Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors:  “Sicko” opens with three wigs—fake hair—judging our main character. Fake items are highlighted throughout: fake tits, makeup, and dyed hair. In this way, the story carries a strong theme of authenticity versus false appearances. To what extent did you intend for this theme to describe the society we live in?

Persephone King: Authenticity—and what it means to be our authentic selves—was very much at the front of my mind as I was drafting this story. So much of our current society is filtered through a lens of the artificial, whether it’s social media posts, influencer culture, or widely-held conceptions of physical beauty. In addition to these physical or visual ideas of authenticity, I was also pondering what it means to feel our authentic emotions versus whatever it is we “should” be feeling in a given situation, especially when faced with something like toxic positivity from others.

The story is also looking at questions of authenticity on a personal level. The protagonist has had her body altered and changed dramatically, all due to an illness over which she has no control. She has had a bilateral mastectomy. She has lost her hair due to chemo. A person’s physical appearance is so closely linked to their self-identity—it’s interesting to explore how something like an illness can permanently affect your body, and how that sudden change can affect your sense of self.

RR: The narrative provides plentiful sensory images, from copper and bitter tea tastes to the pricks of fuzzy hair and sharp needles—sensations that our protagonist goes out of her way to chase. This tactic reinforces the feeling that the character’s senses have faded. How much of this came from a desire to be true to the experience and how much comes from the desire to convey that lack of physical sensation to the reader?

PK: Yes. Can I answer “yes” to this question? Yes to both of these things.

I’m a breast cancer survivor, and I was deep into chemotherapy treatments while I was drafting this story. I don’t normally write about things that I’m undergoing in real life, but this story just popped out of me one day. While the character’s personality and viewpoint are very different from mine, I drew heavily from my own cancer journey when writing about this character’s experience and sensations (or lack thereof).

RR: “Sicko” is full of jagged and off-putting details that would make most readers uncomfortable, like the poison flushing into veins, the implication that the character may not survive, and reduced sensations, yet the story comes off as wickedly charming. Can you share your process for how you found the right mix of humor while respecting the seriousness of the situation?

PK: Thank you! That is such a lovely compliment. I like that you use the phrase “wickedly charming.” Can I borrow that? I must admit that I do find this particular protagonist wickedly charming. Although I’ve been working on other projects lately, my mind keeps floating back to my “Sicko” gal. I feel like she has so much more to say.

Writing this story was a constant balancing act between anger, humor, and horrifyingly visceral details. In the first draft, I leaned heavily into the protagonist’s incandescent rage and dark gallows humor—while it was funny, this approach didn’t really serve the protagonist, making her too one-note. It also veered into satire, which I deeply appreciate but didn’t feel quite suited to this particular narrative.

I solicited perhaps too much feedback from early readers on the balance of the competing elements within the piece, and I decided I was probably in the right space when one reader asked me if it was wrong that they were laughing so hard while reading this.

RR: We saw on your website that you are a creative writing and publishing arts MFA candidate, while also teaching writing classes at the University of Baltimore. In what ways has your dual life as a writing teacher and student impacted your writing?

PK: For better or worse, I find myself constantly thinking about writing—both my own and other people’s. It borders on monomania; beautifully effective prose is my white whale.

As a student struggling with my own unique writing problems, I feel that I have a lot of empathy for and appreciation of what my students are going through to produce something for class. We talk about ways to overcome writer’s block. We talk about ways to deal with performance anxiety that often accompanies perfectionism. We talk about fear, fear that our writing won’t be successful. We talk about how to let go of all of that stuff and just give ourselves permission to write really shitty first drafts.

Then, I try to practice what I preach. Procrastination, anxiety, and fear have been the biggest roadblocks in my life. Sitting down every day with the goal of writing truly awful prose has been freeing. Highly recommend—five stars.

RR: We love how “Sicko” maintains a wicked sense of humor. Do you have any favorite works or writers that share this tone?

PK: I love reading anything that makes me laugh. Humor plugs right into pathos, and I believe that humor can add complexity and texture to almost any piece of writing.

There are so many writers that do humor well, but a few pieces that I’ve recently reread immediately come to mind (in no particular order): George Saunders’s short story “Sea Oak,” Haruki Murakami’s short story “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” Danez Smith’s poem “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” Louise Erdrich’s novel The Sentence, Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” and Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis.


Read “Sicko” by Persephone King in Issue 11.1.

Persephone King


The three wigs, a faceless jury, scrutinized me from their stands on top of the dresser. I knew they were—I could sense it. If they had eyes, all six of them would be boring into me. Cold and judging, callous and unblinking. 

Sure, the wigs looked convivial to the casual observer, perhaps even a bit whimsical: one was hot pink, all one length and sexy-messy; another was a pale lilac, shoulder-length bohemian style with short bangs; the third was more business-like with a hint of spunk, a warm honey blond bob, straight and gleaming, just like a television host’s hair. 

“Fuck off, itchy bitches,” I said to the wigs. “I don’t want any of you today.” 

I rubbed my hand across my shaved scalp. It was satisfying to touch. The remaining hair was less than an eighth of an inch, and it felt both soft and prickly at the same time. I liked to think of my buzzed hair as baby cactus needles sprouting out of my head. Perhaps they would grow a bit longer and sharper, like large sewing needles or syringes. 

I finished getting dressed—loose faded jeans that I rolled up above my ankles, a jet-black long-sleeve blouse with silver buttons that was nicely tapered around the waist, and hot-pink Dr. Marten boots, total shit-kickers. I popped obsidian earrings in my lobes, puckered and applied deep red lipstick to my thin lips, and then lined my eyes—which were a swirl of green, gray, and blue—with a thick smudge of black. With no hair, my eyes looked larger, like doe eyes. I still had my dense, shapely eyebrows, at least for now. I was coating them with Aquaphor twice a day, my daily offering to the hair gods. Not like they were listening. They were total bitches, too. 

Did I look like Sinead O’Connor circa 1987? I looked at myself in the full-length mirror behind my bedroom door. Pale to begin with, now my skin was nearly transparent. I could see a vein in my neck, blue and pulsating. My cheekbones jutted out from the sides, and my ears looked tiny, out of proportion with everything. I looked angry, a slight scowl turning down the corner of my mouth and the wide eyes narrowing, just like Sinead’s expression when she tore up the photo of the Pope. Close enough. 

I checked out how my tits looked in my blouse. I really shouldn’t think of them as my tits because they weren’t mine. My tits, my real tits—which had been a nice handful, firm but yielding—were gone. These boobs were hard, bulbous masses, placeholders under my skin for my eventual implants. My plastic surgeon, a wiry dweeb of a man with glasses and an expensive watch, didn’t bother to call my current tits “breasts”; rather, he called them “breast mounds.” He assured me that the permanent breast implants would be much better, more realistic, than what I had now. These tits were a temporary solution, but they looked big, hard, and fake. I had stripper titties. 

I sighed and glanced at my watch. Time to leave for my biweekly dose of poison. 

As I was locking my front door, I glimpsed my neighbor on the sidewalk. She was heading my way. I clenched my jaw and swiveled to meet Janine, who was beaming her 1,000-megawatt smile in my direction, ready to anoint me with her sunny bullshit. 

“Helloooo there,” she said. 

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. She was always smiling. It was deeply annoying, especially today. My oncologist had called earlier in the morning to tell me that my odds of survival were much worse than she had originally thought—I had a three in four chance of croaking in a few years, even after treatment. The prospect of an early death pissed me off and scared the shit out of me; moreover, it was death by boobs, and not even fantastic boobs at that. 

“Are you off to chemo? Where’s Gary today? How far along are you now?” Janine asked, standing a half-step too close. I took a full step back. 

I told her that Gary had a work meeting this morning, that I was halfway through my A/C treatments, and that I had twelve T treatments after that. Janine lived in a rowhouse across the street from mine. Until she learned about my diagnosis, the most I ever got from her was an occasional wave or a vapid comment about the weather. I don’t think she had ever given me a second thought. Now, she wanted to know all my gory details. 

I flinched when she patted my arm. 

“You look so great! Very punk rock. It’s such a fun look on you—so different from your usual jeans and flowy shirt thing. I love it! You’ll be done before you know it. What does T stand for again?” Janine prattled, grinning the whole time. 

“Taxol. It’s also called Paclitaxel.” 

As I was saying this, I noticed two fat pigeons landing on the lintel above Janine’s front door. I pictured one of them taking a dump right as she was heading back inside, causing her to spend the rest of the morning removing pigeon droppings from her frizzy auburn hair. Thinking about this made me smile. 

“Oh, you have such a good attitude. So positive. I just know you will beat this thing with your amazing, winning attitude. You know, attitude is everything.” 

I stared at her, stone-faced. Cancer didn’t care. Cancer was the ultimate greedy bitch, taking whatever she could grab. 

“Thanks, Janine.” 



I walked past the tidy brick rowhomes of my tree-lined street down to the corner and caught the downtown bus to the hospital. It was mostly empty, which suited me. I nodded to the driver, Devon, as I got on. Sitting in the back row, I popped in earbuds and was flooded by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album, one of my favorites. Its driving, dark energy and brooding lyrics always helped to clear my head. I needed to think about how to explain my updated death odds to Gary. In the twenty years that I had known him, he had always been a worrier. He worried about the milk prematurely expiring. He worried about the ice caps melting and the effects of erosion. He worried about the pipes freezing on cold winter nights. He worried about being late for his meeting this morning. He worried about me. Fuck. 

 Ian Curtis was singing in my earbuds about where it would end when two teenagers sitting up near the driver turned around and stared at me. She had dyed her hair blue; he was sporting a green dye-job. They had matching silver nose rings. The pair started snickering and saying something I couldn’t hear over my music. Devon said something sharp to them, and they turned back around. I closed my eyes, picturing Ian Curtis dancing, oddly frenetic and mesmerizing. 

Just as “She’s Lost Control” kicked off, I opened my eyes and noticed that the bus was two stops away from mine. The teens with the dyed hair stood up at the last moment and leapt from the open bus doors onto the sidewalk. They were holding hands and laughing. Even though they were little shits, they reminded me of myself when I was that age. Perhaps I had been a little teenage shit too. 

A few minutes later, the bus stopped at the curb in front of the automatic doors to the gleaming glass-and-steel hospital building. Devon gave me a slight nod as I exited the bus. From the sidewalk with my back to the bus, I raised my fist even with my head and popped my thumb up in the air. I liked Devon. He acknowledged my humanity but otherwise left me the fuck alone. A true professional. 

The cold air of the hospital enveloped me as I walked into the polished, marble lobby. I strode past the black leather and chrome Barcelona chairs, my Doc Marten boots squeaking on the floor, and scanned the barcode on the back of my orange chemo card at the welcome kiosk. The closest security guard wished me good morning, and I replied in kind. 

“Tenth floor, miss?” 

I nodded, and he swept an arm in the direction of the elevator bay. 

“Have a blessed day,” he said, smiling warmly. His bottom teeth were white but crooked. 

Without thinking, I cringed. I hated that phrase, “have a blessed day.” What the hell did that even mean? Life was randomly cruel, and I didn’t believe any god could or would change that. I nodded at the security guard again and headed as quickly as I could to the elevators. 

With relief, I saw that the elevator bay was empty, and I ended up having a car to myself, which hardly ever happened. I hummed along to an instrumental version of “The Girl from Ipanema” that was being pumped into the stainless-steel elevator on my way up to the oncology infusion suite. 

I appreciated the vibe at this hospital. I had started my treatment at a hospital closer to home, but their infusion suite was horribly depressing—a row of recliners along one long wall facing another long, avocado-green wall. I felt like the other cancer patients were sitting on top of me, with no choice but to stare either at one another or the sickly green wall. The chemotherapy made me feel terrible enough on its own; the added avocado claustrophobia of that oncology suite was unbearable. At this hospital, the oncology infusion suite had a high floor to itself, with sweeping views of the city skyline through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Each patient was offered a private, curtained cubicle with that spectacular view of downtown, so I never had to see the other patients. The nurses could quietly pump me full of toxins that would kill all the fast-dividing cells in my body while I took in the city below. 

One of the nurses, Debbie, greeted me when I arrived and took me back to my cubicle. 

“Alone today?” Debbie asked. 

“Yeah, Gary couldn’t make it.” 

“Did Dr. Simmons call you this morning?” 

“Unfortunately. Not the news I was hoping to hear. She told me to stay positive.” 

Debbie nodded but didn’t look up as she readied her supplies on a small counter. I settled into the overstuffed leather recliner and bared the medical port implanted under my skin just below my right clavicle, which, along with the temporary fake boobs, made me feel like a cyborg. The triangular port was always a visible, unnatural bulge beneath my skin in my upper chest, a permanent purple bruise seeping out around it. It was supposed to help prevent my veins from totally getting fried by the chemo drugs, so that was something. But the rest of me was getting fried anyway, so it hardly seemed worth it. 

I took a deep breath as Debbie stabbed me with a big-ass needle that went into the port. It hurt like hell, causing me to flinch.

“Didn’t you use the numbing cream before coming here?” Debbie asked. She taped down the IV tubing that was now connected to the port in my chest and started to flush the line with saline. Some of her wispy chestnut hair had escaped from her ponytail, and she tucked it behind her ear. 


“Why not?” She narrowed her eyes at me. 

“I forgot.” 

Debbie shook her head and continued to set up my chemo hors d’oeuvre—an IV drip cocktail of antinausea drugs, steroids, and who knows what else. 

The truth was that I hadn’t forgotten; I had deliberately not used the cream to numb myself out. Today, doing so had seemed like cheating, somehow. The needle stab reminded me that I was still alive, that I could still feel things, that I was under assault by an insidious enemy, and that I needed to fight. 

A cold sensation spread from my chest out to my arms and legs, caused by the saline cocktail entering my veins. I shivered and flipped on the built-in heater in my chair. 

“You want a blanket?” Debbie asked. 

I nodded. Debbie slipped out through the curtain partition and reappeared a few minutes later with a white cotton blanket. She carefully spread it over me, being mindful not to disrupt the IV tubing. The blanket was toasty; it had been sitting in a blanket warmer all night. 

“Thank you,” I said. 

“I’ll be back in a little bit to give you the Adriamycin,” she said, leaving my cubicle. 

“Marvelous,” I said. 

I closed my eyes and thought about Ian Curtis dancing again, but the image shifted to him twitching and then hanging limp on the end of a clothesline suspended from his kitchen ceiling, dead at age twenty-three. I was twice his age, facing down a cancer diagnosis. Frankly, my odds sucked, and I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to think about telling Gary, but not telling him wasn’t an option. He had always been there for me—when I dropped out of law school and everyone thought I was crazy, when I started my blog about the local music scene and was flat-out broke, when my dad keeled over dead from a heart attack. Sure, Gary worried about shit, but he always had my back, and I always had his. But, telling him meant that my probable death was real, and I didn’t want it to be real. Denial seemed much easier. 

Debbie reappeared carrying a plastic bag containing two very large syringes filled with what looked like cherry Kool-Aid—the Adriamycin, the Red Devil. She then began to don what I thought of as a light hazmat suit: she pulled on a floor-length, yellow plastic robe that was open at the back with long sleeves that looped around her thumbs; she then pulled elbow-length, blue latex gloves over the sleeves, making sure the sleeves were securely tucked into the gloves; finally, she placed a large, clear plastic face shield on her head, the shield reaching down to her chest. She was now fully armored and battle-ready. 

Debbie connected one of the syringes to the IV access point and then started to manually push the red liquid into my veins, gazing at her watch all the while to ensure she didn’t push too quickly. My veins were awash with cold again, and my mouth tasted like I was sucking on copper pennies. Rage began to bubble in my stomach. 

“Debbie, do you think you need a positive attitude to beat cancer?” I said, surprising myself. I hadn’t planned to ask her anything. 

She didn’t look up from her watch. 

“Naw, I don’t think it matters. I’ve seen positive people live. Seen them die, too.”

“What about angry bitches?” 

“Like you?” 

“Yeah, angry, defiant bitches like me.” 

“I’d bet on the angry bitches.” 

“Thanks, Debbie.” 

“Anytime,” she said, continuing to push the liquid poison into me. 



After my dose of Adriamycin and Cytozan, I decided to duck into a coffee shop down the street from the hospital before heading home. In the before times, I used to pop into this shop several days a week; there was a small dive bar around the corner called The Rock Bottom that always managed to book raging bands. Sadly, I hadn’t gone to any concerts there recently, and my blog was on hiatus, gathering dust in cyberspace. 

Fucking cancer was messing up everything. 

Chemo always knocked me on my ass for several days, so I knew my time was short before I needed to curl up into a fetal position in bed. A hot beverage sounded like just the thing to usher me into a siesta. The barista today was a guy with his hair in a man-bun and intricate arm sleeve tattoos. I hadn’t seen him before, so I suspected he was new. 

“Hello and welcome,” he said, model-smile on his face. “It’s a beautiful day at Daily Grind. Could I interest you in a pumpkin spice latte or perhaps a new apple crisp macchiato?” 

I wrinkled my nose. The thought of pumpkin spice anything disgusted me, especially in the aftermath of the Red Devil. My mouth still tasted like an old penny. 

“No thanks. I’ll skip the pumpkin-spiced-apple bullshit and take a green tea latte.”

“Coming right up.” 

Green tea was one of the few things I could still taste, since chemo was killing off my tastebuds, so I was really looking forward to my fix. As I was standing at the pick-up counter waiting for my order, I looked over my shoulder, catching a tanned guy in a slick navy suit and periwinkle silk tie staring at my ass. I pivoted to face him, and he grinned at me. Man-bun appeared at the pick-up counter with a large to-go cup in his hand. “What’s with the buzzcut?” the suit said. “You in a band or something?” 

Man-bun looked nervously at me, at the suit, and then again at me. 

“I have cancer,” I said, taking the cup from man-bun’s hand. He stood, frozen, waiting to see what would happen next. 

“My nan had cancer. She had a real positive attitude, right up until she died. She wore a wig—looked good. You try a wig?” 

I gave the suit the death stare and walked out, the door clattering shut after me. Rage was now purring softly in my belly, warming my body. It felt good. It felt real, unlike my tits. 

Near the bus stop, a homeless guy asked me for money to buy a coffee. I gave him my untouched tea. 



As I rounded the corner of my block, I saw Janine popping out of her front door and crossing the street toward my house. I sighed. On the bus, I had been making mental plans for my epic post-chemo nap—put on silk pajamas, apply another coat of Aquaphor to my eyebrows, close both the blinds and the velvet curtains, and burrow deep under the down comforter. Janine was definitely not part of those plans. 

“Hey there!” she waved at me with waggling fingertips. “I thought you might be coming home right about now. I wanted to give you a book I have about the power of positive thinking. It’s so good, and I totally thought of you when I read it. This doctor in the book talks about how having the right attitude can totally help with healing and recovery. Isn’t that great?” 

She thrust a book with a red cover toward me as I unlocked my front door. 

“Janine, I know you mean well, but I don’t have the energy to pretend to care about you or your book right now.” 

Her face fell, and she looked stunned, something I had never seen before. She hugged the book to her chest. I firmly shut my door as I stepped inside my dark house, leaving her on the sidewalk, alone. I felt tired and ready for sleep. But first, I had to call Gary. 


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Persephone King is the pseudonym of Sarah Daniels. She is a former newspaper reporter and a current graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing and Publishing Arts program at the University of Baltimore. She lives in Baltimore with her spouse, two teenagers, and a poodle.