At the top of the hill, on one side, I can see ripples of light reflecting off the water of the dark, blue lake below. On the other side, I see layers of grass that lead to the winding path of asphalt I ran to get up here. It takes more of an effort to get to the top of the hill these days, but I’m still running. Standing on one leg, I pull the toe of my shoe in close behind my back to stretch—listening to the birds calling in the distance, but their cries dissolve into what sounds like one long far-off scream. It’s steady and growing closer. Definitely human. Definitely a woman.
I put my foot down and walk closer to the grassy side of the hill. A figure comes into view and she’s running at a good pace—still screaming. Her hair is pulled into a ponytail and she’s wearing those expensive skintight leggings I see many people wear—even when they’re not running. No one is behind her, so no one seems to be chasing her, but she’s making excellent time. She’s probably able to sprint a 5k with very little effort. As she gets closer, I see she’s extremely fit, but I still don’t understand why she’s screaming.
She’s just a few feet in front of me now, and she’s wearing headphones, so maybe she’s trying to sing over the music, but there are no notes or melody in her voice—just one, long steady scream punctuated by a breath here and there. I notice she’s also got some kind of black belt or pouch around her waist. Above it, the chiseled lines of perfect abs are exposed. As she approaches me, she suddenly stops and yanks her belt off her waist.
“Here!” she says. “Take this, please! Just take it! I don’t want it anymore. It totally works—as you can see—it works,” she says, pointing to her perfectly flat belly. “You look like you could use this,” she says as he glances over my jiggly abdomen, which I think is not so bad for a woman my age.
Then, she tosses the belt over to me and continues running. The screams subside.
“Thanks for the compliment!” I call after her, but she’s long gone by now. For some reason, I’m seized by the impulse to hold the belt up to my nose. I don’t know why, but I want to see if it smells. Why would I want someone else’s sweaty Ab Machine Belt Device (AMBD)? I smell the fabric, but there’s no odor, so I decide that maybe I do want it. Maybe I do want to give it a try.
At home, I watch a few infomercials to see how it works and what it’s supposed to do. Within just three minutes I’m completely convinced that with little to no effort at all, I can strap this thing around my waist and it’ll do the work of 150 properly performed crunches—over and over and over again—all day—until I have a six-pack. I will be sore, though. The infomercial actors tell me I will be sore, but that’s how I’ll know it’s working. What I can’t figure out though, is why anyone would wear it while running. I think it would be best to just run first and then strap on the belt. Why would it be necessary to perform so many exercises at once? No wonder the runner from this morning was screaming.
After dinner, I decide to give the belt a try, so I fasten it around my middle and place the largest part, which I figure has the mechanism that does all of the work, right over the jiggly part of my lower stomach. Then, I place the setting on low. There’s a slight tingling sensation that feels like a mild electrical shock of some sort, but it’s not doing much to work my abs, so I crank it up to medium, but it’s not much of an improvement. Feeling braver, I turn it all the way up to 150. Immediately, I can feel the muscles below the flesh in my belly contract, harder and harder, turning in on themselves and never letting up. I’m doubled over in pain, but I know that I’m experiencing the good pain that comes with hard exercise. I keep telling myself this for about five to ten minutes, as I attempt to see how much pain I can take. After 15 minutes, I decide I’ve had enough. I’m even sweating and all I’ve done is flip a switch.
In the full-length mirror, I can see results right away. My abs are much more defined and I think some of the fattier flesh has actually melted away. Falling into bed, I know I’ll sleep well—and I might not even have to run in the morning, if I keep this up. But the pain never really quite goes away. Even in my sleep, I dream of stomach pain and it comes to me as a vision of angry, poisonous snakes, writhing and twisting their way down my abdomen—biting and stinging me—even crawling up my legs as I struggle to stay asleep.
However, when I wake up and look in the mirror, I can still see the slight definition in my abs that might get better with increased use—just as the infomercial actors said. In fact, I think I’m convinced that this device somehow continues to work—activating those muscles—even while I sleep. So, I reach for my belt, since I’m curious to see what would happen if I wore it all day. Immediately, I crank it up all the way to 150, but nothing seems to happen. I only experience the mild shocks I got when it was on the lowest setting. Flipping the belt over, I notice an additional setting I hadn’t found before, so I try it and it makes all the difference. Thirty minutes is now the length I can endure before I can’t stand the pain any longer.
In my dreams though, the snakes return—larger and angrier than ever. They eat at my flesh and insides—crawling all over each other and pulsing—poisoning me with their fangs. My stomach is so tired and sore, I can barely move, but I want to see what my stomach looks like in the mirror. When I gently lift my t-shirt, I can see the abs I’ve always wanted—with the flabby bits of flesh melting away. But it’s not enough. There aren’t too many more increased settings I can try, so I’ll have to start wearing it all day—even while sleeping.
At night, the snakes cover my entire bed and hiss in my ear. The pain seems to travel everywhere now. “How badly do you want it?” they ask. “How badly do you want your rock-hard abs?” I don’t know what to say. Now that I’ve gotten results, I don’t want them to go away. But as I wear the belt, I see the snakes more vividly. I can feel them knitting themselves to my flesh and to my insides—becoming a part of me. Their writhing movements make me jump and itch—just make me want to spring from my bed and run, but the pain is too much, so I stay and feel them twist and turn. They stay and breed and live inside me, while I, and my abs, serve as their host.
It’s been seven days and I haven’t left my apartment—not even to go to work. I’ve been staring at the ceiling, while wearing the belt, but when the snakes start dropping onto my face from the cracks in the ceiling, I decide I’ve had enough. I pull my hands up and grab fists full of them and pull them from my face—throwing them to the floor. They bite at my feet as I reach for the door and start running—sprinting for the top of the hill, where I fling my belt at the next runner and tell her, “It works! It really works!”
Cecilia Kennedy earned a doctorate in Spanish literature and taught English and Spanish for 20 years in Ohio before moving to the Greater Seattle area with her husband, teenage son, and cat named SeaTac. Currently she is the sole proprietor of Paper/Rock Writing Consultation (paperrockwriting.com) and she writes horror/ghost stories that have appeared in Theme of Absence, Gathering Storm Literary Magazine, and Coffin Bell: A Journal of Dark Literature. However, she reserves her “scariest” writing for her DIY blog, “Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks” (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/), where she describes her attempts at cooking and home repair.