I walk along a deserted path. I see nobody near me. I don’t feel anything. There’s nothing to focus on. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know how I got here. But that’s when she comes to me. A woman, skeletally thin with deep sunken eyes. I can see no life within her, but her eyes still shine with malicious intent.
“I can help you, Alma,” she says, and I narrow my eyes at her. She’s wearing black jeans that hug her pencil-thin legs. Her face is gaunt, and on her shirt is a big pink heart. It’s almost ironic how it contrasts with her cold exterior.
“Who are you?” I ask, and she smiles. Her gums are practically grey, and her teeth are almost falling out.
“Why, I’m Ana,” she tells me. “I’m your best friend. I can give your life purpose,” she says, and my interest grows.
“You can give my life purpose?” I question, and she nods, reaching for my hand. Her skeletal fingers look like something from a bad dream. But at the same time, they’re beautiful. The bones and tendons beneath her thin skin make her fingers look endlessly long.
She takes my hand in hers. Her skin is cold. Sickly. “I can give you everything you’ve ever desired,” she tells me, leaning closer. Her voice is coarse, as if she hasn’t had water in years.
“Just trust me,” she replies, and I look into her sunken eyes. She smiles. “I’m your friend, Alma.” I look away from her eyes, and I notice her black hair. It’s thin, as if she could go bald by tomorrow.
“Are you okay?” I ask, and she laughs slightly.
“Why, I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in my entire life,” she says.
“You don’t look it.”
“Is that so?” She pulls away from me and looks at my face, her eyes narrowed.
“Mmm. I need to go,” I tell her.
I start to walk away, but that’s when a different voice speaks. “Alma.”
I look behind me and see a gorgeous woman. She has long blonde hair and a bright face. She’s wearing shorts that show off her slender legs and a short shirt that reveals a flatter-than-a-board stomach.
“Still think I don’t look good?” she questions. “Come now, I can help you.”
“Ana?” I question.
“Mhmm,” she replies. Even her voice is desirable. “Come with me. I’ll give your life purpose,” she says, extending her hand to me.
“I’ll make you look like me,” she cuts in, and I feel a rush of emotions. I can look like her.
“Really?” I ask, my voice soft, as if I’m scared that she’ll disappear if I’m too loud.
“Really,” she replies, smiling brightly. Her teeth are perfect. I go over to her and let her take my hand.
“Let’s go,” she says. And so we do.
Purpose. I have a purpose. Ana introduced me to her friend Cifras. She’ll give my life order, putting figures on everything.
“Everything has a figure. Everything has a number. Everything is either bad or good,” Cifras tells me, her voice authoritative. She looks like Ana, so I trust her.
“How do I know?”
“I’ll tell you. Don’t you worry,” she says, giving me a smile. And so she does. Everything has a number. Everything has a figure. Everything is either good or bad. We don’t touch bad things here. Water is good. Its number is 0. Tea is even better. Exercise is great. Its number is always negative.
“Don’t forget your numbers,” Ana and Cifras constantly tell me. “Don’t forget to check your own numbers.”
“I won’t,” I tell them. And I don’t. Water is good. Its number is 0.
I like having a purpose. I’m so grateful to Cifras and Ana. One day, I was so tired that it looked like Ana and Cifras morphed into one person. How funny! After that, I never saw Cifras again. Or was it Ana? I’m not sure. Whoever I’m with right now does both their jobs.
“Numbers, Alma,” she says.
“I’m not going to forget,” I reply.
“No, I’m telling you that your numbers are not good enough,” she snaps. Her hair is black now. Did she dye it? Her face is more gaunt, too. “You’re never going to look like me if you keep this up,” she tells me. Oh, it is Ana.
“You can’t do anything right, can you? You’re a lost cause,” she says, throwing her hands up in the air.
“No, please,” I say, and she looks to me. Her eyes are sunken.
“You have to do better,” she snaps. “Numbers, Alma!”
Tea is even better. Its number is 0.
One day, I run into a girl. Her numbers are probably big.
“Hi, there,” she says. Her face is slightly plump, and her jeans hug her wide hips.
“Hi,” I reply, not trusting her. Ana wouldn’t like her.
“My name’s Salud.”
“I’m Alma,” I reply.
“Are you okay?” she asks me.
“You don’t look okay,” she says, and I look down at myself. I can practically hear Ana screaming at me, “Numbers, Alma! Your numbers are still too big!”
“Yeah, I know,” I reply.
“Then why don’t you do something?” Salud questions, and I furrow my brow.
“Are you sure it’s the right thing?” she asks, touching my face. Her hand is warm, and I almost jerk away in surprise.
“Why is your hand warm?” I hiss, shrinking back.
“That’s normal, Alma.”
“No, it’s not. Your numbers are too big,” I snap before running from her.
“Alma! Stop before it’s too late!”
But I’m not listening. I’m too busy repeating my numbers.
I come back to Ana. She looks skeletal, like I first saw her. But I’m too preoccupied to notice the change.
“Alma, we have to get going,” she says, but I’m trying to count. “Alma,” she says, louder this time. Her voice is coarse. She comes over to me. “Alma.”
I’m trying to count. She grabs my hand.
“I’m counting!” I yell at her, and she slaps me across the face.
“We have to go!” she screams in my face, and I hold my throbbing cheek in my hand.
I see her now. Salud’s face appears in my mind. Stop before it’s too late. A moment of clarity. The screaming numbers and voices in my mind are quiet.
“No,” I finally say, and Ana’s face contorts with rage.
“No?” Her eyes burn with anger. “Are you saying no to me?”
“I am,” I respond, pulling my hand out of hers. She screams, but I run. I run away from her as fast as I can.
I run and I run. The landscape doesn’t change. It’s blurry and grey. That’s how it’s been ever since I met Ana. I don’t see anyone. My vision blurs. I feel lightheaded, but I always feel like that. It’s normal. I’m running, but I’m still cold. Again, nothing new.
That’s when I hear a familiar voice. “Alma!” It’s Salud. She’s a few hundred meters in front of me.
“Come to me!” she screams. I want to yell back, but I don’t have the strength.
I hear another voice. “Alma, come back to me.” It’s Ana. I look behind me, and she’s chasing me. Her black hair is streaming behind her as she runs inhumanly fast. She’s getting closer and closer.
I feel a cold chill of danger. And that’s when I lose consciousness.
I wake up to see the familiar face of Ana.
“I forgive you,” she says curtly. “Let’s get back to our numbers, shall we?” It’s easier this way. She gives me purpose. My life has meaning. Just focus on numbers. Nothing else matters.
“Okay,” I tell her, smiling. “I’m sorry I ever tried to leave you.”
“It’s fine. Just don’t do it again.” She gives me a smile, but it feels cold. “What’s good again?”
“Water,” I reply. “Its number is 0.”
I’m out one day when I run into Salud again.
“Alma, there you are,” she says, immediately grabbing my hand and pulling me into her.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m saving you from yourself.”
“What are you talking about?” I demand, and she starts pulling me forward.
“Come with me.”
“Don’t you see what’s happening to you?”
“Nothing is happening to me,” I reply, and she narrows her eyes at me.
“You’re in denial.”
“Who do you think you are, Chef Ramsay? I’m not in denial,” I tell her, and she doesn’t even laugh at my joke. I let out a breath. “Look, Ana is waiting for me—”
“Ana isn’t real,” she hisses. “She’s something you created in your mind. She’s not real,” she says, and I blink.
“Wow. Good one.”
“Listen to me,” she says. “She is not real.” She puts emphasis on each word.
“Mhmm. Yeah, sure.”
“What do you want in your life? If you don’t stop this, you’re not going to have a life left to live.”
“I have all I need in my life,” I respond.
“What about your friends? Your family?”
“I don’t have any other than Ana,” I say, confused.
“Alma, come with me. Just trust me. I’ll show you everything,” she says.
“I don’t trust you. I trust Ana.”
“Just come,” she repeats. Her grip on me is tight.
“If I go with you, will you leave me alone?” I ask, and she nods.
So I go.
I’m falling. Falling and falling and—
I scream. I jerk awake. I’m back in my body. I’m human. But I’m not. I don’t know where I am. Colors. Things aren’t grey. I feel warmth. It’s all too much.
“You’re alive!” A familiar voice. I blink as I see my mother. I have a mother. She’s here.
“What?” I ask blankly, looking down at myself. I scream. I’m Ana. This is her body. I feel my mother’s hands on me, but I push her away.
“Mirror!” I scream. “Get me a mirror!”
She grabs her purse before handing me a mirror. I nearly drop the mirror. My hands.
They’re not mine. This isn’t real. I’m not Ana. I’m not.
“Oh but you are,” a voice within me whispers.
I can’t grab the mirror—my hands feel limp. My mother grabs it for me and lifts it so I can see my face. My heart stops. I’m her.
“Told you,” the voice says, laughing maliciously. I lose consciousness.
She wasn’t real, but she also was. Water is g—no. She had become a part of me. A part of my soul. She’s within me now. She’s alive and breathing within me. Trying to pull me back. And she does. Sometimes.
Some days I scream and cry. Other days, she screams and cries. I win sometimes. She wins sometimes. It’s a harder journey than any physical journey I’ve ever undertaken.
It’s hard because she takes on many forms. She’s a mirror. She’s a picture. She’s a restaurant menu. She’s a plate of spaghetti. She’s a word that slips through someone’s lips.
She’s everywhere. There’s no escaping her. But I can make a choice to ignore her. I can make a choice to make her scream in agony, begging for me to pay attention to her.
Now, I don’t choose Ana. I choose Salud.
Water is good. But not because of its number. I don’t care about numbers anymore.