Short story: “Potential Force” by Alissa Nutting

The American author's tale of self-harm, pissing yourself and attempting to master witchcraft

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Peter Kaaden

Taken from the January issue of Dazed & Confused:

It was the summer of pain. I mean that literally. My twin sister Lauren and I were eleven and we wanted magical powers. Though it felt like a mutual idea at the time, it was actually Lauren who reasoned that to cultivate the skill of hurting others with our thoughts alone, we first had to master pain within ourselves — 
we could practice by taking a normal, manageable irritation like 
a headache and focus on growing it until it throbbed so badly that we nearly passed out.

Looking back on it, on my sister’s organisation of the whole process – her calculating devised tortures, her calm and steady encouragement, her reportage of personal bests done in isolation that I never doubted but only tried to match and outdo – I see now that I was actually her first victim. She put me under a spell of sisterhood. What wouldn’t 
I have done with her standing by, looking at the stopwatch, announcing the passing of ten-second intervals? 

There were eatings that took place in the middle of the night. I’d awake to the sound of a glass jar touching down on my nightstand, open my eyes to see her features red-lit by the muted glow of a flashlight held directly against the flesh of her chin, her eyes inches from mine, her long 
brown hair falling down to create a curtain of privacy that shut out everything in the world except our two identical faces. Her pupils always seemed to be receding back into a distance, moving rapidly away despite her face holding perfectly still. 
I tried to breathe in the air she breathed out onto my upper lip. Pickles, she’d finally whisper. Sliced. Dill. Three minutes.

“We hoped to eventually be able to point at other people and make them expel their stomach’s contents on the spot”

I was then to sit up as quickly as I could, 
extend my hands, allow my sister to place them around the opened jar and wait until she said, Begin, then devour its contents until she said, Time, or 
I finished the jar. The stopwatch kept going as we walked to our bathroom with the flashlight and took our positions, me lying on the floor next to the toilet, her sitting on the bathtub’s edge projecting the flashlight into the mirror so it reflected to the ends of the room like a cold sun. I was to focus on my stomach ache, trying to expand and deepen it until I vomited, the goal being to throw up as quickly as possible. Though I’d never tried to cheat, Lauren insisted I lie with my hands tucked beneath my bottom so I wasn’t tempted to secretly stick a finger down my throat while she focused on the timer. 

By mastering this feeling, we hoped to eventually be able to point at other people and make them expel their stomach’s contents on the spot. We tried it out on squirrels in the yard, on my mother in the morning when her back faced us as she stood at the counter and packed our lunches, both Lauren and 
I pointing at her spine with all our might until our arms shook and we had to stop and inhale when Mother asked us, 
her head never turning, if today we wanted the crusts cut from our bread or left on.

Lauren read me ghost stories and I tried to enhance my fear until I was weeping and shaking; it pleased her most if I wet my nightgown, so I’d sometimes release my urine on purpose and claim it had been involuntary. Now try to make me pee myself, she’d then demand, and I would try; I’d stare at her face forever, stare at her crotch forever, declare failure as my wet underwear became cold and itchy; when she’d finally let me go change I’d have a rash. She read me our father’s surgical reports, graphic accounts of ethmoid sinus and radical middle ear operations, and 
I was to try to feel the terrible sting of the jaws of the nasal forceps, the decompressing scrape of the inferior turbinate blade. Success would’ve meant my nose began freely bleeding: when it did not, after five minutes, 
I would then allow her to create a small cut deep inside my nostril so I’d better understand the feeling of a puncturing slice and the subsequent warmth of blood flow. 
I refused to open my eyes and see what household instrument she used to do this. 

Mornings we’d do one another’s hair in ponytails, ultra-high and ultra-tight so that the centre part on our heads felt like a split seam. Tighter? she’d ask me; Tighter was the only acceptable answer. The first 
time she got sent away for evaluation after an incident at school, I had an orthodontic check-up the next day, and once he’d tightened my braces I asked him if he could make them tighter still. I didn’t want to be out of practice when she returned home. Can teeth bleed? I asked him, 
Or only gums? 

He said that deep inside each tooth, connected to the nerve, there is a pulp with blood vessels. I vowed that until Lauren came home, I would spend every free moment I had trying to explode the pulp of my two front teeth with the powers of my mind. But at night, just before I’d drift off to sleep, my thoughts would invariably drift from the process to the result: every night my last waking image was of her happiness, the way her eyes would brighten if when she returned and walked into our bedroom I said, Watch what I learned to do, then draped a pillowcase overtop my shirt like a bib before squirting blood from the ends of my teeth so it dropped all down my chin and neck. I thought of the way she’d rub the tips of her fingers together in circles – Lauren’s substitute for smiling – before running her tongue through her lips and saying, Teach me. 

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