The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Knot Inside

There’s a string in the back of my throat. At least that’s what it feels like.

Like there’s something thin and rough, coiled there, waiting.

Every day it’s a little bit harder to swallow my food.

Every day it’s a little bit harder to breathe.

It must be growing.

I think, soon, I may have to try and pull it out.

Whatever it is.


I’ve tried to trace the arrival of the string back to an event in my life, and this is the best I could come up with:

The string, I think, must have arrived on Francis’s first day of school.

Francis Eckhart is this girl who moved here from Wisconsin. One of the Midwest states, anyway. She’s got an accent. She has great clothes. She makes decent grades without even trying.

She has beautiful hair.

Out of everything, that’s what I noticed most.

I have terrible hair. It’s this fine, mousy brown mess, and I can’t get it to look anything like it’s supposed to.

The first time I saw Francis, it was in the cafeteria at lunch. She didn’t have anywhere to sit, so I did this dorky wave at her, and she came over and sat down across from me.

She smiled at me and my friends, and we all started talking about Wisconsin and moving in the middle of the school year and how awful that is. Also, movies. And Stephen Parker, who flirts with the lunch lady because he thinks someday she’ll give him an extra piece of pizza for free. She never does.

So we talked. It was nice. It was normal. It was whatever.

But the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about Francis’s hair. It’s long and golden. Rapunzel hair. Smooth, shiny.

I had this fantasy, in that moment, at the lunch table, about taking a knife and cutting it all off, really close to her scalp, and sewing it onto my own head.

It wouldn’t hurt her or anything. Come on. I’m not violent.

But it was kind of a violent thought, and that surprised me. I’m not violent, I swear.

The thought seemed to come out of nowhere.

It’s just that I have really impossible, mousy brown, very non-Rapunzel hair. Which doesn’t seem very fair. Like, cosmically.

I kept thinking about that all day. How exactly would one sew a head of someone else’s hair onto one’s own scalp?

Hair transfer!

No idea.

But thinking about it got me through an especially boring afternoon of world geography, science labs, and algebra.

I mean, whatever you’ve got to think about to tolerate the school day, right? It’s not like I would actually do that to Francis.

I wish that I could. But I never would.


So I got home that night, and that’s when I felt the string.

At first I thought it was just a scratchy throat. Okay, fine. Drink some water, suck on some cough drops, have chicken noodle soup for dinner.

Freak Dad out, just a little. Just for fun. Just for a little bit of pity.

No, Dad. Seriously, it’s okay. (God. So much for fun.) I don’t need to go to the doctor. It’s not strep throat. It’s not the flu. It’s just a cold.

But it wasn’t a cold.

It was the string.

I realize that now.


After that, I started to notice things I never paid much attention to before.

Like, for example, I have a decent number of friends, right? I’ve known some of them since I was really little. We pass notes in class, we have sleepovers, all that.

I’d never been unhappy with that before.

But then, maybe a few days after I first felt the string, I noticed how Stephen—he who flirts with lunch ladies—didn’t just flirt with lunch ladies.

He sort of flirted with everyone.

It wasn’t like he liked everyone. Not like that. It’s just he’s the kind of kid who makes friends like other people take breaths.

I started observing him as much as I could without seeming like a freak.

He had this way about him, this way of saying all the right things at all the right times. This way of making jokes that were just the right amount of corny.

I could never be like that.

I always say all the wrong things at the wrong times. My jokes are either too corny or I don’t tell them right and they fall flat as wet paper.

I started imagining that Stephen had this secret component inside him, like a part to a machine, that gave him the ability to do these things. To make friends like it was nothing.

I am an awkward person, there’s no doubt about that.

Stephen is the antithesis of awkward. It’s kind of revolting.

So, this secret component of Stephen’s, this machine part. What if it was something I could extract? What if it was something I could carve out of him like when we carved out the livers of those rats last year in science?

What if I could install it in myself, and become like him, but better? Like him, but me?

I thought this one day, drifting along with everyone down the hall, from lunch to algebra to world geography to gym.

I found myself examining Stephen from afar. Not like I was checking him out or anything like that. Puh-lease.

But more like a doctor might. More like a doctor might look at a person and try to figure out where a disease might have originated, so he could proceed to cut it out.


And so it went, on and on.

I kept experiencing these thoughts, these daydreams, that felt . . . wrong. They felt somehow . . . not mine. They came out of nowhere—slicing off Francis’s hair, carving out Stephen’s anti-awkward flirt device.

Stealing Garrett White’s money. (He got such a huge weekly allowance, and for what? For having the luck to be born into a rich family? Give me a break.)

Somehow absorbing Luis Mendoza’s IQ. (Maybe another exercise in carving? But how to get through the skull to the brain without damaging its parts?)

Raiding Donna Beach’s house, stealing her collection of trophies, awards, medals, ribbons. Scratching off her names and replacing them with my own. Scratch, scratch, scratch. With a nail, or a knife. (And you better not come running at me, Donna. You better just let me steal them. I have a nail. I have a knife.)


It was that last set of thoughts that made me do it.

That last set of thoughts scared me. I could almost feel the knife in my hands. I could almost see Donna Beach’s terrified blue eyes.


These thoughts, they came out of nowhere.

They came out of a dark nowhere deep inside me. A nowhere that wasn’t mine. At least, it didn’t feel like mine.

So I lay curled up on the bed for a while, my hands clamped over my ears, my eyes squeezed shut, and I cried and whimpered and tried to will the images away.

Like when you’re lying in bed at night and think you hear a movement, see a shadow, feel a breath in your hair, and you know it’s just silly, it’s just your imagination, it’s just your half-awake mind playing tricks.

You can, if you do it just right, convince yourself of that—that nothing’s there, you felt nothing, you heard and saw nothing—and you can fall right back asleep.

So that’s what I lay there trying to do.

But I couldn’t.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep from thinking these thoughts of knives and cut hair and carved body parts and sweaty money that should have been mine, friends that should have been mine, a body—a beautiful, skinny, blond-haired body—that should have been mine, mine, mine.

No matter how hard I tried, still the thoughts scratched.

Scratch, like a nail across wood.

Scratch, like a blade across a shiny gold medal.


So I get up.

There’s a string in the back of my throat.

It must be growing.

I think, although I don’t understand how, that these deep, dark nowhere thoughts have something to do with this thing tangled up at the back of my throat.

So I get up.

I go into the bathroom.

Every day it’s a little bit harder to breathe.

Every day it’s a little bit harder to stop these thoughts from bursting out of me into action.

There’s a string in the back of my throat.

I think, soon, I may have to try and pull it out.

So I get up.

I go into the bathroom, and I lock myself in.

I go into the bathroom, and I lock myself in, and I climb up onto the bathroom sink.

And right there, beneath the glaring lights—four, in a row, gold-rimmed, movie star style! It’s time for my close-up! Dressing room glamour! And I think of that movie star, that actress, and I think of how her perfect megawatt smile would look on my face, and I think of what her long skinny legs would look like on my body, and I think about what it would take to make those things happen.

And right there, beneath the glaring lights, I open my mouth wide, reach back into my mouth with my fingers, find it—Yes! I was right! A string, coarse and thin and coiled!

And I pull.


I pull, and I pull.

I pull the string, and it keeps coming, like one of those magic tricks where the guy has colored scarves hidden up his sleeve, only this isn’t funny.

It’s snaking, it’s sliding, it’s snagging its way up my throat, across my tongue, between my teeth.

I stumble off the sink and onto the rug. I am kneeling now, and still pulling.

I keep gagging because it feels like I’m pulling out my own insides.

I want to throw up, but more than that I want this string out.

Something’s on the end of this string. On the other end, deep inside me. I can feel the weight of it tugging.

So I pull, and I pull.

And finally, the rest of it comes loose, a tangle of dark coarse string on the floor.

I sit there. I am gasping, trying to breathe. My throat is sore from the pulling.

You okay in there, sweetie?

Yes, Dad. I’m fine. I just pulled ten feet of string out of my body and it’s sitting on the floor in front of me like a dead thing and I am A-OK.

Then, the string begins to move.

It begins to take a shape.

At first it kind of weaves around like a charmed snake, and it knots and un-knots itself, and it smells like my blood. Like waking up from a nosebleed, in a mess of bloody pillows. Like getting hit in the face with a soccer ball and having blood spurt down your face and down your throat until you’re literally drinking it.

That is what this smells like.

I watch it happen. I should run, maybe, but I seem to have forgotten how to move my legs.

Then the string isn’t a string anymore.

It’s taken the shape of a person, all the details outlined with the string that was inside me, and the insides are blurry, like dirty fluid.

It’s an odd construction, but I still recognize it.

The string has taken the shape of me.


“Well?” says the string-me. The ghost-me. The echo-me.

It’s me, I know that somehow. Like, if you saw one of your own pulled teeth in a line-up of other people’s pulled teeth, maybe you’d recognize it. Like that.

It’s me.

But it’s a better me.

This me has long, golden hair. Shiny. Smooth. Rapunzel hair.

This me has a look on her face like she knows just what I want, more than even I do, and she’ll let me have it if I ask nicely.

This me has good skin, clothes that aren’t hand-me-downs, clothes that fit right. This me reeks of money.

This me has an intelligence in her eyes that I can’t look directly at, like the sun.

This me has a dozen gold medals around her neck.

This me has long, skinny legs and a megawatt smile.

This me is all my deep, dark nowhere thoughts come to life. This me is . . . everything.

“Well?” She says it again. She looks me up and down, crosses her arms. “Are you ready?”

“For . . . what?”

“For me to change your life.”

I lick my lips. “How?” But somehow I already know.

She stares at me for a while. Flicks her golden hair over her shoulder. I watch it cascade, and I swear to God there’s a part of me that actually hurts to see something so beautiful—on me.

“I know all the things you’ve been thinking,” she says. She kind of sings it.

I blush. “That’s impossible. You’re not—”

“Real?” She laughs. God, to have a laugh like that! Mine is this really unfortunate bray. And yet . . . and yet, in that perfect laugh of hers, I can hear, faintly, the sound of my own laugh.

My own laugh, but better.

“I promise you I’m real,” she says. “I’m real because you made me real.”

“How did I do that?”

She pauses, tilts her head. Her eyes flash. “By wanting.”

The word drags out of her mouth like the string had dragged out of mine.

“Wanting . . . what?” I say.

But she just stares at me.

“Wanting . . .” I pause, swallow. My throat is so raw it’s like swallowing gravel.

“Wanting to be like you,” I say. “Wanting to be beautiful. To be smart.”

“To have trophies and medals,” she hisses, taking my hand. “To have money and long, long legs.”

“To be . . .”


“To want . . .”


She says the word over and over. She combs my hair with her fingers, and already my hopeless lank droopy hair feels more beautiful. She runs her fingers across my scalp, and already my brain feels sharper, more focused.

It feels good.

It feels fantastic.

I want more of this.

“More,” I whisper to her.

And then I take her hand.

And it’s at this moment, when her cold, scratchy hand folds around mine—when I feel that familiar coarseness of the string that was in my throat and now forms the outline of her cold, scratchy, made-of-thorns hand—that I see her close enough to understand.

I see how her scalp bleeds in a patchwork, where she has threaded these long blond locks into her skin.

I see how her perfect, glowing skin bears stitches—her fingers, sewn into place here. Her long, long legs, attached with thick black thread there.

I see how her eyes sit in her face funny. I see the tiny stitchings around the sockets.

I see how the medals around her neck are made not of gold, but of skin—stretched tight, gold paint lazily slapped on top.

I hear how her words aren’t words, but thousands of tiny buzzing sounds, held together in the shape of words by this mouth full of teeth that have been stitched into her gaping gums.

This close, I no longer see myself in this creature.

I see what she truly is.

She is my deep, dark nowhere thoughts.

She brought them to me, she is them, and I helped her out, into the world, into my bathroom, holding my hand, stroking my hair.

She whispers of the great, terrible things we will do together.

How I will never want again.

This close, I understand what I have done. What I will do.

I try to pull away.

But it’s too late.

She is unlocking the door.

Her hand is around mine.

She has me.




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2 Responses to “The Knot Inside”

  1. Linh says:

    I read this over and over again, and I still love it! So creepy, but so AWESOME! :)))

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