ask you, because I know with complete certainty neither of us does.


Please, just tell me what’s wrong. I’m here for you and I can help you, I don’t tell you, because it sounds too much like the books, it sounds like too little because how can I help you with my sticky spidersilk brain, it sounds like what you’d call cliché.


“So you’ve decided to come back,” my vocal cords say instead, and what’s left of my mind immediately wants to claw the words back down my throat.


You laugh, not a little raggedly, and slip your praying mantis elbows into mine, ignoring the way I flinch when your bone jangles into my flesh.


“Gummy worm?” you offer. When I don’t take it, you bite its head off.


The flickering lights overhead makes the neck wound too bright, too bloody. I look away.


“A penny for your thoughts?” you say. There’s a glow worm under the skin of your left wrist.


“Nothing,“ I say too quickly. You quirk an eyebrow you’d drawn on in the bathroom fifteen minutes ago.


“Sure it’s nothing.“


“Nothing much. Just wondering what that bug’s doing under your skin. It’s insane and unsanitary, you know.”


“Oh, that,” you sigh and dodge my question. “I wish you’d let me under your skin.”


One day, when you’re not around, I catch a glow worm. It’s lodged into the translucent fleshy inside of a dead snail, sucking it dry.


Snail soup. Legs scuttling gooseflesh over my skin. It’s twitchy and looks like it’d crunch if I bite into it.


The light on the tail end has no warmth.


For a second, I imagine peeling away a flap of skin and slotting the glow worm through nerves and veins and vessels blossoming red.


It’d suck me dry like a snail carcass.


When I visit you two days later, you have more glow worms embedded in your flesh. You smile a little crooked, a little like a challenge. We pretend not to see.


You’re plotting a great escape. I can see it in the way the worms wiggle frantically under your skin. Third time’s the charm, and you’re the kind of girl to trust charms and glittering things a little too much.


“Let’s go fishing,” you grin at me, all glittering clattering teeth and wolf-wide eyes and please please please don’t trust me. So off we go into the woods, to the very deepest pond we can possibly find.


The pond sings where it merges with the creek. There’s a skin of autumn leaves skimming the water, and you almost fall in, and you almost look disappointed when you don’t.


We wait here for hours and hours until the moon comes out, and there’s nothing. No fish, nothing in the pond at all underneath the leaves. The quicksilver creek water crawls here into the pond and stills and dies, and you lose a fishhook.


For a moment, the moon absconds and you’re the brightest thing around from the glow worms burrowed beneath your skin. Are your insides snail soup, too?


I’d like to stay here forever. Snail soup innards and spidersilk brain—maybe we aren’t all that different, after all.


But the moon comes out and you have to break the spell.


“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” you ask, and your voice doesn’t sound like yours.


I do. So I walk away and walk home and fall asleep over history notes.


You don’t walk with me, but your glow worms haunt me all the way into my dreams.


Third time’s the charm. Third time’s the charm. I left you in the woods on your third escape.


So when we bump shoulders the next day, we don’t talk.


There’s a stray leaf in your hair.


“I think I’m turning into a fish,” you say, chewing on a gummy worm and sounding perfectly blithe. I don’t respond—I don’t tell you I’m turning into a fish too, and whenever I open my mouth my lips flap and only bubbles come out.


You smear black tar under your eyes and your hands look like arcade claws. There’s a constellation, a whole galaxy of glow worms under your skin, ready to be mistaken for stars and pinned to the sky by someone who doesn’t know better. One of these days you just walk away. Or maybe you go for a swim and keep sinking so deep that the old forgotten fish hooks down below snag you and you don’t want to float for no one no more. I don’t look for you and you don’t come back.

About the Author

Yawen Xue is a 17-year-old writer. Born in Nanjing and currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, they love learning languages and exploring the in-between spaces of the world. They are the Editor-in-Chief of Phoenix Art and Literary Magazine, and their works have been recognized by the national levels of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. As a writer, they are influenced and inspired by post-punk lyrics and Ray Bradbury. You can find them birdwatching, overanalyzing the Cure’s songs, and having existential crises at 2 AM.