Lisa von Biela
Darlene nearly dropped her apartment key in her haste to get in. She'd missed lunch because she'd had to straighten out a last-minute scheduling snafu for her boss, the thankless jackass. Now her stomach was growling and her hands were shaking.
She opened the door and flipped on the light as another rumble issued from her stomach. Her cat sat in the kitchen doorway, twitching the end of her tail.
"Hi, Gracie baby. Ready for dinner? I know I am." Darlene shuffled to the kitchen as fast as her swollen ankle would allow.
The pudgy grey tabby welcomed her by threading herself through Darlene's ankles and rubbing against her legs. She looked up with wide green eyes and meowed in anticipation.
"Hang on, Gracie. Don't trip me. I'll feed you as soon as I'm done."
Darlene slung her purse onto one of the kitchen chairs and pulled a bucket of leftover fried chicken and a bowl of potato salad from the refrigerator. Shaking with hunger, she stood at the counter and devoured first a drumstick, then a thigh. The chicken was stiff with cold, congealed grease, but it began to ease the pangs in her stomach.
Gracie leapt up onto the counter and tried to pilfer a piece of chicken from the bucket.
"Get down from there!" She scooped up the cat and gently plopped her back onto the floor. "Here you go." She tossed a small scrap of meat to the cat. Gracie caught it in mid-air, and hunkered down to chew it.
Darlene grabbed a fork and finished off the potato salad. Without a pause, she retrieved the chocolate ice cream from the freezer and spooned from the container until it was nearly gone.
She put the carton down and shook her head as she realized she'd done it again. She'd gone straight from hungry to stuffed, somehow running the stop sign at metabolic breakeven.
If it weren't for Sarah. She immediately chided herself for thinking such a thought. It wasn't fair to blame Sarah.
She sighed, wiped her hands on the dish towel, and cleared away the remnants of her dinner. She moved slowly now, her stomach uncomfortably full, the rush over. She opened a can of cat food and emptied it into a dish on the floor.
"Here, Gracie. Dinner." Her voice was flat with despair. She went to her bedroom to change out of her work clothes while the cat greedily gulped her food.
Darlene flopped down in her worn brown recliner and switched on the television with the remote. She listlessly clicked through the channels, stopping on one of the trashier talk shows. Like a sheep before slaughter, a grossly overweight young girl sat in the center chair, unaware that her true love was about to dump her on national television. Doesn't it hit them why they're on the show? Guess they're supposed to be fat and dumb.
Sure enough, the boyfriend came out, and after some brief preliminaries, dumped the girl. The crowd booed and hissed. Then for good measure, they brought out his new girlfriend. Of course. This one's skinny and blonde. Can you blame him?
Darlene surveyed her own girth. Somehow, it seemed the pounds had just crept on over the years, one by one, until now she filled the recliner.
She flipped through the channels some more. Beautiful, skinny people everywhere. Probably bulimics, the lot of 'em. All those false smiles. Like poor Sarah.
She wondered again--as she always did when she thought of her sister--how miserable Sarah must have been under that cheerful facade. Ten years later, she still could not comprehend that kind of compulsion.
Gracie hopped up onto her lap, interrupting her thoughts. Grateful for the distraction, Darlene scratched behind the cat's ears, her favorite spot.
"Hey, cat, how was your day, huh?"
Gracie slowly closed her green eyes and purred blissfully. Ignoring the television, Darlene relaxed and enjoyed the cat's unconditional affection. Gracie'd been her best friend since she'd lost Sarah. Always there for her, never critical. She dozed off to the comforting sound of her rumbling purr.
Several hours later, she awoke with the cat curled up asleep at her side. Late night programming had kicked in, pumping out infomercials one after the other.
Through bleary eyes, Darlene watched the gorgeous, toned ex-model expound the virtues of some contraption.
"The BodyCizer is the ONLY affordable home gym that works on ALL your major muscle groups! Just WATCH the pounds melt off! I use the BodyCizer EVERY DAY, and I LOVE it! It helped me get back in shape only ONE month after the birth of my second child! Call NOW for our special price! Financing and delivery available! The BodyCizer will change... your... LIFE!!"
The camera moved in close for the final shot. It seemed to caress the ex-model's wondrous curves before ending with a close-up of her magazine-perfect, smiling face.
Yeah, sure. Just that easy, huh? Darlene smacked the Off button on the remote and tossed it onto the coffee table. Bitch probably binges and purges. She sat upright and struggled to get out of the recliner, dumping Gracie to the floor in the process.
"Sorry, baby. Didn't mean to do that. Momma's ready for bed now."
Brushing her teeth in the bathroom, Darlene reluctantly inspected her face in the mirror. It was soft, pale. No angles, not anywhere. Her once prominent--some would have said striking--cheekbones were nowhere in evidence. Her chin no longer differentiated itself from her neck. She sighed and looked down. The front edges of her robe barely met, she had gotten so big. She could hardly see her feet, let alone her sore ankle. Her butt spilled over the sides of the toilet seat when she sat.
Darlene knew she should do something, but each day, each added pound, drained her of motivation. Shoulders slumped, she turned out the lights and went to bed.
The tall, slender doctor entered the exam room in a whirl of white-coated efficiency. He slid the X-ray onto the viewer and switched on its light. He spoke to the X-ray, instead of turning to face her. "Well, Darlene, the X-ray doesn't show any specific problem with your ankle. I think it's purely a weight-related irritation."
Dr. Richards snapped off the light and slipped the X-ray into a large manila envelope, then turned to her. "Two hundred-eighty pounds is just too much for it. And frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if your other ankle develops the same problem soon."
"I'm not going on any diet--you know what that did to Sarah." Darlene folded her arms around the bulk of her chest.
"What happened to Sarah is not predetermined to happen to you. Many people go on sensible diets every day without developing anorexia. I would like to start you on a program and schedule checkpoints just to be safe."
"I'll think about it." She looked away.
"I'm serious. We've had this discussion before; you're jeopardizing your health at this weight. It's time to do something about it." Dr. Richards peered at her over his glasses, as if to reinforce his point, before leaving the exam room.
"Skinny bastard. Easy for him to say," she muttered after he left.
Darlene closed her eyes and fought to remember Sarah, how she was before. A beautiful girl, only slightly overweight, with a burning desire to be a model. The dream that would kill her. Sarah had started dieting to lose ten pounds for the camera. But it didn't end with those ten pounds--it ended when her heart ceased to beat in her seventy-pound shell of a body.
As it always did, the memory of the last time she saw her sister forced itself into her head, pushing aside the memory of a healthy Sarah. That last visit to the hospital. Sarah, a breathing skeleton beneath the bed sheets, tubes running nutrition into her veins. Too little, too late. She'd gone home from that last visit and thrown away her bathroom scale. She would not be a slave to it, as Sarah had been.
As she dressed, Darlene wiped tears from her eyes and tried to clear her mind of the horrid image of Sarah in her final days. She loved her sister, and missed her terribly, but had no intention of following the same destructive path. No. No dieting for her. She hobbled out of the exam room.
"FIVE... FOUR...THREE... TWO... ONE! HAPPY NEW YEAR!" Cheers erupted from the crowd. Darlene watched the televised celebrations from her recliner. Gracie lay by her side, and her favorite foods were carefully arranged on the table next to her. A tear rolled down her cheek as she sat there, a piece of limp pizza in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. She had fallen into the New Year's trap of taking stock of her situation. And her mood had fallen about as quickly as the lighted ball in Times Square.
She set down the pizza and wineglass and pulled Gracie tightly to her chest. She could no longer ignore it. Her weight ruled her life, tearing down her ankle and stealing her energy. Sobbing, she looked up at the picture on the shelf by the television.
The photo of her and Sarah was a candid shot taken back when they were in high school. They had their arms over each other's shoulders and wore smiles that bore no trace of worry or obsession. Bright, easy, real smiles. And both of them were of normal weight.
Darlene closed her eyes and turned away from the picture, hugging Gracie even harder as she cried lonely, bitter tears into the cat's soft fur.
"The BodyCizer is the ONLY affordable home gym that works on ALL your major muscle groups! Just WATCH the pounds melt off!..."
Oh, not again!
She nearly turned it off, but then opened her puffy eyes and stared dully at the television. As the commercial continued, Darlene began to think she should give it a try. Maybe I can lose some of this weight, and do it without dieting. She picked up the phone and placed her order.
The delivery man, trim and muscular in his BodyCizer uniform, wheeled the large box into Darlene's spare bedroom. "Would you like me to assemble it for you, ma'am?"
"Yes, that would sure help. Thanks."
The man spoke as he slit open the carton and removed the components inside. "This is my ninth delivery this week. Been really busy. Imagine a lot of people decided to make New Year's resolutions. Was that it with you?"
"Uh, yes," Darlene replied, feeling a little sheepish.
"Well, you made the right choice. It's a great machine, very effective. You'll like it. I'm sure of it."
As Darlene watched, the man set up the machine, working in silence for about fifteen minutes. Then he stood and stretched.
"Okay, let me show you the main exercises for each muscle group. It's pretty easy, really. And there are more in the book, if you want some variety."
He briefly went through each of the movements while Darlene watched.
"I know that was quick, but it really is that simple. It's all in the manual here. And remember--fasten the straps to hold yourself in place on the machine. They're positioned to make sure you're at the correct angle for the movements. Works best that way. Good luck to you!"
"Thanks." Darlene let the man out, then closed and locked the door behind him. I'll start tomorrow. She went to the kitchen and raided the refrigerator.
Each day Darlene promised herself she would start exercising the next morning, then went to the kitchen and ate straight from the refrigerator while fending off Gracie. She never even looked at the machine, then after a week, she confronted herself. All right. Are you really serious about this, or should you just call and have them pick the damned thing back up?
She shuffled into the spare bedroom where the machine awaited. There it stood, all gleaming chrome and black faux leather. She studied it for a few minutes, finding it oddly attractive. The bench pad looked soft and comfortable. The shiny levers and pulleys were arranged in an elegant, artistic pattern. Darlene approached it, ran her hand along the bench pad, finding it slightly warm to the touch, as if it were inviting her. She squared her shoulders, and went to her bedroom to change into sweats.
She returned to the BodyCizer, picked up the manual and reviewed the various exercises. A small note at the bottom of the page caught her eye:
"CAUTION: For best results, it is imperative that the total recommended number of repetitions be performed for each exercise in each session. Results are not predictable if this procedure is not followed."
Darlene frowned a little at the odd warning, grunted, and dropped the book on the floor next to the machine.
She adjusted the tension levels, then positioned her bulk on the device and carefully fastened the straps at her waist and at each thigh.
She lay back and rested a moment before beginning. The bench pad cradled her gently, then a strange sensation swept over her. She felt much lighter than she really was, more comfortable than she had felt in years. Her ankle stopped throbbing. Her breathing was easier. She felt happy, carefree as she hadn't since.since before she had become so overweight.
Darlene smiled, a huge beaming smile. Suddenly, a normal, healthy life seemed within her reach. Slowly, carefully, she began her exercise reps. They were difficult, but she took them one at a time until she had completed the sets.
She lay there, sweaty and winded but happy, for several minutes before unbuckling herself and preparing her dinner. She dared to hope the BodyCizer could work for her.
She awoke the next morning to a different feeling. Long-neglected muscles blazed in pain from her workout. Her stiff joints protested as she strained to get out of bed.
Darlene's entire day at work was a struggle, both from the usual frustration and the pain that permeated all her muscles. When she at last arrived home, she could not summon the motivation to work out--until she remembered how she'd felt on the machine the night before.
She worked out a compromise in her mind. She'd do just half the reps tonight and see how she felt tomorrow.
She sat on the machine and reached for the straps. As she buckled them around her waist and each thigh, a sensation of weightlessness and a feeling of incredible confidence and joy seemed to arise from her solar plexus and radiate through her body and mind. Darlene lay back and let it run through her like an addictive drug coursing through her arteries. She breathed deeply and relaxed for a while before starting her half-set.
It was tough going, tougher than the first time because of the soreness that reawakened as she started. Darlene grunted with the effort of each repetition. Sweat dripped down her temples and soaked her underarms. After six tortured reps of each exercise, she had reached her compromise halfway point. Hungry, tired and ready for dinner, she stopped.
She reached for the waist buckle and tried to unclasp it. It seemed stuck. She tried the thigh buckles. They wouldn't budge either. She tried the waist buckle again. Still stuck. She tried each buckle in turn again and again. They would not open. Her heart pounded and she began to sweat profusely as a wave of terror began to overtake her.
All right, stay calm. Must be some stupid trick to it. Darlene took a deep breath to settle herself and tried the waist buckle more slowly. Still no luck. Examining the seatbelt-style assembly carefully, she could find no hidden button or extra release catch.
Panicked, Darlene abandoned her logical approach and tore at the sturdy belts with all her strength. They did not give.
"Help me! HELP!" Darlene screamed. Shit, no one will ever hear me in this building. They'll think it's just the goddamned television!
As panic gave way to anger, Darlene forgot her sore muscles. She pounded on the BodyCizer and kicked her untethered lower legs in a frustrated tantrum. She clawed at the belts until she tore her clothes and scratched her own skin bloody.
The belts remained secure.
Tired and defeated, Darlene dropped her head back and sobbed, letting her arms droop toward the floor. Tears ran down her cheeks, and she made no effort to wipe them. Bloody folds of flesh lay exposed along the waist and thigh belts; tiny shreds of skin and sweatshirt clung to her ragged, torn fingernails.
She felt Gracie jump up onto her stomach and gently lick at the blood on her waist. Disgusted, she whacked the cat onto the floor.
"Get off!" Darlene screamed. Gracie hid somewhere behind her and hissed.
She tried to look around to see where the cat was hiding, and spotted the instruction manual still on the floor next to the machine. It lay open to the page containing the caution.
Darlene got an idea. She started to do the remaining leg lift reps, despite the burning pain in her muscles. She gritted her teeth and managed to complete them.
With a fragile hope for release, Darlene reached for the strap that held her right leg. With shaking hands, she tried to unclasp the buckle. It opened as if there had never been a problem. She unstrapped her left leg. Relieved, she tried the buckle at her waist. It refused to open.
She completed the remaining abdominal reps, one slow tortured movement at a time, and then tried the waist buckle again. It opened with no trouble at all.
Darlene got off the machine as fast as her bulk allowed and scuttled to the doorway of the room. She stared at the machine--it just stood there, inert and deceptively innocent.
It knows. It knows if you've done all your exercises. That's how it works. Darlene shivered at the implications and wondered how on earth it was even possible. She had watched the man assemble it and leave. He'd had no opportunity to install a hidden camera. Maybe it has some sensor. But that didn't explain how it made her feel. Darlene wondered if it was the machine or the power of her own mind. Not knowing what to believe, she stumbled to the bathroom to clean her wounds.
Several days later, Darlene stood again in the doorway, staring at the BodyCizer, trying to decide what to do. Her ankle throbbed, she was beaten down by another draining day at work. If she got on the machine again, would she get the same exhilaration and relief as before? Or would it trap her again?
She shifted her weight off her bad ankle. Ibuprofen had barely touched the pain this time. She took a few tentative steps toward the machine, knowing she'd better be prepared to do all the repetitions of each exercise. Or face the consequences. She could get through them. She had to--her ankle was unbearable today.
Darlene reached a truce with the BodyCizer. She performed all her exercises as instructed, and the buckles never again trapped her. But the best part, the thing that drew her back time and again, was the tide of physical and emotional well-being it provided. The intensity of those feelings even increased over time. Finally, she had something to look forward to each day that was within her reach. As the weeks wore on, she found she couldn't even skip a day, no matter how sore her muscles were from the prior day's workout.
One morning, Darlene zipped and buttoned the skirt she'd planned to wear to work. She turned to put on her blouse, and the skirt slid right off her hips, onto the floor. She stared at it, stunned, as she realized the machine really had been working off the pounds as well. She had no idea how much weight she'd lost, since she still refused to even own a bathroom scale.
Darlene hunted through some drawers for a safety pin to snug up the skirt. Hah, and without dieting. That machine really is good.
Several months later, Darlene looked in the bathroom mirror and stood frozen in shock. Not only had her cheekbones emerged, but it finally struck her just how much weight she'd lost. With no scale to watch, she'd had only the fit of her clothes to mark her progress. And she'd barely paid attention, she'd been so obsessed with the ever-increasing euphoria the machine provided. She took a step back and gasped as she realized the face looking back at her was that of her dead sister, not long before the anorexia claimed her.
In that moment she finally understood how compulsion had driven Sarah to her death. How she must have been swept along in it until it was too late to turn back, even if she had wanted to. Just as she now found herself, irresistibly drawn to the BodyCizer day after day, helpless against its pull.
She didn't want to die, yet she couldn't imagine living without the feelings granted by the machine. In fact, her need had driven her to using the BodyCizer several times a day, missing meals and sometimes even missing work. It was hard. Hard to fight through the reps it demanded of her in return.
Just thinking about it made her want it again. She shuffled into the room and looked at it. The machine seemed to shimmer and beckon.
She strapped herself on and gave herself up once more to the sensations. Closing her eyes, she rested her head on the padded bench and smiled. She felt whole and beautiful, no worries. Peaceful, relaxed. Bathed in a soft, cottony warmth. This time she didn't want the feeling to ever stop again. No more exercise. No more pain.
Gracie jumped up on her; Darlene did not notice. Nothing mattered any more.
Time dissolved, became immaterial. Pinpoint white lights speckled the insides of her eyelids, then faded to a black so complete it eclipsed her.
During the day, Lisa von Biela is an Information Technology consultant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The rest of the time, she pens speculative fiction ranging from horror to soft scifi. She is currently working on her first novel, a technothriller. Her fiction has appeared or will appear in Gothic.net, Dark Animus, Naked Snake Online, The Dark Krypt, Greg F. Gifune's THE EDGE, Alien Skin, Horrorfind, and The Swamp.
Published by permission of the author.