Our Beautiful Reward Mini-Interviews: M. C. Benner-Dixon


To celebrate the official print release of Our Beautiful Reward on March 16th (virtual release party Sunday the 19th, you’re invited!), I asked some of the contributors a few of the questions foremost on my mind. It’s been too long since we’ve run many interviews here, and I’ve missed it; getting to know writers and how they think and feel has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Reckoning for me since the beginning. I hope their answers prove as enlightening to you as they have been to me.

We’ll post one mini-interview a day until the release party or we run out, whichever comes first, starting here with M. C. Benner-Dixon, author of the vividly evocative novelette “Those Dark Halls”, which you can read for free online here.

Michael: How do the tools of speculative writing help you to think and communicate about what’s being done to personal freedoms around our bodies?

M. C.: To some extent, it’s an issue of precision. We need a thousand different ways to talk about bodily autonomy because our bodies and the decisions we make about them are not uniform. The stories of our bodies simply cannot fit into a few, easy “this is how it is” narratives. By stepping outside of accepted reality, speculative writing expands the palette for talking about this issue—and that allows for both specificity and variety. Having a body that is the subject of legislative, religious, and social control feels like this, and this, and this, and this. In the speculative sphere, there is room for everyone’s story.

Michael: What are you reading and thinking about that helps put this issue in perspective for you?

M. C.: Every time I encounter a news story that reveals the cruelty of depriving people of bodily autonomy, I am grateful to the journalists who took that story on—well after it has ceased to be “news,” well after reader interest has drifted to the next tragedy or frivolity. The repetition of this reality is essential. It makes the truth indelible in our minds.

Michael: Thank you!

Those Dark Halls

Paige was twelve years old when she first noticed the buds along her spine. She was in the upstairs bathroom, the one with the vining yellow flowers in the wallpaper and the faux-tile linoleum, about to get in the shower. She stopped to examine herself in the mirror above the sink, not yet steamed with the hot water. Did her elbows look weird? Were her widening hips and thighs fat or beautiful? She turned and twisted, trying to see herself from every angle. Pulling her long, pecan-colored hair forward over her shoulder, she noticed the little constellation of four raised bumps in the middle of her back, two on each side of her spine, just between her shoulder blades. Her stomach jolted.

She knew what they were, of course. Sort of knew. Her mother had spoken of her own chambers abstractly: a promise, an honor, a gift from God. But seeing those bumps there on her own back, raised up under her own skin—as yet, the color of the rest of her and featureless—Paige did not feel honored at all. What right did God have to put chambers into her back? It would be years still until the buds would split open, a pouch having formed inside each one, and the tenant moths would come to lay their eggs in the little hollow chambers. But in her horror, Paige thought she could feel the moth larvae in there already, moving and growing, taking possession of her in their small way.

Paige didn’t tell her mom about the chambers after she discovered them that day in the bathroom mirror. Instead, she got into the shower and tried to scrub them off until her arms ached. She didn’t want to be a keeper. If this was a blessing, then she didn’t want blessings. Paige saw the faces that people made at her mother’s exposed back during tenant season, heard them grumbling at her, telling her to cover up. Not everyone was rude. Most people didn’t care. But there were always a few who wanted to talk about it. If their parents had friends over for dinner in the summer, they might do a special toast to the moths and to Paige’s mother. And then they would ask about the girls with curiosity.

“Not yet,” their mom would say, looking wistfully at her daughters. “Lord willing.”

Every year, on their anniversary, their dad made the same joke: “She’s a keeper,” he always said, and his eyes crinkled up as he looked at their mom, “in more ways than one.”

Paige didn’t want any of this said about her. She thought that if she didn’t tell her mother, it wouldn’t happen. So she told her sister instead.

Heather was fifteen, a young-for-her-grade sophomore, who nonetheless was a favorite among the juniors and seniors. She seemed, to Paige, to know all the secrets of fitting in and had taught Paige everything she knew about fashion, make-up, and sleepover etiquette. And so, body wrapped in a large green towel, hair turbaned into a pink one, and eyes red from shampoo and crying, Paige crept into Heather’s room.

“What, Paigelina?” Heather was belly-down on her bed, reading a novel, her chin propped on the heel of her hand. “I’m busy.”

“Can I tell you something? But you can’t tell mom.”

“What is it?”

“You can’t tell mom, though.”

Heather put her finger in her book and looked at Paige. “I won’t. What is it?”

Paige turned around and lowered the towel a little.

“Paige. What are you—” And then Heather was quiet. Paige turned her head over her shoulder to look at her sister’s hard, blank face.

“They’re just zits, right?” Paige begged her sister. Heather got up and walked closer, tossing her book onto her pillow.

“I don’t think so.”

“Can you just try and pop them?”

“Ew, no.”

“Please, Heather? Please? I don’t want them.” Paige felt the tears rising in her eyes again.

Behind her, Heather made a sound of annoyance—a grating in the back of her throat. “Fine.” She put a finger on each side and squeezed the buds until her fingernails left bright red marks on Paige’s skin. Paige bit her lip and whimpered. When Heather finally gave up, Paige threw herself onto Heather’s bed and cried into the lilac-print comforter. Heather sat beside her, petting her little sister’s calves gently. Eventually, Heather took a breath as if to speak but sighed it out. She put her hand back in her lap and tried again.

“It’s probably too late for me, right?”

“What do you mean?” Paige asked, wiggling her way into a sitting position, clinging to her towel.

“It’s just, you’re younger than me, so if you’re getting them now, I won’t, right?”

“How would I know?”

“Sometimes people don’t show until they’re older, but it’s probably too late for me. I think that’s how it works.”

“Do you want them?” Paige could hardly believe this. Heather showed no interest whatsoever as their mom tracked her tenancies in her little red journal or asked for someone to help her dab cream on the skin around the chambers. Paige hadn’t been interested either, and she wasn’t interested now.

Heather didn’t speak right away. She looked into Paige’s teary eyes, then away. “Of course I don’t want them. No one wants them.” Paige felt, in these words, a cruel new reality settling over her: she was something different from her sister, now.

Both Heather and their mother denied that Heather had told, but it was only two days later when, under the pretense of tucking a tag back into Paige’s shirt, their mother saw the still-bruised buds and gave a little yelp of joy, covering her mouth with her hands. Almost in a single breath, she scolded Paige for the bruises and began telling her what a gift it was. She couldn’t stop touching the emergent chambers. She let go of Paige only long enough to disappear upstairs. She came back with a little book that she had stashed away in her dresser, just in case: Tenant Moths and You, a Guide for Keepers. She handed it over as if it were a diploma.

That night at dinner, as they all held hands, her mother added a special prayer to the meal’s blessing:

“And Lord,” she had said, her voice unsteady with emotion, “I just want to thank you for making your will known in the life of our Paigey. We thank you for making her a part of your plan for this world and for revealing to her and to us all this one small part of her mission here on Earth. We bless your name and thank you for your mercy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Paige did not say “Amen” with the others. The buds in her back felt sore and massive, like heavy stones. Whatever she did now, she did it as a keeper. From now on, for the rest of her life. She would be a keeper doctor, a keeper teacher, a keeper beautician. God had decided for her. Without even asking. Without caring what she wanted.

It took five years for the buds to darken, thicken, and open. Another five for the skin inside to fully mature and the top fold to extend down like an eyelid over the bottom, signaling readiness.

The drive to her parents’ house was just over an hour—far enough to justify living on campus but not far enough that Paige could get out of regular family dinners with her parents and Heather, who still lived close.

The smell of tuna casserole and cooked peas hit Paige as soon as she came through the door. She tossed her keys into her backpack and called her hello into the empty front rooms. The table in the dining room was set, a pitcher of ice water making a little damp spot on the tablecloth. Paige threw her backpack into the corner of the living room beside Heather’s angular peach-and-white purse.

Paige’s mother came bustling out of the kitchen to greet her daughter.

“Oh, honey, you look a mess.” There was concern in her voice.

“Thanks, mom.”

“Is that Paigelina?” It was Heather, still in the kitchen. “You’re late.”

“I know, shut up. I was working on that big stats project.” She had spent hours trying to make sense of the sample data, but anytime she reached for the words to explain how the data’s underlying probability distribution might intersect with her claims that checklist protocols could reduce racial disparity in home visits, certainty slipped away from her. “I wish I could drop the class, but it’s a requirement for my program.”

“I’m sorry, honey,” their mother said. “Are you hungry? We waited dinner for you.”

“Yeah, I am. Thanks. Sorry I’m late.”

Paige’s mother turned back towards the dining room. “Heather, can you call Dad? Tell him we’re ready.”

Heather breezed through the dining room and over to the stairs, booping Paige’s nose on the way by. She bounded up in a few long-legged strides to find their father.

Paige didn’t have much to add to the conversation at dinner, but it didn’t matter. Heather filled the air with stories. She had just gotten back from her friend Kari’s bachelorette party in Costa Rica. Paige listened reflexively, imagining her sister ziplining through the jungle like some well-preened travel brochure model, impossibly spruce in all that humidity. Would it have been different, Paige wondered as she rolled her peas around on her plate, if Heather were the keeper instead of her? Would she fly so blithely through the canopy if she was? Heather had always been concerned about her “image,” saving every dollar for an eyeshadow palette or the exact right pair of jeans. Even when she was drunk, she was pretty. Even when she was sleeping. It was annoying.

“How’s that stats project coming?” their dad asked, trying to give Paige a chance to talk, but Paige didn’t particularly want it.

She shrugged and got up to clear her plate. “It’s okay. It’s hard, but I think I’ll pass the class.”

“I should take a stats class,” Heather said, sitting back and letting her mother take her plate. She tapped thoughtfully at her chin. “It would look good on my resume. There’s a senior brand management position opening up, and I’m going to go for it.” The conversation veered back to Heather, and Paige wandered to the living room, picking up a year-old copy of National Geographic from the coffee table.

She was flipping through a photo essay on prairies when their mother came out to the living room, wiping her hands on her hips and pausing at the bottom of the staircase. “Paigey, can you come upstairs with me? There are some boxes I want you to look through.” Paige’s old bedroom was slated to become a craft room, and her mom had been on a cleaning spree to make space for all the hot glue guns, glass beads, shears, and rolls of fabric that she had been stuffing in a hallway closet for years. Paige got to her feet and followed obediently up the stairs.

“I’m thinking of a murphy bed,” Paige’s mother said as she slid a dilapidated banker’s box out from under the desk, “so I can spread out when no one’s sleeping here.”

“You could’ve just thrown these away,” Paige said, leafing through high school history papers and chemistry tests piled in the worn cardboard box.

“There might be something in there that you still want,” her mom said. She pulled the heavy curtains back from the window with both hands and tilted her head to consider them.

“What could I possibly want?” There was a certificate of participation for band. A playbill from the one musical she had participated in her sophomore year. Junk.

Then Paige understood. She opened a blue-grey folder and flipped through the handouts, charts, and pamphlets inside. It was everything that she had acquired over the years in her keeper classes. She became aware that her mother had turned from the window and was watching her. “Mom, I don’t need any of this stuff,” she said without looking up.

“Oh, but you don’t know how you’re going to feel your first time, dear. It’ll be so nice to have some information handy. Just hang onto it.”

Paige sighed and closed the folder. She dropped the other papers back on top of the keeper materials and turned to face her mother. “Really, I don’t need it.”

“Well, I’m just going to hang onto it for you.” Her mom took the banker’s box from her and set it on top of Paige’s old desk.

“It’s your house. Keep whatever you want.”

They were quiet for a moment. Paige looked around the room. She had spent a lot of time up here, hiding from the world.

“Paigey,” her mom said. Paige knew what was coming. “Can I do a little check? Would you mind?”

Paige sighed again. “Sure.” She sat down on the desk chair and hitched her shirt up over her shoulders, giving her mother a clear view of her back. Paige knew what her mother was seeing. It wasn’t like she hadn’t been checking them herself.

“Soon, now,” Paige’s mother told her, touching the chambers, gently prodding and inspecting.

“Yeah, maybe. Who knows?” Paige shrugged at her shirt and shifted on the chair, uncomfortable with the attention.

“Don’t worry, honey.” Her mother’s voice sounded soft and faraway. She tapped lightly on Paige’s back. “It will be your turn soon.”

Paige hadn’t been worried. She didn’t resent God anymore for giving her tenant moth chambers. But then, she didn’t really believe in God anymore. The chambers, she knew now, were not a divine gift or a punishment—just a recessive genetic attribute. Her mother had both copies of the gene, but her father had never been tested, so until Paige’s buds appeared, no one knew if the girls would be keepers like their mother.

Paige had always thought that Heather’s life must be, on the whole, simpler because she was not a keeper. She didn’t have to think about the someday occupation of her body, learn to sleep on her stomach, go to once-a-month programs with other keeper kids to learn about the reproductive cycle of tenant moths and special hygiene for the chambers. For a long time, Paige had felt sure that Heather was happier than she was because of this. 

But somehow, the closer the chambers got to maturity, the less they seemed to matter. Paige had other things to worry about now—legitimate things. As she sat there on the chair, letting her mother coo over her chambers, she still had three final papers to write, not to mention the stats project. She would rather not think about the chambers at all, but there they were. And here her mother was, reminding Paige of them at every opportunity.

“I’m not worried, Mom,” she said.

“Of course not, honey. It’s all part of God’s plan. And it will be very good for you, you know. There are lots of health benefits.” Paige knew the studies her mother was referring to; she recited them to her all the time. A mild mood elevation during tenancy, a slight bump in longevity for keepers.

“Hey, you guys—oh, sorry.” Heather withdrew immediately from the doorway where she had leaned in, face bright, a moment before.

“What is it, honey?” their mother asked, still touching Paige’s back with her cool fingertips.

Heather remained out of sight in the hallway. “Dad wanted me to tell you the brownies were ready, but if you’re . . . .”

“It’s fine, Heather. We’re done,” Paige said, shrugging off her mother’s touch and pulling her shirt back down. “It’s safe.”

Paige hadn’t planned on being a social worker. She entered undergrad as an elementary education major. Every week when their Introduction to Elementary Education class had an afternoon block, they would all be shuttled around to different schools in the region to get real in-class experience. After a few placements with older grades, which did not interest her, Paige had been put in a first-grade classroom at a small private school. The teacher, Una—everyone went by first names at this school, so she was Una to students and Paige alike—had, at first, seemed like everything Paige wanted to be: kind, creative, intuitive.

Halfway through free-play time, two children started shouting and slapping at each other over by the little plastic kitchen set. Una rushed over, putting herself between them.

“Hey, no! Stop, stop! What happened?” Una asked, her voice sorrowful. She looked at the little boy. “Remy?”

“Jewel won’t let me play,” Remy complained. “It’s not fair.”

“Jewel? Everyone’s allowed to play with the toys. You know that. What’s going on, sweetie?” At first, the little girl was silent, tears falling steadily and her nose dripping. But Una was patient and tender and finally, Jewel started talking, though her voice was so quiet that Paige couldn’t hear what she was saying. Una’s eyes filled as she listened.

“Remy? Does that help you understand what Jewel was thinking?”

“I’m sorry about your grandma, Jewel,” Remy said. And his own chin crinkled with tears. “Do you want a hug?” Jewel nodded, her eyes on the ground. Remy squeezed her in his arms and let go, and Jewel dissolved into sobs. Una picked her up and carried her into the hallway.

Later in the afternoon, Paige went outside with the kids for recess and watched them swarming over the playground. The air was thick with their laughter. The chains of the swingset chimed against the steel pole, and the spring riders were alive with gleeful motion. This is good, Paige thought. This is what kids need. But then, behind Paige, came a sneering little voice:

“Keeper, keeper, booty-peeper!”

Paige stiffened, her stomach clenching. Her hand went to her neckline to see if it had slipped down to expose the bumps on her back. But as she turned, she realized that the child was not taunting her but a classmate, a little boy with big glasses.

“Your mama’s a keeper, your daddy’s a keeper, your dog is a keeper, your fish is a keeper . . . .”

“No they aren’t. Animals aren’t,” the boy whined in response to his tormentor.

“Yours are! And you’re gonna be a keeper, too!”

“I’m not!” The little boy was growing panicked, breathing harder.

“You are,” said one of the other kids gathered around him. “If your mommy and your daddy are, then you are.”

“Moths are going to mess up your brain! You’re going to be a zombie.”

“That’s not true!”

“It is true. I know. My dad’s a scientist, and he said keepers are . . . .”

Paige turned fully towards the group and took a step in their direction. The ringleader, a chinless kid with flat, stone-brown hair, glanced up at her, then elbowed the others. 

“Just kidding,” said the chinless kid through a gappy grin. “We’re just joking, Ry.” And Ry was treated to a round of excuses, each of the bullies shooting a look up at Paige before they peeled off. 

“You okay, Ry?” Paige asked. 

“Uh-huh,” Ry said, trying to keep it together. “It was just a joke.”

“It wasn’t a very funny joke, though, was it?”

Ry dropped his head. “Does it mess up your brain?”

“No, sweetheart,” Paige said, crouching down. “Nothing happens to your brain.” Paige wasn’t actually sure about this. She had more or less stopped reading the articles her mother sent her. “But did you know that keepers actually have a slightly longer life expectancy?”

Ry stared at her.

“That means keepers live longer than other people.”

“They do?”

“Yeah, buddy. Don’t listen to those kids. Being a keeper is no big deal.”

“Have you done it?” Ry asked, his eyes drifting towards her shoulder.

Paige shook her head. “But my mom is a keeper. She’s hosted lots of times, and she’s definitely not a zombie.” She smiled at Ry and sent him back to play.

At their debriefing at the end of the day, Paige told Una about the playground. Una tsked her tongue and swept her curly, dark hair back from her face.

“Oh, poor Ry. Why do we wait so long to educate kids about . . . about the moths?” She flitted her long-fingered hands in the air. “We really should start introducing these things earlier. And not just for the ones who . . . .” She waved her hands back over her own shoulders. “I mean, keepers aren’t some kind of Other. Kids need to hear that message while they’re young, before it’s clear who’s who. Keepers don’t even know for sure until they’re, what? Ten?”

“Sometimes older,” Paige said. Una’s enthusiasm made her uncomfortable. “You want to do a lesson?”

“Yeah, you know—about the eggs and the moth season.” Una’s voice was lively with excitement. “Gosh, just talking about this is making me realize: all of us really need this. It’s not like anyone taught us about them, right?”

Paige smiled tightly, but she did not correct Una’s assumption about her. “Totally,” she said.

“I love this, Paige. I wonder if Ry’s mom or dad would want to come in and talk to our classes.”

Paige imagined having her own mother in front of a room of her peers, turning around to show her swollen chambers, red and full with their tenants. “Wouldn’t that put Ry in a weird spot?”

Una finished up a note to herself on her phone and brushed away a curl of hair that had fallen across her forehead. “But here’s the thing, right? Ry is already in a weird spot. He is going to be a keeper, and so he’s going to have to deal with that.”

“So, if all the kids learn about tenancy . . . .”

Una beamed at Paige. “Right. They can understand the keeper kids. They can help share the burden.”

Paige couldn’t stop thinking about what Una had said. At dinner, she took her plate of lasagna and wan green beans to an empty table in the dining hall and stared out into the November twilight. The word “burden” bothered her more, somehow, than the playground teasing. From that first night in the bathroom, staring at her back in the mirror, Paige had hated the fact that she was a keeper; as her chambers puckered and deepened year by year in anticipation of their tenants, she had agonized over them, but it wasn’t because hosting was a “burden.” Keepers barely had to do anything. She had observed her mother’s summer tenancies, and they were nothing. A little swelling, a little itching maybe, a little extra attention paid, but not burdensome. The only reason she hated being a keeper was because other people thought it meant something. It didn’t. It didn’t mean anything.

Una’s plan to turn Ry into an object lesson was exactly the wrong approach. Paige knew all too well that the cruelty of playground bullies wasn’t a matter of misunderstanding. Tenancy wasn’t that complicated. Some people have chambers on their backs. The tenant moth lays its eggs in the chambers. The larvae crawl out when they are ready. Whatever made kids tease other kids about turning into zombies, whatever made Heather recoil whenever the topic came up, it wasn’t a lack of information. That impulse was already there, looking to find its way out.

So she withdrew from Intro to Elementary Education and changed her major to Psychology. On the advice of her professors, she applied to a respected graduate social work program, not too far from home. Her acceptance had felt like a sign.

Finals came and went, and Paige pulled in a B- in Stats, acing her social work-specific classes. Summer term would begin in a week. Paige had a practicum lined up with a women’s center on the north side of the city. She was only vaguely aware of the news that tenant moths had been spotted in town—a headline from a local news station had popped up in her feed. She didn’t even open the article. She just clocked the news and moved on.

She should start paying closer attention. This was probably the year when a tenant moth, having flirted in the dusky evening air with a mate, would find her, alight between her shoulders, and deposit its eggs into one of her chambers. Her mom had bought her a few keeper shirts—some with open backs, some with more discreet slits—but she only wore them when she had her hair down to hide their function. It was customary for keepers to either leave their windows open at night or take evening walks during the breeding weeks. Paige didn’t do any of this. If it happened, it happened. A few weeks, and even the small inconveniences of hosting would be over, and her life would return to normal until next summer. Just a few weeks, she told herself whenever the thought surfaced. It’s nothing.

It was a Thursday evening, and Paige was walking through the parking lot of the Shoprite, on her way to get some milk and eggs and a few other odds and ends, when the moth blundered into her face. She jerked away and swatted at the bug, not fully registering its import. Undeterred, the moth returned and landed on her right shoulder. Paige craned her neck to see it. Between the lights of the parking lot and the lingering sunset in the summer sky, Paige could make out its distinguishing features. Dark, fuzzy thorax and striped abdomen, tufted at its end; the wings, a soft, veined grey, with a greenish band edging the forewings and a single, black splotch on each hindwing. All light seemed to disappear into its compound eyes. Paige was surprised to find her heart racing a little. The moth began to crawl, its legs tickling her bare shoulder as it made its way toward her back. Paige gently pulled her hair forward to clear the way.

“Oh my god, look,” said a woman walking up behind Paige. Paige was still frozen in place, not knowing if her movement would scare the moth off. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the woman staring, another figure beside her. The pair of them apparently felt no shame in gawking openly at the spectacle now taking place in and on Paige’s body.

“Gross,” said the woman, or her companion maybe. Then they kept walking, strolling through the sliding doors of the grocery store with a lingering glance of disgust back at Paige.

Angry and nervous, Paige eased herself towards a bench a few feet from the entrance, its back against the plate glass of the storefront. Paige sat on the far end of the bench, where she would be shielded by a large vinyl decal advertising pre-made salads and juice smoothies for sale inside. She did not want anyone else to see this. She might be resigned to this tenancy, but she was not resigned to being casually, comfortably reviled by some bitch on her way to get a case of Diet Coke and a twelve-pack of toilet paper.

As she sat and waited, Paige began to calm. She could feel the faint tickle of the moth’s fine feet and its tufted abdomen. She remembered practicing this part of the tenancy in keeper classes when she was young: simulating the crawl and ovipositing with paint brushes so that the children could learn to keep still as it happened. Paige sat patiently as the tenant moth did her quiet work.

As she waited, Paige thought about her summer practicum at the women’s center, about the women she would meet, drowning in a ruthless system, their abusers hovering in the shadows. Her heart swelled with the desire to protect those women. She cut herself off abruptly—that was savior bullshit, as her Micro Practice professor would call it. And she had to cut it out. Micro Practice was taught by a woman who had been a social worker with the city for twenty-five years.

“You aren’t here to save anyone,” she said to them. “Get that out of your heads. This is work, not missionary service. Even if you do your job perfectly, you don’t save anyone at the end of the day. And you aren’t going to do your job perfectly. Make peace with that. You are going to make mistakes and miss things and watch the consequences fall on other people. You do not have the worst end of the deal, here. Your clients do. The things that bring your clients to you in the first place—hunger, poverty, mental illness, racism, trauma—they’re big-ass problems. You do what you can to help them navigate the system, but you cannot and you will not save them. That’s not the job. Go in expecting to save people, and you will burn yourself to the ground and take everyone else down with you.”

The best she could hope for was to help a little if she could. Paige leaned forward as she had been taught, straightening her shoulders to relax the skin of her back. Maybe she owed this to the universe—giving herself to somebody, even if it was just a soft-bodied moth with light-absorbing eyes. It was a little thing, she reminded herself, such a little thing to be a keeper.

There was the barest flutter by Paige’s left ear, and she turned to see the moth fly off. Perhaps to lay additional eggs in another keeper’s chamber. Perhaps to die. But the moth had done her work. She had laid her eggs and, on her feet, carried a fungus which would now proliferate in the pouch as the eggs developed. By hatching time, there would be a scaly, yeasty overgrowth all around the eggs. It would discolor Paige’s skin, but it would give the larvae their first food. When the caterpillars vacated the chambers, her body would regain its natural balance.

She should probably get the app, Paige thought. She pulled her phone out and went to the app store. Her finger hesitated over the download button. It wasn’t strictly necessary. She could track the dates of this clutch of eggs and those that might be laid in her other chambers over the next few weeks manually, like her mother used to. The memory of that little red-backed grid-paper notebook brought with it a tart mix of nostalgia, affection, sadness, and revulsion. She clicked the download button quickly, looking away over the parking lot as the program loaded. When she looked down again, there on her screen was a new little icon of a tenant moth cupped in a pair of hands. Paige’s eyes stung and blurred, and she blinked, sending the tears streaming down her face. She felt silly crying about this thing that was so peripheral to her life. She wiped her tears and forced herself to enter her age, weight, height, and gender along with the date and location of the deposit. If she didn’t do it right away, she might never open the app again.

After the buds appeared, Paige’s mother had started telling stories about Paige’s grandpa, who died when she was only four.

“He was so proud of being a keeper,” her mom told her as they looked at a picture of him: young, slight-figured and hard-eyed. “He said that when he first developed—and he was even younger than you, Paigey—all the kids at his school envied him. Some even tried to pretend they were keepers. They would catch bees and make them sting their backs to get the welts. Can you imagine that?”

“No,” Heather had said. She was in the dining room, working on her homework at the table. “They must have been crazy. It’s so gross.”

“Heather, stop it. That’s unkind,” their mother scolded, waving her older daughter back to her schoolwork. “He always said it was the greatest honor of his life. ‘The Lord doesn’t choose just anyone,’ he used to say. He’d be so proud of you, honey.”

Paige had nodded, secretly glad that he had never known this about her.

“No one envies keepers anymore, Mom,” Heather said.

Their mother had frowned. “Well, they should. It’s a very special experience.”

It wasn’t just the stories, though. Everything in Paige’s life seemed to be about the chambers. There were the keeper diet kicks, which her mom heard about from a friend or found online. For months at a time, Paige wouldn’t be allowed white flour or sugar. Heather and their dad would be having dinner rolls and corn on the cob with their Sunday roast beef, while Paige suffered through dry slices of sprouted-grain bread and bitter greens in a watery pile.

“Mom, please,” Paige would beg, “can I just have normal food?”

“It’s good for us, honey,” her mother would reply, pulling out the bag of stiff, brown sliced bread from the freezer. “It helps develop the chambers.”

“But it’s disgusting. And it doesn’t even matter. I asked my counselor at the keeper class, and they said keepers can eat anything anyone else can.”

“This is good, healthy food, Paigey. We can’t let it go to waste.” Paige came to dread the sight of grocery bags on the counter, never sure what she would be forced to eat next.

Worst of all were the Saturday morning brunches with her mother’s keeper friends. The whole morning would be them complaining about disrespectful comments, about the reduced tax credit, about insulting misconceptions that had ruffled their feathers.

“What we do is a benefit to this world,” they would say to one another. “The research has only just begun to reveal the full extent of what God has ordained in us. People forget. These surgeries they’re having. It’s a sin! To reject a gift that God has given is a sin.”

“Remember that, Paigey,” her mother would tell her. “You cannot change who you are.”

Once, Paige’s mother had taken her to the cemetery on their way home from brunch. It was a bright April day, though the sun was layered away behind a film of clouds. Paige stood sullenly beside her mother in the chilly afternoon and looked at her grandfather’s gravestone. Above his name, its wings spread wide, was the carved image of a tenant moth. Paige cried when she saw it. That night, she wrote instructions for her own funeral in her journal, forbidding anyone from mentioning moths.

The first day at the women’s center consisted mostly of following the director, Irina Poe, from one room to another and being introduced to harried staff as they passed in the hallway. While Irina took a call with a grant officer, Paige worked through the forms on confidentiality and liability. She was left to imagine what sort of dangers, exactly, were implied here, as the language was fairly broad. She signed anyway, as easily as she agreed to the terms and conditions of the keeper app, as easily as she signed her student loan papers, as easily as she had sworn whatever she had sworn when she had been fingerprinted for the background check. Paige wondered how many of these contracts she had violated in her life—sharing a password, checking the wrong box. If all her agreements were enforced, what would her life be? But she was counting on the fact that no one would ever come after her with evidence of her carelessness.

“Did you bring your lunch?” Irina asked. Paige looked up from the clipboard. Irina had finished the call, placed her phone face down on a pile of paper-thick folders, and was now rubbing her eyes and face wearily.

“I didn’t,” said Paige, flustered. “I wasn’t sure if there was a fridge or . . . .”

“You know what?” Irina said. “Why don’t I take you to this little place around the corner? Do you like Indian food?”

“Definitely,” Paige said, embarrassed by forcing her new supervisor into a position of needing to feed her.

“Great. Let me get my purse.” Irina tossed her phone in and fished around until she found a pair of semi-iridescent bug-eye sunglasses and pushed them into her coiffed hair. “Okay, follow me.”

Paige did as she was told, grabbing her backpack from the corner of the office, just in case Irina wasn’t actually offering to pay for lunch. 

On their way to the front door, Irina stopped to let Taja, who coordinated the counseling programs at the center, know that she would be out of the building for about an hour. 

“Okay,” Taja said. She was sitting at the reception desk, eating salad out of a repurposed takeout container as she flipped through a stack of paperwork. “When you get back, though, can we talk about the intake rooms?”

Irina sighed. “Yes, Taja. We’re going to talk about that.” Irina looked at Paige with an expression of mixed annoyance and apology. “Space is a constant issue for us.” Paige nodded, unsure of what else Irina wanted from her in response.

The front door swung open, and a woman ushered her slow-footed son—probably ten or eleven years old—out of the bright summer afternoon.

“Well, look who it is,” Taja said, a wide smile on her face. “Evan, Evan, Pumpkin Pie.” The kid smiled a little, then immediately took a seat in one of the cushy chairs in the lounge. He picked up a home decorating magazine and opened it. Taja laughed and pouted. “Okay, you be that way. It’s fine. You’re not hurting my feelings.”

Irina gave her attention to the mother. “Hello, Mandy. Nice to see you. How are you?”

The woman took off her sunglasses, revealing a bruised and bleeding face. Paige gasped loudly. Irina and Taja both shot her warning looks. Taja put down her fork.

“Mandy,” Irina said, readjusting her hold on her purse strap, “do you need me to take you to the hospital?” 

The woman, Mandy, moved her head uncertainly. “I don’t know.” Her voice was raw. “I’m sorry. I just—I don’t know.”

Irina shook her head. “That’s okay, my dear. I do want to see you taken care of, though. Is the hospital okay? Does that feel safe?”

“I don’t know,” Mandy said. 

The phone rang, and Taja answered it, turning away to talk, though Paige saw her eyes darting over to where Evan sat.

“Mandy,” Irina was saying, “why don’t we go back to my office? You can sit down. You and I can figure out next steps together.” Irina extended one hand towards Mandy and the other back down the hallway towards her office. “Is Evan hurt?”

Mandy shook her head, looking at her son sitting on the chair, seemingly absorbed in the magazine. “He didn’t touch him.”

“Okay,” Irina said. “Paige, would you sit with Evan while Mandy and I talk?”

“Sure,” Paige said. “Of course.”

“Taja will be here if you need anything.”

Taja smiled up at Paige, putting her hand over the receiver. “I’ll be right over,” she whispered.

Irina and Mandy walked back towards Irina’s office, and Paige went over to the boy and stood beside his chair.

“Hi, Evan,” she said to him. He shifted in his seat, looking over at her dull, office-appropriate shoes. “I’m Paige. Is it okay if I sit beside you?” Her voice sounded strained to her, and she cleared her throat.

“Yeah.” Evan turned his eyes back to the page, which was ruffling in the breeze from the open window.

“Thanks.” Paige sat down. “I’m just going to sit here with you so that you’re not alone. We can talk if you want, but it’s okay to be quiet, too.”

“Mm-hm,” said Evan. Paige wondered how many times he had done this. He had not turned the page of the magazine. Paige paced her own breathing, letting it grow slower and steadier, hoping this would somehow communicate to Evan, intangibly, a sense of calm.

A soft tapping at the open window to Paige’s right drew her attention. Evan, too, looked up at the window. A moth with green-edged wings was bumping at the screen. It was unusual for them to be out at this time of day, but perhaps this one had been weathering the brightness under the windowsill and was tempted into the light by Paige’s pheromones.

Paige looked over at the boy. His face had soured with disgust.

“It’s just a moth,” she said. “Just a bug.”

“It’s dirty,” he said. 

“Not really,” she murmured, conscious of the slight heat of the two filled pouches on her back. Another moth had found her just last night and deposited its eggs in one of the empty chambers. There were still two vacancies.

“My dad hates them,” Evan said, still staring at the moth. “He wants to kill them all with bugspray.” Evan looked back at the magazine on his lap. He seemed, suddenly, to become aware that he had no interest in its contents. He shut it, putting it on the coffee table to his left, and began hunting around for something else to read.

“Does your dad feel that way about all kinds of bugs?” Paige asked. Evan shrugged but did not answer. “Well,” Paige said, if only to keep the conversation going. “I think they’re pretty.” It was an incomplete truth, but true nonetheless. “And they’re an important part of the ecosystem.”

Evan looked at Paige with a blank expression. 

“You know what an ecosystem is?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Evan said, insulted.

“So you know that without tenant moths, the bats might go hungry.”

“Bats are dirty, too.”

“Well, what about the flowers that the moths pollinate? You don’t want the flowers to die, do you?”

“I didn’t say I wanted it. I said my dad does.” Evan gave up on the magazines and slouched back in his chair, eyes wide, lips pressed together.

Paige swallowed back all the arguments rising in her throat, realizing that she had walked into dangerous territory with the boy.

“Hey, Pumpkin Pie.” It was Taja. She crouched in front of Evan, her hands on either armrest of his chair. 

“Hi,” Evan said. 

“You doing okay?”

Evan didn’t answer Taja’s question. 

“You want to play a game?”

Evan gave such a small nod that it was almost imperceptible.

“Okay, I’ve got Monopoly, Sorry, checkers, Hippos. I’m not sure what else. Let’s go look.” Taja stood up and offered Evan her hand. He took it. “Thanks so much, hon,” Taja said to Paige and headed over with Evan to the shelves of games by the reception desk. 

Paige sat in her chair feeling pointless and clumsy. She fought back waves of embarrassment as she rehearsed all that she had done wrong today: gasping at Mandy’s face, forgetting to bring her lunch, forcing Evan to talk about his dad in the immediate aftermath of his trauma. This was the point of education, she reminded herself, to learn how to become less pointless, less clumsy. But she couldn’t forgive herself just yet. The question of saving was not even on the table.

Paige watched the moth crawling patiently around the screen, its antennae in constant motion as it walked back and forth, looking for an opening.

“Just make sure there are no gaps,” Paige said, handing a roll of medical tape to her sister.

“Are you sure about this?” Heather asked, her sculpted eyebrows pinched together prettily.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Paige answered. They had plans to go out, but Paige had pulled her sister into the bathroom, tape in hand, and asked her—feigning casualness—to tape closed the two unoccupied chambers on her back. 

“Is it even allowed?”

“What do you mean, ‘Is it allowed?’ Who do you think is in charge here? There aren’t laws.”


“Did you really think there were laws forcing me to host tenant moths?”

“I never thought about it.”

That, Paige knew, was true. After that first night, Heather hadn’t touched Paige’s back again. Eventually, she even stopped eavesdropping on the lectures on tenancy and family history. Paige would be trapped there, listening as their mother unburdened herself of all the things she could tell no one else.

“Does Mom know you’re doing this?” Heather asked. She peeled the medical tape from the roll, tearing off inch-long pieces and sticking them on her finger in a line.

“No.” Paige was annoyed at the question, and she turned her back to her sister, both to avoid her eyes and to present the chambers for the tape. The scoop back of her billowy top made for easy access.

“Don’t you think you should tell her?” Heather set the roll of tape on the bathroom counter.


“Don’t be stupid.”

“I’m not. I just don’t think it’s any of her business.”

“Whatever,” Heather said, and she began taping the chamber openings shut. “Just these two, right?” she asked. Paige looked back to see Heather pointing to the catty-corner empty chambers in the mirror. The occupied chambers were now reddened and a little puffy.

“Yeah,” Paige said. “Just the empty ones.” She felt sure Heather was avoiding touching the chambers with her bare fingers as she taped.

Paige turned her eyes to the bathroom window, a dark square of night framed into the wall. Even now, there was probably at least one moth pacing on her window frame, anxious to get to her. It made her uncomfortable, to be perceived with such intensity.

“All done,” Heather said.

When Paige turned around, Heather plunked the roll of tape into her palm.

“Ready?” she asked Paige, putting on a carefree smile. “I can drive.”

At the bar, Heather asked whether Paige could drink.

“Yeah,” Paige said, raising her voice over the music, “it’s fine. I probably shouldn’t go crazy, but it’s okay.”

“Cool,” Heather said and ordered their first round.

“It’s hot in here,” Paige said. “Do you have a hair tie?” Heather took one out of her purse and handed it to her sister. Paige swept her hair up into a ponytail, relieved to have it off her neck.

Heather lifted their sidecars off the bar and nodded towards an empty booth. “Let’s sit.” They slid in over the curved, padded bench until they met in the middle.

“I’m so over this scene,” Heather said, taking a sip of her cloudy-orange drink. “Men do not leave me alone at these places. You’d think that I could at least have some good conversations, but let me tell you, they do not care what’s going on in here.” She tapped her head.

“Yeah, I bet.” Paige fiddled with the curl of orange peel on the edge of her glass.

“Trust me, Paigelina. Being this cute has its drawbacks.” She made a goofy face, trying—though not too hard—to mock her own beauty. “There’s really nothing to be jealous of.”

“I’m not jealous of you, Heather.”

“I know, that’s what I’m saying. Uh-oh. See what I’m talking about?” Heather pointed. A tall, scruffy-faced man was approaching their booth. Heather took a big drink of her sidecar and smiled up at him.

“Hi,” he said. He looked to be in his late twenties, maybe a boyish thirty-something. He was loose and easy in his walk and seemed to hang together by suggestion alone.

“Hi,” Heather said, her voice playful but aggressive. “Can we help you?”

“I’m Greg.” He had a lopsided smile.

Heather propped her fingers together in front of her. “Whatcha want, Greg?”

“Just looking for someone to talk to.”

Paige snorted. “Sorry, Heather was just telling me how men don’t like to talk to her. So . . . .” She gave a hokey shrug.

“Then I’ll talk to you,” Greg said and plunked down on Paige’s end of the booth, a wide curve of cushion between them. She caught the scent of cloves.

“Oh, okay,” Paige laughed. She turned to Heather, who raised her eyebrows in surprise over the rim of her drink. Paige looked back to Greg. “What do you want to talk about?”

Greg leaned back and cocked his head to think. “Please don’t tell me what you do for work. I want something real.” He leaned forward again. “When’s the last time you had a flat tire?”

Paige thought about it. “Never.”

Greg grinned. “Wow. Never?”

“Seriously, never?!” Heather echoed, swirling the remainder of her drink with more flair than was strictly necessary, but Greg was still looking at Paige. Paige wondered how long Heather’s good mood would last if Greg never turned that easy-going smile on her.

“Nope,” Paige said, looking from Heather back to Greg.

“Not even, like, on a bicycle?”


Greg crossed his arms and beamed at Paige. “Wow, you’re good luck. I’ve always said that about keepers.”

Paige straightened and pinched the stem of her glass uncomfortably.

Heather dropped her jaw. “Woah, how did you know?”

“I’m sorry,” Greg said to Paige, scratching his half-grown beard nervously. “I noticed when you put your hair up. I don’t mean to be a creep. I know a lot of people are weird about it, but I think it’s awesome.”

“Are you one, too?” Heather asked stiffly. At the bar, a triad of middle-aged men let out a howl of groans and oohs in response to some unheard jibe.

Greg shook his head. “I wish.”

“You do?” Heather blurted. She looked sideways at Paige but didn’t stop herself. She had always been a light touch with alcohol, and she had finished her drink quickly. “You want that?” She shuddered. “No offense,” she said to Paige, “but it’s not like you even want it, and you have it.”

“You don’t?” Greg asked, giving Paige a pained look. “Is that what the tape is all about?”

Paige didn’t know what to say. She glared at her sister.

Heather rolled her eyes. “You’re the one who made me tape your damn holes up!” She tipped her glass to get the last drops.

“I’m not exactly sure what I want.” Paige ran her thumb through the wet of her glass and rubbed it between her fingers.

“Why not?” Greg insisted. “What happens between you and the moths—it’s beautiful. It’s a miracle. Excuse me for geeking out, but did you know that tenant moths are keystone pollinators for Hesperides’ Trumpet? And that’s what they use to make Clozanagen, which is a treatment for lymphoma.”

Paige pushed at her drink as Greg spoke. “No, I know that,” she said.

“And it’s like, who else gets to do this? Be part of the life cycle of another species. Multiple other species when you think about it. You have this whole biome that you anchor. None of the rest of us have that. Nothing in this world is better off with us here. You’re so lucky.”

Paige shrugged uncomfortably. She could feel the eggs inside their chambers. That was impossible, though. They were so small. In her. Not her. Her tenants.

“Okay, I’m out,” Heather said, forcing a laugh. “You two have fun. I’m going to go dance.”

Paige watched her sister prance into the room, saw the half-dozen faces that turned towards her, as if it were compulsory. When she looked back at Greg, she found his eyes still on her. Their expression was tender.

“I dated this woman for a few years, a while back,” he said, his eyes drifting from Paige’s face to the caddy of condiments. “She was amazing. She would start the season down south, wherever the first reports came out. She would go outside at night totally naked, totally open. She had all her tenants within, like, two days of the first emergence. She’d hang out until her chambers were clear, then she’d drive up to wherever the emergence was at that point and do it again. She could do, like, three or four tenancies a year. I used to go with her, and it was so beautiful, like we were part of something, you know?”

“I don’t know,” Paige said.

“What is there not to know?” Greg’s eyes were firmly on Paige again. He was wearing that lopsided grin. “It’s like, you have your life’s purpose told to you. Everyone else, they have to muddle around and figure that out without any clues. But you? It’s different. It’s like the universe is talking directly to you.” He winced. “Look, you have to block out all that crap that people say. Keepers aren’t . . . ” He leaned towards Paige, his tone desperately earnest. “ . . . there’s nothing wrong with you.”

Paige’s lips tightened. “I know there’s nothing wrong with me.”

“What I mean is, it’s the opposite. There’s something right about you. You—people like you—it’s the next level of humanity. It’s evolution. It’s everything.” Greg shook his head, seemingly overwhelmed by the truth of what he had just spoken. “Please,” he said, extending one hand towards Paige’s on the table, taking her hand, holding it. His palm was as tough and smooth as a leather jacket. Part of her could think of nothing except his hand. Part of her itched to pull her hand away. “Please. Promise me one thing.”

“Promise you?”

“Promise me you won’t get the surgery.”

Paige pulled her hand into her lap. “Dude. You don’t even know my name.”

“But I know you,” he said, tears rising in his eyes.

“You really don’t. Excuse me.” Paige scooted out of the booth and went to find Heather.

“Can we go?” she shouted over the music, leaning towards her sister’s ear.

“Really?” Heather made a pouty face. “He was cute, though.”


“Okay, whatever.” Heather went to the bar to settle up and then edged her way to the door, Paige following in her wake.

Outside, walking the two blocks to Heather’s car, Heather kept looking over at Paige and shaking her head.

“What?” Paige asked, finally.

“Nothing.” But then Heather stopped, in front of the rolled-down grille of a storefront café. “I just—I don’t know what you want.”

Paige tensed. “Are you talking about the chambers?”

“Yes, that. And the guy. You complain all the time how people are so grossed out by keepers. Well, he wasn’t grossed out. And he was cute.

“I don’t complain all the time. And he was a creep. He was too interested.”

“You’re ridiculous. You get so much attention for those stupid moth sacs. But now it’s like, No thank you, tape ’em up! What do you want, Paige?”

“What do you mean, what do I want? I just want to be a person.”

“Then be a person. No one is stopping you.”

“You don’t get it, Heather. I can’t. Even when they’re empty, they’re waiting. It’s like I’m more than a person or less than one—I don’t know. Maybe I don’t know what I want. More time? What I really want is to have my life back, but this time I want it without them. But I can’t have that. So I taped them up. It’s not what I want, but it’s something.”

Heather turned toward the lowered grille and linked her fingers through its bars. She peered at the glass of the entryway. “It’s not like it’s easy not having them,” she said to Paige’s reflection.

Paige stared back into the window, but Heather’s face was obscured by shadow. “You want mine?” she asked. Heather gave a stiff laugh, a rush of air with no voice in it. Behind them, a car passed with its music playing loud, thumping into their chests.

Heather turned away from the café and wiped her eyes. “You’re impossible. You know that? Just impossible.” She took Paige’s arm, and they walked on towards the car.

After Heather dropped her off, Paige stood in her bathroom, paused in the middle of her nighttime routine, the toothbrush clenched between her teeth. She kept thinking about her conversation with Heather. What could be easier than not having the chambers? Heather had flaunted the ease of not having them all their lives. She had built walls between herself and Paige and defended them. She didn’t want to know anything, hear anything, see anything that might complicate matters.

Just then, Paige’s phone, face down on the window ledge by the toilet, rang. Paige turned the phone over to see who it was. 

“Tattletale,” Paige said, her mouth full of toothpaste foam. She spat into the sink, did a quick rinse, and answered. “Hi, Mom.”

“What are you doing, Paige?”

Paige knew what her mom was asking, but she didn’t feel like being cooperative. She wandered out of the bathroom, past the bed, and into the dark of the living room. “Nothing. I’m just getting ready for bed. What’s up?” 

“Heather told me what you asked her to do.”

“Mom . . . .” Paige flopped herself onto the couch, staring up at the fanned pattern of the apartment’s plaster ceiling. The light from the bedroom door was long and stark across its surface.

“Paige, you have to take the tape off.”

“No, I don’t.”

“If they can’t get to you, they can’t deposit.”

“I have two tenants already, Ma.”

“That’s what Heather said . . . .” Paige could hear her mother sigh in that way she had, almost a whimper. “Why didn’t you tell me when it happened?”

“I didn’t know you wanted to know,” Paige said, rubbing her eyes, reminding herself of Irina with this gesture of weariness.

“Of course I want to know! It’s your first time. I thought you would tell me.”

“Well, I’m sorry. But you know now, so . . . whoop-de-doo. I have moths.”

“You have two open, though. I bet if you went outside right now, you could get both deposits tonight. It’s a very active time.”

Paige imagined this: picking the tape off and standing under the parking lot lights in her pajamas. Her back crawling with green-and-grey moths with dark-splotched wings, their velvet abdomens slipping eggs into the chambers of her back. It wasn’t a fearful thought to her. But it wasn’t fear that had made her ask Heather to tape her up. It wasn’t fear that led her to lock her windows as soon as she got home, that kept her here inside. It was something just as urgent but less fleeting.

“No, Mom. I’m not going outside. I don’t want the other chambers filled. I wish I had taped them all up before it was too late.”


“What? Mom! I don’t want them. I’m allowed to decide that.”

“Who told you that?”

“No one told me. It’s just how it is.”

There was no answer to this, at first. Paige checked the phone to make sure they were still connected. When her mother spoke again, she sounded strange—it was a tone Paige had never heard her use before. It was not cajoling, not scolding, not flattering or soothing. Her voice was bare, somehow. It embarrassed her to hear her mother sound like this.

“You kids think your lives are all about you. They’re not.”

Paige was taken aback. “All about me? That’s not fair, Mom. I do plenty of things for other people. But my body is about me.”

“No, it’s not.” Paige half-laughed at such an audacious statement, but her mother kept going: “You are part of something, Paige. Your body is part of it. God designed you in a very specific way for a very specific purpose. You don’t get to opt out of his plan for you. You don’t get to choose who you are.” 


“I’m serious. I’m sick of all this nonsense about, ‘You can be whatever you want to be.’ I never told you girls that. You have gifts and you have obligations, and you are responsible to both of those things.”

“But Mom, if I don’t want it, it’s not a gift. It’s clutter.” Paige kicked herself for saying this and sat up on the couch, ready for a fight, but her mother wasn’t saying anything. “Mom, I’m sorry. I know it’s not like that for you, but . . . I’m not you. That has to be okay.”

“It’s not okay, Paige. It’s not. You have a responsibility. Now, do it.” And she hung up.

Paige leaned back on the couch, looking up at the half-lit ceiling. 

Someone had made those fan shapes in the plaster. There had been a person on a ladder, she thought, their ridged trowel moving in gentle arcs, one after another. Had this worker, this artist, imagined her, some future occupant of the apartment, sitting in this room staring at the ceiling? Perhaps the fan shapes were there for their own sake. Because the ceiling was a blank asking to be filled with some sort of intention. Paige put herself on that ladder, smoothing the ceiling back out, returning it to emptiness.

God’s design, her mother had said. His plan for her. But if God were real—the God her mother believed in, the God who created all things and held the vast universe in mind at all times—then God was too powerful a being to understand the implication of its choices in a human life. What did such a being know of vulnerability, of anxiety, of longing for erasure? But Paige didn’t think that God was real. She didn’t believe in whatever Greg was peddling, either: that the universe, speaking the language of evolution and interconnectedness and whatever else, had determined her purpose and written it into her back.

Was it worse, that there was no plan for her? It was the same loneliness and powerlessness, in the end, to think that one was misjudged and misperceived and to know that one was not perceived at all but merely circumstantial. Those warm pockets between her shoulder blades were filled with someone else’s life—a life that was no part of her. It was another being’s need and ambition that sought her out, desired her. Like Heather: pursued, everyone thinking about her, trying to get close to her, but she herself was irrelevant. Paige felt herself the object of all this attention—her mother’s, Greg’s, God’s, the moths’—but she herself was see-through, a screen in the shape of a person. Being a keeper—it was so little a thing. Too little. It threatened to shrink her away to nothing.

And Paige wanted to be something. Beyond her hot, dark little chambers, the world was large with importance. There was Evan. His father, blood on his hands, teaching his son what was dirty and deserving of violence. His mother, faced with the impossible question of what she needed. When Paige went back in the morning, Mandy and Evan wouldn’t be there. They would be staying in a room in the shelter across town, or else they would have gone back home—persisting day after day. Their lives—so broad and unknowable—had met with Paige’s in a fleeting touch and then pulled away. In this exchange, she had been the parasite—timid and fragile, slow and peripheral, using their pain to learn her profession.

What would it take to truly face up to such enormity? How did Irina do it? By filling out all those papers? How did Taja? By eating salad at her desk and playing games with sad boys? These women could teach her about their work—the concessions to bureaucracy required to step towards justice. But perhaps Paige, bound to the little things inside of her, was already too small to meet the world in its entirety.

So what, then? Should she quit the program? She could get some other job—any other job—that began and ended and did not crawl inside of her and reside there. She could add columns or rack up sales or something. She could untape her back and accept that which came to her on green-edged wings, soft and assuming.

Paige stood up from the couch and went to the window that looked down onto the parking lot. In the orange lights, a swarm of insects flashed and fluttered. Heather was right. To go outside and let the moths intersect their little lives with hers—that would be the easy thing, like signing a form, checking a box. She wouldn’t have to do anything—just sit there and let the soft-footed moth crawl across her back. The harder choice was emptiness. Paige turned and walked into the bright bedroom. She switched off the light in the bathroom, the tall lamp by the dresser. Curled in bed, she set her alarm and placed her phone on the bedside table, its charger cord snaking down to the outlet. Then she flipped over onto her stomach. In her back, pale green larvae were growing tight in their eggs; perhaps the first were already beginning to hatch.

Let them hatch, then. Let them work their way out of her body and leave her vacant. She would not let them fill her up again. It was time to stop signing her name to contracts that she had not read. She took a breath so deep it burned her lungs. When she let it out, there was relief in it. Resolve. Never again. She would safeguard the space within her. She would close herself off. She would remain undetermined, uncluttered by anyone’s gifts.