Snakes in the Periphery by Claire Boswell
(c/w: mention of self-harm)
The summer after graduation, she fell into a routine: reading herself to bed in the darkness of early morning, crashing at dawn for five hours or so and then taking her tea at noon with a mixing bowl full of Captain Crunch and a joint to smoke as she either clicked through channels or read student work for that night's class--stories about androids and wrist-cutters and police interrogations. Stories that began and ended in the same place. She wrote her comments in bright blue ink and then one day she dyed her hair bright blue.
The students gasped then fell silent that night, when she showed up to class with her hair, scalp, ears and fingertips all blueberry-stained and smurf-like. The shock of it all. She liked the attention. That same week she joined a health club where she'd sweat the color out around her ears and down the back of her neck. She liked it better when it faded.
She overshared in class, hinted at her personal traumas, gave voice to the intrusive imagery she’d begun to notice swimming around her head.
Like the acts of self harm. Split-second flashes, interrupting her otherwise mundane and unremarkable trains of thought. She'd think to herself that she needed to get something out of the trunk of her car and in her mind's eye she’d see her hand reaching in for whatever-it-was she needed and then, quickly, so quickly she could easily dismiss it if she wanted, her mind would conjure a flickering image of her other hand slamming the trunk shut on the reaching arm. Then she would return to her mental to-do list as if she hadn't just imagined severing her right arm in the back of her Hyundai.
Even more persistent were the snakes in her periphery. Once, she lay on the floor, belly-down, reading with her chin propped up on the hand that held open her book, and she could have sworn, while her eyes were on the page, that she saw, on the floor ahead of her, a little black squiggle slithering swiftly her way.
Every time, toward her. They were always after her.
The neighbor, the kind of guy who wore an American flag bandanna to cover his prematurely bald head and spoke in a deep, muddy drawl, banged on the wall and told her to shu-ut the fu-uck u-up so she did.
When she looked back to where the snake had been there was nothing there, of course. They always disappeared when she cast her gaze right at them. Instead of confronting the snake, she found herself confronting her own reflection in the long mirror she had leaning against the wall, there. Who was this woman, her eyes ablaze, hair electric blue, brittle as a lightning bolt? Maybe a mistake.
Sometimes she felt outside of herself, like she was simultaneously the couch potato and the sit-com star, and she watched herself that day, wondering if this was what it meant to lose your mind: a bad dye job, the daily struggle with impulse. A constant buzzing to swat. A bug or two to zap. The occasional swarm.
Claire Boswell lives in Richmond, VA. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Virginia Commonwealth University and teaches in the English Department at Virginia State University. Her stories can be seen in Blue Crow Magazine, The RS 500 and elsewhere. She is on Twitter at @wildboswellia.