The Words I Starved For

Edited by Dominik Parisien

Copyedited by Chelle Parker  | Selected by Julia Rios

March 2020

Content Note:

This story depicts physical abuse against a child

Someone made me invisible, when I was small, and no one ever saw me again. I’ve been here in my house ever since.

Right now, I’m in the soft orange light over the kitchen sink. It’s the best place to watch this family in their morning. I don’t have morning anymore. Or lunch. Or bedtime. But I can tell what time it is for them by what they are doing or not doing.

Today they are both. Doing and not doing. The son has thrown a bowl against the wall over the daughter’s head. I’m not sure he meant to miss. The parents are clucking and cooing over him. Trying to calm him down while the muscles in his neck twitch and pulse. The girl is picking wet cereal from her hair and, for some reason, this makes him angrier. The parents send the girl off to clean up.

I follow her upstairs — I don’t care much for the rest of them, and I know what they will do and will not do. I slip through the worn handrail, skipping over the broken spindles, some still missing, like teeth. They give me shivers. I can’t remember if her monster broke them or mine.

Upside down in the faucet, I watch her — the water gushing and loud as she splashes at the milk and the tears. She does not see me. None of them do. Not this family and none of the others.

Sometimes I see them all at once, all the families running together. But sometimes they happen one at a time. This is the family right now, whenever now is.

She leaves for school, quiet as one of the moths in the attic. She tries to make herself a shadow while she’s here. It won’t work. I know. I tried that too.

There are some things the parents don’t know. Like how streams of milky white termites surge under the house, but above my bones, and chew away at the floors and corners.

Other feeders live here too. Pale moths making lace from linens. Fat little worms reanimating mice in forgotten traps. Swarms of toothy shadows, like hungry beetles, chomping up things the living can’t see. Things like the stain that lived inside my stepfather. The shadow beetles gobbled that up with their sharp, snappy jaws long before the hospital people came for his body. Those people never knew how little of him they were carting away; he was mostly stain by then.

There are some things the parents do know, but pretend not to. That their boy is a monster; that he is chewing up the family’s floors and corners, especially the girl’s.

He tries to make her shrink. Make her small. I think he wants to make her invisible too. The parents don’t do anything to stop him and the less they see her, the more I do. So sharp and clear. I think she’s the reason this family doesn’t move in smears and rushes like the others.

Sometimes I imagine she’ll join me under the curling wallpaper or in the shiver of curtains on a drafty day. I don’t want to be alone here anymore. I don’t want to be here at all, but I don’t know how to leave.

They wear their smiles for guests and relatives, but when the visitors leave, the boy turns back into a monster and the parents turn blank. I recognize my stepfather in him, the same kind of stain. Some void he invited in, something he nurtured, is taking root. It’s the thing that makes him all fists and screaming, all cruelty and rage, all splintered doors and bones.

I don’t have a body anymore, or even a shape, but the part of me that remembers my neck tugs at some thread, pulls tight, snaps. I drift to the foot of the stairs and settle in between the splinters there, the last place I was before I wasn’t.

Tiny bits of me hid here for a long time, no matter how hard my stepfather scrubbed. But mostly I stayed with my body under the house, watching the termites move in ribbons above me instead of watching the worms working through my bones. I didn’t know about the shadow beetles yet, but they never came for me. I wasn’t the sort of thing they like to eat. I was stuck.

Another trip to the hospital. My mother’s hand this time. She tells me to stay behind, that she’ll be fine. I wait on the porch steps till she comes home. My stepfather doesn’t come back for a month. Almost long enough to believe he’s finally setting us free.

Another trip to the hospital. The girl’s arm this time. I can’t follow her there; I can only go as far as the porch. As they walk the girl to the car, I hear the mother pleading for her to lie.

“They’ll take him away if you say anything.” The words sound like sand between her gritted teeth.

I wish they would take him away, whoever “they” are. I bet the girl does too.

The boy is getting worse. I’m watching from the porcelain doorknob. The girl hides in the room behind me while he punches holes in the wall outside her door.

The stain is spreading in him, digging deeper. I wish the shadow beetles would just chew it out of him now, but it’s very much alive in the boy. It’s something he chooses to feed.

The walls shake. The girl hasn’t found my hiding space behind her closet yet. I want to show her, tell her. But, in all my lifetimes here, I haven’t found a way to move even a speck of dust. The living are always just outside my touch. Even the little creatures nesting in my walls, who know I am here, seem forever unmoved by me.

Plaster hits the floor in chunks.

The door will be next, and then the girl. This is how it goes.

I don’t watch, but I don’t leave her side.

Things are getting worse.

My mother has stopped stepping between us. Too many teeth last time. Harder to hide his temper from the neighbors when balusters are missing. The phone rings and something in her voice sets me running to my room.

Mama comes looking for me, to hide me. But I’ve already slipped into the space behind my closet. It should be patched up by now, but he forgot to do it. He probably forgot how he put it there too, with fists and feet and me. “Don’t come out till I call for you,” she shouts to no one as his car rumbles up in front of the house.

When they return from the hospital, the girl still clutches the blood-soaked towel she carried when they left. The back of her head is shaved. Her too-white scalp almost glows in the bare lights, whiter than the termites chewing, chewing, chewing beneath us. A ladder of blue-black stitches climbs up the back of her skull.

“You’re so lucky,” the parents say, in crumbling paper words. “It could have been so much worse.” It was punishment enough, they tell her, how the doctors looked at him when they heard about the “accident.”

“He feels awful,” her mother adds, ash and soot falling from her lips.

The girl tries to cover the shaved spot with the hair that’s left. Like mama’s dark glasses. Like long sleeves in summer. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s not just the parents who pretend not to know.

When she whispers to herself, I pretend she’s talking to me. It would be nice to have more than mice and moths for company. But I also know what that would mean for her. The cost.

I can’t hold her hand, or wipe her cheeks, or make the bruises heal any faster.

So, instead, I whisper in her ear when she sleeps.

I give her the words I starved for.

I see you. I see you. I see you. You are not alone.

He’s throwing things again. Glasses. Bottles. Mama. Me.

Mama is okay… mostly. I am not. I am already spilling into the pine at the foot of the stairs.

Even though the parents pretend not to know the thing that they know, pretend that things are as pretty and fine as their outdoor faces, pretend that doing nothing is doing something — the boy is always worse with her when they’re not around to chirp at him.

This time, I watch from the reflection in the spotty hall mirror. The stain blooms, bleeding past his edges. Maybe even she can see it now. But I don’t think understanding makes it better. No answer, no reason will ever be enough, will make his brutal hands hurt less, will put her back together when he’s done ripping her apart.

“It’s just a stage,” the parents say, when they say anything at all. More vapor words.

My stepfather puts me under the house that night. Mama doesn’t come looking for me again.

The boy bellows like a train. They are on the stairs and I am smaller than a termite, shrunk into the head of a nail under the railing. The stain has him fully now, and he has her by the throat. I think she and I are almost close enough to touch, but this isn’t the way I want to be not alone.

There is nothing I can do, but I can’t just watch. Too much watching in my house already. So I focus as hard as I can and call for the mice and the moths, for the hungry termites gnawing under us, hoping they will all swarm up from the floorboards and down from the attic — do whatever they can to confuse him, or trip him, or just distract him long enough for her to get away.

But nothing happens. My house has nothing to give me but my memories.

He wraps his hand in her hair, pulls her scarred scalp to his knuckles. The girl grips the post, not realizing he intends to bring her to it. I notice, then, where he stands, where he is hurting her. It is a familiar place — the top of the stairs, my second-to-last spot. He holds on to nothing but her. He doesn’t know the riskiness of his position. But I do.

“Push him,” I try to tell her from my nail head. “Push!”

But my words are less than whispers in that storm. They’re little more than dust shaken from the ceiling upon impact.

As close as we are — as she is — not enough of me remains. But maybe I can pluck at what does. I pull myself out of the nail and into the floor at the foot of the stairs, into the blood no one can see anymore. I make myself as whole as I can with what little is left.

All I have are my memories. I thought they were flimsy, weak things, but some fire beneath them reaches for me. The unfairness, the fear, the shame, my own rage — not from a stain, but from a spark, one my stepfather could never reach, couldn’t snuff, even after he put me out.

I gather it all and try again.


To me, it is a roar, a hurricane. But I can’t tell if she heard me, if it was enough.

The boy pulls her head back again, one hand in her hair, the other braced against her shoulder. But as he drives her face forward, she twists sharp against his grip, tightens her hold on the post and kicks out, pushing him hard. She hangs on when he tries to drag her down with him. Screams. Something rips and he falls, snaps, cracks, breaks like an egg spreading over my last spot on the floor.

The him that is not his body also crumples and splits. Something bright is gone right away, but the stain stays, uncoils. It reaches for me, hungry. But I know what comes next.

The shadow beetles swarm from all directions, an instant angry cloud. They eat the stain up fast (but not too fast), erasing it in a buzz of jagged nibbles while it screams and screams, churning it into shadowy sawdust until it is no more.

In the sudden quiet, the ghostly swarm scatters, drifting down like snow, melting away into the worn wood.

He’s finally gone, all of him, except for the shell.

I watch her face watching him cool.

I still worry for her. There was no other way, except for her to be cooling in his place. Does she know that? How close she came to being like me?

But the parents will not understand this act for what it was: survival. They will cover it up with more pretending. Punish her or make her leave. Or maybe she will just go. Better that than being stuck here, sharing sunbeams and rotting wood with me. I hope the parents go too. That they all do, even the mice and the moths, and leave the house for the termites to chew until there is nothing left. Maybe then I’ll get to leave too.

Something prickles and I find the girl looking at me. I didn’t realize I’d drifted so near. She stares at me for a long time, her hands still clutching the post. I don’t know what I look like to her; I haven’t seen myself in so long. But her eyes meet my memories and she speaks the words that finally set me free.

“I see you,” she says, her voice barely a shiver. “I see you. You’re not alone.”

© 2020 N.R. Lambert

About the author

N.R. Lambert

N.R. Lambert is a speculative fiction writer from New York City. Her stories have been published by PseudoPod, Factor Four Magazine, and Metaphorosis Magazine, and will appear in the forthcoming New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (HarperCollins, 2020).  She’s also written for TIME, LIFE,, and Entertainment Weekly. She was a 2019 U.S. National Park Service Artist-in-Residence at Fire Island National Seashore. In addition to her work as a pop culture author and freelance copywriter, she volunteers with Read Ahead NYC, a reading-based mentoring program for elementary school students. She lives in Queens with her family and two saucy cats. Look for very occasional updates at