The doctor had some questions for Irene. Have you been worrying about anything lately? Apart from the weight gain?
She sat on the metal exam table, sucking in bare flesh rolls under a coarse paper apron. On the wall opposite her, framed in gold, hung a picture of an island, pristine white coastline lapped by crystalline waters. A person on that island would be happy, trouble-free.
When Irene had first noticed her pants wouldn’t button, she reduced her already-meager intake: a raw-vegetable salad for lunch, a handful of seeds and nuts for dinner. But each morning, the digits on the cold, white scale registered an ounce or two more than the day before.
She increased her exercise. In addition to daily, pre-dawn hot yoga, she lunged down the hallway, squatted and planked during phone calls, bicep-curled while making tea, jogged in place before bed. But her stretch marks sprouted and spread like rumors, insidious and uncontrollable.
Medical tests came back negative. No pregnancy, no thyroid dysfunction, no unusual growths.
She tried cryotherapy to freeze her fat cells, without success. She imported a tapeworm from Africa, but Customs returned the package to its sender. What to do? She had gained fifteen pounds, the heaviest kettlebell at the yoga studio.
But now, this doctor, a glimmer in his eye, seemed to offer her a filament of hope. She had to get this answer right.
Yes, she said, I worry constantly. About the wildfires and hurricanes. Polar bears dying and glaciers melting. Global terrorism. Millions of Americans without healthcare, a billion people living in poverty worldwide. Racial discrimination and sexual trafficking and homelessness and drug addiction and police brutality and gun violence and—
I see, interrupted the doctor. He smiled, a magician about to wow his audience. It’s just as I thought. You have a rare condition called anximorphia, in which your body literally feeds on stress. Let me explain. All humans inhale environmental toxins. Healthy lungs exhale them, none the worse off. In anximorphics, the toxins get absorbed by the bloodstream, and later, they are converted to adipose tissue, padding your cells.
Irene shuddered at the word adipose. What will happen to me?
If you do nothing, you’ll keep gaining. Those additional pounds will become a major health hazard, leading to immobility, organ failure, and eventually death. At your current rate of gain, you’ll have ten years left, optimistically. Unfortunately, drug trials and surgeries have proven ineffective against this condition. I’m afraid there is nothing—
The doctor hesitated, then lowered his voice. I do know of one treatment that has found early success. I should warn you, however, that very few are capable of making the sacrifice required.
Irene was nothing if not capable. I can do it, Doctor.
It is also—he glanced down, as though embarrassed—rather costly. He touched his watch, and Irene read the name of an expensive French brand that celebrities wore to awards shows.
Money is no object, she said, not if my life is at stake. Although—tell me what the treatment entails.
Of course. First, you will be stripped of all technology that facilitates contact with the outside world. Next, we’ll send you to an undisclosed location. You will live alone for the duration of your stay. A plane will air-drop supplies at regular intervals, but you will also need to grow, forage, or trap your own food.
Twice a year, a doctor will visit to administer the medicine, record your vital signs and monitor your hormone levels, organ function and pituitary health. After five years, if you are deemed healthy and your weight has stabilized at its pre-anximorphic level, you will return to society.
A five-year exile? I’ll have to give up my dog? Leave my friends and family? I can’t check the internet, watch shows, read the news?
Correct, said the doctor. We must eliminate all stress-inducing triggers.
She wavered. It was all moving so quickly—the diagnosis, the offer of a cure.
The doctor was tapping and swiping his touchscreen, his brow furrowed. I may have spoken too soon, he said. It seems there are no spots available.
In an instant, Irene envisioned blowing up to the size of a walrus. She would double or triple in size, lose her mobility, and then die. She could smell the blubber growing on her, a mix of sweat and bacon tingling her nose.
Please, Doctor, is there nothing you can do? I’ll give anything.
He petted her hand. Let me make a call. I know someone who might be able to pull some strings.
Thank you, she breathed.
He disappeared, leaving Irene to stare at the island. She could feel the sun toasting her skin, could taste the salt water, could hear the wind ululating through the palms. Then she imagined the fat melting off, pooling on the sand like a dead jellyfish. Who needed friends, really?
The doctor returned. If you’ll sign right away, the spot is yours. He passed Irene a sheaf of papers and a heavy, gold pen. She signed her name without reading them, determined not to lose her spot. The doctor shook her hand and sent her home to pack a single suitcase. He would see her at the helipad at 10:00PM sharp.
He chuckled. It was almost too easy. Life is stressful, and sometimes you gain weight, but these desperate women craved a diagnosis and a remedy. So be it.
That night, the doctor received a call from the assistant to Mr. Hastings Goldmorrow, the billionaire tycoon who owned the island, thanking him for enrolling yet another patient and promising to send him the referral fee as soon as the patient’s check cleared. Also, said the assistant, the doctor will be pleased to know that the SEO effort has paid off, and the doctor’s website, Anximorphia.com, now appears at the top of search results whenever women of a certain age search for a cure for sudden weight gain.
After years in startups, Jill currently writes novels and flash from Richmond, Virginia. Her work has been published in Catapult, New Flash Fiction Review, and Atlas & Alice, among others. If you want to win her lifelong affection, go running with her, speak Italian with her, or eat dark chocolate with her. Preferably all three. Follow her on Twitter at @jwitty.