Katie was an optimist and so, naturally, was the thing that lived in her brain. She awoke one Tuesday morning to discover the change. At first, it was merely a mental echo. Barely perceptible. Two indistinguishable minds, one off by a fraction of a second. For Katie’s every thought, there was an echo, trailing just behind. Over the day, the new brain drifted further out of sync and soon she could hear its thoughts. Almost identical to hers, but distinct.
Eventually, they started talking.
“Who are you?” Katie asked.
Katie Singleton, the voice said from inside her head.
“That’s me. You’re new in there.”
I guess so, the voice said. Sorry.
“Don’t be sorry.” Katie was an over-apologizer too. “What should I call you?”
It’s hard to get past ‘Katie,’ the voice said.
“How about Princess Penelope?” Katie asked.
It was the name she’d given her imaginary friend when she was an eight-year-old princess junkie. Princess Penelope had filled a void: playmate, partner in mischief, the sister she never had.
The voice was as thrilled as Katie was. It remembered the same childhood.
I love it, she said. I feel so fabulous. I’m Princess Penelope!
Katie wondered what her therapist would have to say about all this but decided to just go with it. It was nice to have someone like-minded to talk to.
They quizzed each other as Katie waited for the morning train, phone held to her ear so onlookers would think there was a real person on the other end of the conversation.
Favorite color? Princess Penelope asked.
“Turquoise,” they said together, Turquoise.
“Movie?” Katie asked.
Eternal Sunshine, they replied simultaneously, “Eternal Sunshine.”
Guilty pleasure food?
“Rocky road,” Katie said as Princess Penelope replied, Raw meat.
Katie paused, puzzled. It was the first discordant note of their friendship. The train arrived and they got on. Together, of course.
“You seem distant,” Noah said.
It was Sunday morning. They were burrowed under covers, hiding from the daylight.
Just like Eternal Sunshine, Princess Penelope noted. Katie had thought the same thing. She smiled. It was like having a sister. A twin.
Noah waited for a response.
“See?” he said, “You’re somewhere else.”
Katie had felt disconnected from Noah well before the appearance of her invisible friend. Their relationship was stagnant. All unhealthy patterns. She pretended to laugh at his jokes. He feigned interest in her plans.
“So, what is it?” He seemed more annoyed than concerned.
When she moved to the city to be with him, everyone said that she was moving too fast. That it was a bad idea. In time, Katie realized that they were right. She and Noah didn’t really know each other. Didn’t even like each other.
“Did you meet someone?”
She traced the line of his jaw with her index finger. Gently.
“Can’t we just be quiet together?” she asked. Noah sighed but pulled her close anyway.
I’d love for us to tell him, Princess Penelope said. But he’d never understand.
At the market for dish soap, Katie became distracted by the meat aisle.
She settled on a pound of ground chuck. Leanest she could find. 98% fat-free. It made her feel less guilty about the purchase.
It’s okay, said Princess Penelope. You know, pregnant women also crave protein.
Katie didn’t see the relevance but didn’t argue.
The woman at checkout eyed her suspiciously. Katie wondered if there was something in their demeanor that called attention to them.
“Are our eyes twitching?” Katie asked Princess Penelope aloud.
“Excuse me?” the woman behind the counter responded.
Katie quickly took her bag and went to the alley out back. By the dumpsters.
She tore through the plastic wrap and pulled out handfuls of ground beef. Squished it between her hands. Into her mouth. Her teeth released saturated blood from spongy tissue to drip down her throat. Princess Penelope almost cried inside her and Katie felt sustained in a way that was new to her. Supercharged.
“Oh, God.” She buried her face in the package of meat, gobbling like a starved mutt, sucking down every stray drop of juice until her tongue lapped against the Styrofoam backing.
“What are you?” Katie asked.
Noah slept in the bedroom. They’d barely spoken that evening. When she came in from work, he told her she looked sick. It was true. She’d examined herself in the bathroom mirror. Cheeks hollowed from lost weight. Bags under her eyes, dark as bruises. Thinning hair. Chapped lips. Sores.
Still, his words hurt her feelings. Princess Penelope’s too.
Now Katie sat on the couch, streaming shows she’d already seen. A shield of noise so Noah wouldn’t hear her talking.
I don’t know, Princess Penelope answered.
“A figment of my imagination? Some part of my brain?”
I don’t think so, Princess Penelope said. I exist. I’m not a stray thought or a ghost or anything like that.
“But what do you look like?”
I can’t tell. I only see my brain. Through your brain, if that makes sense.
“It does,” Katie said.
I think there’s something. Something you saw or maybe read. A clue. I’m going to look.
Princess Penelope could find memories Katie had lost. It was a wonderful secret shared between them. Her internal friend could call up, with perfect clarity, forgotten birthday parties. Replay, word for word, conversations with friends who’d moved away. Recover romantic feelings for Noah from those blissful first months when he’d been her lifeline in an unfriendly new city. Rescue her mother’s smile when she’d been happy. Her father’s when he’d been alive.
“Let me know if you figure it out,” Katie said.
Princess Penelope went quiet while she searched, and Katie felt lonelier than ever. Shows replayed in front of her and she didn’t bother clicking “yes” when the “still watching?” prompt appeared.
She fell asleep sitting up. No transition. Her brain just clicked off like a light.
“Wake up,” Princess Penelope said.
Katie opened her eyes. She stood in the bedroom. Facing a wall.
What’s going on? she asked.
“Don’t be mad,” Princess Penelope said.
What happened? Katie willed herself to turn from the wall and realized that she couldn’t. Princess Penelope was in control.
I won’t be mad, Katie said. Just show me.
“In a minute,” Princess Penelope said through their mouth. Now she was the one using it. “I realized what it was. You saw a video in high school. Science class. The zombie wasp.”
It played in their head. National Geographic. Wasp larvae take over a caterpillar while feeding on it from the inside. Directing it to gorge itself until they’re ready to eat their way out.
You’re a wasp? Katie asked.
“Something smaller, I think,” Princess Penelope said, “But the same idea. Some kind of bug, maybe.”
A bug? Crawling around inside her skull. It was too unsettling. Like an itch you could never hope to scratch.
“I know,” said Princess Penelope. “It’s icky.”
Again, Katie tried to turn her head. Nothing. The muscles of her body were completely disconnected from her thoughts.
Show me what happened, Katie pleaded.
Their head tilted down and Katie saw their hands. Covered to elbows in blood.
The rest of it. Please.
They turned from the wall and Katie saw it. Bedspread spattered red. Hammer, slathered in gristle. Flesh and bonechips. Tools. Kitchen utensils. Noah, disassembled. Chest slashed. Innards strewn. Organs in a pile. Some half-eaten. Sightless eyes staring. Head cracked open. Skull emptied.
“I realized what I was really craving,” Princess Penelope said. “I didn’t want to wake you, but it was delicious. You have no idea.”
Katie saw everything. Her degraded face in the mirror. Aches, all over. New ones every day. The way the light from the bedside lamp now gave her headaches. That sour smell she didn’t recognize on her own breath.
I’m the caterpillar.
“I think so, Katie,” Princess Penelope said with real sympathy, “But I’ll go on. Don’t know if it helps, but your memories will live in me.”
Katie felt herself cry, but no tears came. She imagined them falling inwardly, pooling in her steadily shrinking chamber within the brain that had once been hers.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. Let’s get ice cream. Rocky road?”
It was a nice thought. Princess Penelope knew her so well.
This story first appeared on Reedsy.com where it was submitted in response to the following prompt: “Write a story about someone trying to resist their darker impulses. Whether they succeed or fail is up to you.” https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Charles Cline is a writer, filmmaker, and educator. His short fiction has been awarded prizes on Reedsy.com, been featured in Bloodbath Literary Zine and his story, "Honeymoon," appeared in The Mystery Tribune, was short-listed for the 2023 Best American Mystery and Suspense collection, and was included in their list of "Other Distinguished Mystery and Suspense of 2022."