Shawn Burgess Author

The Gain

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CONTENT WARNING: The following short story contains content that might not be suitable for all readers: alcoholism, abuse, cancer, and gore.

Rosy morning light cut through the blinds in far too chipper hues for Camilla Morgan’s mood. Another morning. Another cheap motel room. She felt like she spent most of her life in these things now. All similar, low-end boxy rooms, drab interiors, without much décor. A general glumness emanated from them that matched her own temperament.

As she tossed the thin bedsheets aside, she winced at the sight of her own body. For most women, twenty-three is a good year. For Camilla, it had been a steady downward slide, at least by one standard which had overtaken all others and become a focal point in how she now assessed her self-worth. She had witnessed a steady accumulation of weight, pounds packed upon pounds. It didn’t matter how much she exercised; the pounds kept coming. Diets, intermittent fasting-nothing seemed to work. The phantom weight piled on as if her metabolism was slumbering right alongside her spirit. It wasn’t that she measured the whole of her worth in weight, but the uptick in unwanted stares and snickering rattled her, reminding her of the chunky girl she left behind when she blossomed into a woman.

Twice before she experienced sudden weight gain, once at seven and again at thirteen. Prior to this latest bout, she had come to believe that those incidents resulted from overeating due to traumas she experienced around those same times. After all, it had been a lot for a young girl to digest, a stepsister and a best friend falling victim to separate unsolved homicides. Now that she was older and it was happening again, she wasn’t so sure. Perhaps some demons hitch a ride for life.

Her stepfather’s derision hijacked her inner voice. God, you’re so fat. Disgusting, really. How the hell does a thirteen-year-old get so tubby, anyways? Get off your fat ass and go exercise for god’s sake. She grimaced, the tingling pain of shame enveloping her even now, his phantom mockery persistent. I’ve seen harvest hogs leaner than you. Her fingernails found their way between her gritting front teeth.

Her phone burst to life, blaring its ear-scraping tune. The bed moaned as she hoisted her large frame upright and silenced it. She frowned, wrangled a deep breath and sighed. These budget beds were all the same, well-worn in the springs and a daily reminder of the extra heft she now carried.

A job selling group life insurance policies to mom-and-pop companies took her many places; none of much significance, just the small towns that dotted the rural, mountainous regions of Tennessee and Kentucky, but it was a living.

Camilla rose from bed. Standing in front of the full-height mirror, she winced at her appearance. Despite the relatively attractive, albeit ordinary woman staring back at her behind a bit of pudge in her cheeks, disgust roiled in her stomach, her stepfather’s voice pouncing not far behind it. Guess I ain’t got to worry about you sleepin’ around, have I? No one’s going to want you, anyway. Are they?

She pinched a bit of flab on her midsection and tugged at it disapprovingly. “You’re so fat. What’s wrong with you, Camilla?” She waited, glaring at her own reflection, half-expecting a condescending answer in return. A wave of nausea overcame her instead. She rushed to the bathroom and yanked the toilet lid up a millisecond before a torrent of vomit filled the basin.

From her knees, still spitting bile, she sought out the lever and flushed. Good, she thought as the sickness spun away from her; at least puking’s good for something. At the sink, she gargled faucet water and tidied her appearance.

It wasn’t that she dreaded her group benefits pitch with Cooper’s Feed Store so much as what the afternoon would entail. A trip home, the first return since she left for college, five years away from the venomous man who traumatized her childhood. Sure, he wore a nice human suit in public (most in town would call him a respectable, God-fearing man), but no vessel forever contains pent-up rage. It oozes between planks with subtle barbs during the day before all that compressed darkness explodes in the still isolation of night, splintering everything in its blast radius. Camilla still carried the emotional shrapnel, embedded deep in her psyche, along with a persistent stiffness in the shoulder he dislocated. “Fat kids are clumsy,” he’d joked with the ER nurses, “can’t even manage a flight of stairs.”

Camilla stripped away her panties, irritated to find the inner lining spattered with crimson stain. It wasn’t even her expected time of the month, yet her body seemed to be leading a revolt against her. Sure enough, upon glancing at the bed, the untidy sheets also bore the intermittent stains. She shook her head in disgust and climbed atop a small digital scale, her travel companion since her Monday stop in Middlesboro.

For two days, she ate a banana for lunch, skipped breakfast and dinner, and drank only water. She scoffed at the reading: 169.7. “Dammit. Seriously?”

This had been the perceived problem, the unreliability of using different scales-the miscalibrations between them leaving her unable to satisfactorily monitor her intended weight loss-which had ultimately led to this newest epiphany and spontaneous purchase. She lifted the scale and settled it gently back on the floor, ensuring each of its feet maintained solid contact. She tapped it with her big toe and climbed aboard to get her revised results. Her face contorted with anguish.

“What? How is this…” Her voice fractured into a sob. How’s this even possible? She gained almost a pound from her weigh-in the prior morning. She wanted to believe it was defective, but it was the same scale. Water weight? She had drunk a fair bit to ward off the constant pangs of hunger. She could cut back intake today and reassess in the morning.

Packing her toiletries in her suitcase, she noticed a bra strap encased in shadows underneath the sagging bed. She eased her knees onto the threadbare carpet, clasped the end and pulled it free.


She sprang to her feet and recoiled, flinging her hand over her mouth. Hitching a ride, the blood-soaked remnants of a large rat lay curled in one of the large cotton cups, its flesh and underlying tissue eaten away unevenly in small chunks, exposing snow-white cartilage and twig-sized bones.

Camilla craned her neck forward, her wide eyes inspecting the gruesome rodent, strings of its furry flesh trailing its small body like bloody streamers. A plump, pearly, worm-like creature wriggled free of the carcass. She sprang back as it lurched in her direction. “What the fuck?” she muttered, pursing her lips with disgust, but it soon devolved into anger. “Christ, with these cheap motel rooms.”

She hurriedly collected her remaining things, making one quick stop at the motel office to grab a cheap cup of watery coffee, express her dismay and lodge a formal complaint. The desk clerk feigned concern and pretended to write something down. It was obvious he intended to disregard it once she left, similar to how many of her sales prospects expressed interest and then never returned her follow-up calls.

Her business meeting concluded with a modest win, Cooper’s Feed Store electing for a bronze plan, the most meager offering in her portfolio. Not a terrible result considering she had given the presentation on autopilot. Her mind remained absent for most of the pitch, imprisoned one-hundred twenty-seven miles away. There, she traversed the familiar winding drive, funneling through a narrow channel cut through hulking hardwoods. Dust billowed from her tires on the rutted dirt lane until the woods in her periphery fell away as she slipped into the wide clearing. Her scowling stepfather greeting her by the dilapidated house drove a cinderblock deep into the pit of her stomach, his intrusive dark brown eyes eager to weaponize her size to make her feel small. A subtle smirk always foreshadowed an incoming volley of cruelty.

Within a few hours, dreadful daydreams became regrettable realities as her beat-up brown Chrysler Sebring rolled into the clearing at her mother’s house. She sighed relief to see her stepfather’s pickup truck absent from the detached car port. She wouldn’t have returned home were it not for her mother’s ailing health. A lifetime away wouldn’t have been time enough to mend the scars the man had inflicted on her. But stage IV lung cancer doesn’t wait lifetimes; in her mother’s case, doctors gave her only a matter of weeks.

She lugged her suitcase from the trunk, her warm breath crystalizing in the biting December air. Here, in the mountains, winter had arrived, a light dusting of brilliant white encasing the skeletal tree limbs. The shake roof of her modest childhood home sagged with disrepair, a ring of oxidized wooden shingles surrounding the chimney visible amidst an otherwise undisturbed sea of snow. A rising plume of white smoke churned high into the overcast sky above it, the familiar scent of hearth fire permeating the air. She shivered as an icy wind nipped at her through her clothes, hastening her steps to the door.

“Mama,” she called softly as the front door creaked on its hinges.

Her mother lay motionless in a recliner near the fire, her weary eyes slowly trailing to the sound of Camilla’s voice. A faint smile budded in the corners of her pale lips as she stared back at her daughter lovingly through sunken eyes. her emaciated calves jutting out from the blanket draped over her frail frame. A solitary tear slid down Camilla’s cheek at the shocking sight of her mother’s deteriorated state.

“Oh Mama.” Camilla rushed across the room, falling to her knees at her mother’s side, cupping her mother’s cold, withered hands between her own. The paper-thin skin clung like shrink wrap around the knobby bones of her fingers.

“Thank you for coming, baby gir…” Her words broke off into a fit of deep coughing, her chest wracking wildly, her contorted face gripped with anguish. After the hacking spell passed, she sank back into her chair exhausted, gasping heavily through her mouth as pure oxygen flowed through clear tubes into her nostrils. None of it satiated her need for air, only returned her to her prior state of indefinite struggle and yearning, like a swimmer slowly drowning, then momentarily rescued, only to drown again.

“You don’t have to say anything, Mama. I’m here now.” Camilla wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck, delivering a delicate hug. Her mother’s beautiful raven hair had thinned, grayed, and was falling out in clumps, the empty patches allowing glimpses of her bare scalp, which Camilla assumed was from the last-ditch rounds of radiation and chemo. That was over now, the morphine vial on the countertop by the recliner a testament to the darker phase she’d entered.

A perturbed growl cut the quiet of the room. Camilla yanked her head sideways to find Snickers baring his teeth. The teacup yorkie’s agitated growls grew louder, progressing into angry barks. Lucinda subtly shook her head at the dog as Camilla rose.

“What’s wrong, Snickers?” Camilla smiled affectionately at the yapping dog while kneeling. “Don’t you remember me?” As she reached her hand out, the dog lunged viciously at her fingers. Camilla recoiled from the dog’s snapping jaws, a confounded expression warping her face. After a moment, she grinned at the tiny tormentor and jested, “Okay, then. Be that way.”

The front door squeaked inward on its hinges and Camilla’s smile crumbled. Her stepfather, Hank, lumbered through the door, grumbling some sort of unpleasantry to himself. At the sight of him, a phantom ache lodged in her shoulder as if her body gained consciousness to warn of his presence.

“See you ain’t got no skinnier.” The coarse greeting met Camilla’s expectation, but the words stung all the same, like a white-hot poker slowly scorching a dormant scar.

Camilla’s mother glared at her husband but lacked the necessary vigor to make good on any silent threat. Hank shrugged his shoulders and huffed. “What? Look at her. Ain’t like I’m sayin’ nothin’ that ain’t true.”

Camilla managed a calming breath as Snickers bounded to Hank. Traitor, she thought, as the dog nestled behind his legs. Hank gave a swift sweep of his foot and brushed the dog away before proceeding to the kitchen. Camilla turned her attentions to her mother, situating the worn plaid blanket more snugly around her. A chill climbed Camilla’s spine at the familiar pop of a can top from the kitchen. The drinking always made things worse.

The night passed by without further incident. Hank drank himself into a stupor in the kitchen while Camilla comforted her mother, did most of the talking, and helped her retire to her bedroom once she could no longer hold her eyes open.

The wind howled outside Camilla’s bedroom window as she tossed in her sheets, the large snowflakes swirling in the icy gusts. Haunting images of her mother’s cavernous cheeks and skeletal face plagued her mind. She knew it would be bad but hadn’t expected the illness to be this advanced. She reckoned her mother had just days, perhaps a week, before the cancer short circuited her systems and began shutting down her organs. She’d spend the next few days honoring her mother, saying her goodbyes, and trying to reconcile her own past. Her sporadic thoughts sputtered and faded until a world of black nothingness swallowed her.

The squeal of her door and an expanding sliver of light jarred her from sleep. Groggy, she peered through the pitch. A husky man stood unsteadily in the doorway, the meat of his shoulder pressed against her doorframe, propping him upright. By the time she registered it was Hank, he had staggered to her bed, disoriented by the booze like several similar encounters in her youth. His fumbling hand found the curve of her hip and made a beeline for her breasts.

“Stop it!” She smacked at him, tried to tug his lead-weighted hand away. His other hand split her defenses, racing between her thighs as he mumbled incoherent gibberish. She sobbed as he pinned her to the bed with a blind, zombie-like hunger, a bit of hot spittle landing on her bare breast and his reeking beer breath steaming her neck. “Get off me!” she screamed as her fingernails tore through his skin.

Her eyes jolted wide as she exploded from sleep, still tearing at her tangled bedsheets. Sweat streamed from her pores, her body trembling. A light squirming tickle on the skin of her belly reawakened her senses. She flung up the sheets and shrieked. A heap of plump, white maggots writhed in a jumble on her belly. “Get ’em off me, get ’em off me!” she cried as she desperately brushed their rubbery bodies away.

She gasped and flung upright in her bed, ejected from the nightmare. Her hand sprinted for the bedside lamp, the burst of light revealing the fallacy of her fears. Her bedroom door remained closed, and nothing crawled in her sweat-soaked sheets. After working to calm her frazzled nerves, she finally fell into a deep sleep.

The fury of the night’s storm became evident at first morning light. Her Sebring slumbered in the clearing under a hefty mound of snow. Fresh powder stood several feet deep, making the dirt roads all but impassable. Unfortunately, that meant Hank wasn’t going anywhere today so she’d proceed with the stealth of a mouse in a viper’s cage, trying not to draw any undue attention.

Camilla retrieved her scale from her suitcase and proceeded to the bathroom, anxious to check her weight. She’d made a conscious effort to monitor her water intake and the sweat-laced night terror she’d experienced might pay a positive dividend after all. She placed the scale on the cold tile floor, toe tapped it, and stepped aboard.

“Oh, bullshit!” she scorned as she read her weight, 170.2. She had somehow gained half a pound since yesterday’s weigh-in.

How can I hardly eat anything and still gain weight? She tapped the scale again indignantly and received the same result. She raked her trembling fingers through her hair, exasperated by the impossibility of it. I bought a broken scale. I must’ve. To make matters worse, her goddamn period was acting up again off-cycle. I’m falling apart.

Staring in the mirror, her eyes flooded with moisture. She managed to fight back the tears. She needed to hold herself together. Her challenges paled in comparison to the terrifying inevitability facing her mother. Despite her never leaving Hank, she loved her mother. He’d broken her mentally and physically over the years, made her more malleable to his manipulations, pushed her past resistance into resigned acceptance. The peace her mother exhibited the prior day with her condition made Camilla wonder if her mother saw her death, whether consciously or not, as a welcome release from her tormentor.

In the kitchen, Camilla brewed a pot of coffee. The house remained funeral-parlor quiet other than the steady stream of black liquid pelting the pot. Outside, flurries whimsically danced in the early morning light, continuing to fall from the turgid gray clouds blanketing the sky.

A red-eyed Hank emerged from the bedroom and made his way into the kitchen. He shuffled past Camilla as if she were an apparition, clanked a coffee mug onto the counter, and removed the pot from the still-brewing coffee maker. He sloshed some into his mug as coffee streamed into the vacated spot and sizzled on the heating element at the base. Without a word, he lodged it back into place, recapturing the stream. He grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet, spun off the top, and gave himself a hefty floater. Camilla said nothing as he strode away and plopped onto the couch.

A quick succession of short whistles drew Camilla’s head. Reanimated by his spiked coffee, Hank’s head prowled expectantly about the living room. “Come here, Snickers.” He whistled several more times. “Snickers, come here…” When the patter of paws didn’t materialize, Hank’s lips curled into an ill-tempered frown. “Where are you, dumbass dog?”

Camilla poured a cup of coffee and headed for her mother’s bedroom. Hank’s razor-tipped words gashed her before she got to the door. “Where do you think you’re going, fat ass?”

“I have feelings, you know.”

Hank’s lips slithered into his tell-tale smirk. “Do your feelings have as much cellulite as you do?”

Camilla shook her head angrily, swallowing down her bitter retort before it could escape. “Just leave me alone, okay?”

“Listen, you little bitch. You think you can just leave for five years and come back and rule the roost? You got another thing comin’. Some daughter you are. Your mom’s real sick, you know? You coulda called. Bet you was too busy stuffin’ your fat fucking face though to pick up the phone, huh?”

Camilla’s body trembled, the vicious onslaught destabilizing her rickety foundation. “I’m going to see my mom.” Her words hobbled out, the tears evident in quivering tone.

“Come here, dear.” Lucinda wrapped a comforting arm around Camilla. “He don’t mean it, ya know. Just tryin’ to get a rise out ya is all.”

“He’s cruel, Mom.” Bleary eyed, Camilla gazed at her mom’s slightly off-center nose, another lasting legacy of Hank’s volatile temper. She was a conglomeration of shattered bones and contusions mended, now a frail woman pieced back together with all of her damaged parts. The rims of Lucinda’s eyes darkened as if cast headlong into a hall of mirrored truth. Camilla knew she must see past the lies she force fed herself. Lucinda’s stalemate expression gradually retreated into a frown. A tear slid down her cheek.

“I’m sorry, baby girl. I should’ve been a better mother.” Her words fractured and lament pooled in her eyes. She struggled to catch her breath.

“Don’t say that, Mama.” Camilla wrapped a tender arm around her mother. “You were a good mom. It wasn’t you; it was him.”

They talked for the next hour, sharing stories, remembering good times, and expressing their mutual love. Camilla helped her mother into her wheelchair and made her breakfast. She ate sparingly with Camilla skipping the meal altogether. The day passed by with idle chat by the fire, an occasional coughing fit from Lucinda and a soundtrack of Hank cracking beers in the kitchen.

“I want to give you this, Camilla.” Lucinda slid the small solitaire diamond easily from her withered finger.

“No, Mom.” Camilla raised her open palms in protest. “I can’t take that.”

Hank’s attention diverged from his beer, and he slid a sharp eye to the exchange. He roared to his feet, his cheeks filling with crimson. “Now, wait just a damn minute, Lucinda. That’s our ring.”

“I want Camilla to have it,” Lucinda said softly and tried to place it in her daughter’s hand.

Hank surged forward and seized his wife’s hand, prying open her frail fingers. Lucinda’s face filled with horror as Hank snatched the ring. A violent coughing spell descended upon her.

“Leave her alone!” Camilla shouted.

A thunderbolt of pain exploded on Camilla’s cheek; her head snapped sideways from the impact of Hank’s powerful slap. Ears ringing and a throbbing sting radiating from the right side of her face, a steady march of tears began traversing her cheeks.

“Don’t you talk to me that way, you money-grubbing bitch.” Hank held Camilla hostage in his hateful glare. “What? You got somethin’ else to say?” he dared. Camilla cowered by her mother’s feet whose chest now heaved uncontrollably. “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Hank snarled, slipping the ring into his pocket and returning to the kitchen.

Lucinda’s chest spasmed wildly as she gasped for air. Camilla grabbed the morphine vial, unscrewed the lid and squeezed a drop from the dropper onto her mother’s tongue. An instant wave of calm overtook Lucinda. Her wrenched face fell lax, her shoulders slumped, and her heaving chest quieted. Camilla helped her to bed and retired to her own room, locking the door behind her, where she proceeded to sob herself to sleep. Hours ticked by undisturbed, Camilla sinking deeper into a land of slumber, the emotional exhaustion a powerful sedative.


Hank dozed on the couch, a half-drank fifth of whiskey standing watch. The living room filled with a steady drumbeat of his thunderous snores. A subtle tickle on his leg woke him. His heavy eyes peeked through slivered lids before jolting wide. Hundreds of worm-like creatures swarmed his body, marching up his leg and crawling up the couch, lurching forward like inchworms.

His face contorted as he tried to discern the difference between booze-induced hallucination and reality. One of the pearly worm-like creatures rose on its hindquarters, an innocuous looking fellow, and sort of cute so far as an insect can be, its two red-pinpoint eyes staring back at him. They held a curious court for a moment before it whipped its body forward and plunged its tiny teeth into his exposed flesh. “Shit!” It stung like a hornet at first, but the tissue surrounding the bite rapidly deadened. He tried to shake his leg but found he could no longer move it. Another latched its jaws into his arm, and another into his belly. “Get off me!” he bellowed as another one bit into his cheek.

A moment later, his tongue was muzzled, paralyzed by the most recent bite. His eyes glazed with horror as more of the tiny creatures marched from the floor onto his body. The initial strategy of stings waned but quickly gave way to a terrifying new phase. The creatures began to unhinge their tiny jaws, expanding the circumferences of their mouths and began greedily consuming small chunks of his flesh. Crimson soaked his clothing and skin. He knew it was blood, though he couldn’t detect the sensation of its warmth. As one creature would gorge itself fully on his flesh, it would lurch away, crawl down the couch, and cross the living room floor, only for another to take its place and burrow its ravenous jaws deeper into his body until Hank knew, though he couldn’t feel it, that they were eating him from the inside out.

A shower of blood geysered from one of his widening wounds in his leg like a miniature scarlet oil strike as one of the embedded creatures chewed through his femoral artery. Moments after the creatures devoured Hank’s second iris and brought a curtain of black over his world, he lost consciousness.


“Camilla.” The faint voice leaked into Camilla’s shuttered mind. Her eyes fluttered and the voice repeated, “Camilla.” She sprang from her bed at the sudden recognition of her mother’s voice and flung open her door, her thudding steps vibrating through the house.

A faint smile hung on her mother’s lips as she attended the carcass of her husband Hank. Camilla gagged, a dry heave overtaking her at the partially consumed body of Hank. The flesh of his face and eyes were gone, now glazed with a sopping red goo. Other deep and bloody crevices gave glimpses of partially consumed organs and muscle, and yet in still deeper intermittent trenches, the white of Hank’s underlying bones shone through.

“Oh Christ,” Camilla uttered before cupping her hand over her mouth.

“The Lord has answered our prayers, Camilla.”

Camilla’s face turned with revulsion at her mother’s gratified smile. Perhaps she felt it part of her penance, an absolution of sorts. Camilla slowly shook her head, tears streaming from her eyes. “What did you do, Mom?”

“I didn’t…” A coughing fit interrupted her. Her body seemed its weakest, overrun with cancer and guilt. She corralled her coughing and continued, her voice growing more faint. “I didn’t do this, Camilla. This is God’s work.”

“No,” Camilla cried at her mother’s words. A fitful wave of coughing seized her mother. Lucinda gasped for breath, her chest spasming wildly. “Mom!” Camilla rushed to her side as Lucinda stretched a feeble arm for the morphine. Camilla retrieved it and gave her mother two drops. A sense of calm washed over her before her eyes dulled and she surrendered to an inanimate still.

“Mom!” Camilla shook her mother’s shoulder, but she was unresponsive, her eyes locked in a forever-gaze. “Oh god, Mama! No!” Camilla bawled, collapsing at the foot of her mother’s wheelchair. White-hot emotions tore through her insides and drained her energy until a fretful sleep took her.

Hours later, Camilla woke, the gruesome sight of her mutilated stepfather greeting her. Her stomach revolted, turning on itself. As she planted her hands to rise, she shrieked at her skinless fingers, hands, and forearms. The same thing that had gotten Hank must’ve turned its attention to her she thought. Everywhere on her body she inspected was bloody tissue, but she felt no pain.

She screamed again as she turned her head to witness the inchworm-like creatures devouring her mother’s corpse and riddling her with holes. But a moment later, the creatures stopped as if summoned, retreated from her mother’s body, and inched themselves across the floor toward her. She crab crawled backward until her back hit the couch. She covered her eyes, waiting for the creatures to swarm her.

One by one, they marched onto her exposed tissue, flattened their bodies, their outlined edges gleaming with a momentary burst of golden phosphorescence, before they melded seamlessly together and disappeared into a reconstitution of her skin. By the time she uncovered her eyes, her feet and calves had received skin anew, and she watched with horrified curiosity as they fleshed the rest of her body.

A horrible and sudden awareness swept over her. She didn’t need to step on a scale. She was carrying significantly more weight than the day prior, and the unsettling revelations didn’t stop there. Hank’s daughter, Tammy, whose unsolved brutal murder led to Hank’s excessive drinking coincided with her own weight gain when she was seven. And at thirteen, when her best friend Elizabeth was also slain in a barbaric unsolved incident, it aligned perfectly with her second unexplained period of weight gain.

Her mother used to say, “God gives each one of us a special gift.” She always wondered what hers was, didn’t think she got one. Her stomach plummeted and filled with dread at the horrendous epiphany. She knew what it was now. She wanted to give it back.