The first time we kissed, Cara took a deep breath and spat in my mouth. A big, phlegmy one that tasted slightly charred, like the eggs her mom had scrambled that morning. I swallowed, and it slid down my throat, settled like a secret in my gut, growing hairy. The next time, in the locker room after school, pressed into gray metal still slick with girl-sweat, I spat in hers; missed. Cara looked at me, her lips shiny as if coated in resin. When she licked it off, a quick dart of a cherry tongue, I felt I had passed the test. I imagined my runny spit dissipating inside the chaparral of her body, all that choked burning, as her hot, brittle breath washed over me.
Six months later, the shock of Cara, ghost-white in her open casket, made me want to throw up. Terminal, I had heard my parents sigh, shaking their heads when they thought I was asleep at night. Of course, I knew what was happening to her, though Cara never said anything. She didn’t have to. When her corn-husk hair started falling out, I collected every strand, twisted it with my teeth, and swallowed the braids when she wasn’t looking. When she shrunk down to bird bones, I blew air down her throat, stoking her will to live. When we kissed with jagged breath, her lips tasted more and more like bark, cold and leathery. And when she threw back her head, wicked the little moisture in her mouth, and spat, I held her while she coughed and coughed, a rust-pink strand of spittle hanging from her lower lip.
That night, after Cara’s funeral, I woke up from a dull ache in my gut. A paperweight feeling. It moved up into my chest, became a sharp throbbing. And I coughed and coughed as if I were a drowning girl. It fisted my mouth open, a swollen, slippery thing. Caught a tooth on the way out and rolled onto the floor. Thudding like footsteps. In the velvet darkness, I reached down and tumbled out of bed. Crawled on my knees, searching for the secret I had been hiding from Cara. I cradled it in both palms, the piece of Cara my body had been saving. How it smelled like the inside of my mouth. No god could take it away from me.
Lucy Zhou is a technical writer based in the Bay Area. Her writing has appeared in No Tokens Journal, The Offing, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and has been nominated for a Pushchart Prize. In 2020, she was a runner-up for an Academy of American Poets Prize. She reads for Anomaly Journal and Okay Donkey Magazine. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @lrenazhou.