by R. J. Theodore
Illustrated by Alexxander Dovelin | Edited by Aigner Loren Wilson
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
670 words — Reading time: around 3 minutes
This story contains elements of body horror.
The day after I lose my job, it begins as a crust in the corner of my eye. It leaves a scratch as I brush it away.
Only it doesn’t clear. Within days, it binds the eyelashes, absorbs them. You bring me medication: old drops you got the last time you had pink eye, then new drops, over the counter. Both sting my eyelids like acid but can’t melt through the gunk. My glasses give me a headache, so I stop wearing them. The world is cut off from me anyway, beyond a film of rejected cells my eyes won’t stop sloughing away, so thick they cloud my vision.
Home remedies hasten the process, my body racing to complete its transformation before it can be undone. Tears stream down my face, tacky as glue, spreading like an itch. In less than a week, my eyes will not open at all.
In denial, I refuse the hospital, convincing myself the infection will clear. I have no insurance anyway. It has to clear.
But it’s not just my eyes. My shoulders feel wrong. My ribs feel alive. Unable to see, I run my fingertips over rough patches of skin, where that itch searches for an exit like bubbles under winter ice. Flakes come away with the smallest amount of scratching, the skin rough and dry in the crevices beneath my nails.
I don’t have to dig far until I feel the teeth: smooth, porcelain perfection. The scattered, crowded rows breaking through the skin, down my limbs, clack against my fingertips, grind as I bend my elbows or knees. Their eruption brings the hunger. The desire to bite and tear ripples through me like the shiver of a first kiss — an ache for a brittle crunch beneath mounds of tender warmth.
I wake in a stickiness I know is blood. It sings to me a mother’s lullaby. I am the hunger after one small bite of candy.
You call but my phone doesn’t recognize my face. I fail my passcode three times, and the phone erases itself in accordance with my settings. I don’t answer the lobby buzzer a few hours later — afraid it’s not you. Terrified that it is.
It is you. From two stories above, I tangle myself in the trail of heat from your veins as you retreat down the sidewalk.
Light coming in through the windows makes me hiss like summer sun on a bad burn, but its absence is worse. I lose time. It’s just gone — not lost to slumber, but to some instinct that pushes my awareness aside.
Awareness returns with the morning light. I am out in the hallway. I feel along the walls and find my apartment door open. I don’t try to remember where I’ve been. I don’t close the door. I just cower from the light as I pray it doesn’t leave me again.
When my skin tears, it’s a relief. I run my fingers over new, smooth flesh — not like baby skin, but something older, of leather and scale, of rippling cilia. Bones fall away and leave curling, coiling limbs and aching muscles. Suckers explore mass and void, grabbing and releasing over the redefined shape of my body. There’s nothing left of who I was except a name, which I suckle for comfort until its texture is distorted and unfamiliar.
My mind maps flesh and membrane and bones and joints in three dimensions. With tentacled digits, I taste colors that my eyes, now reabsorbed and repurposed to other tissues, would never have perceived. Hunger ebbs and flows, my new heartbeat.
Your voice sounds from the call panel again, thin and foreign through the electronics.
You don’t understand my reply. My voice is too big now. It would take more than this inconsequential world to contain it.
I let you in to see me. I have nothing to hide.
I don’t mind the taste of your revulsion thick in the air.
Already your eyes are sticky. You’ll understand soon.