GUEST POST BY JENN HUDDLESTON
There are certain things about human skin that you can only really appreciate after you’ve had to forcibly break free of it. Its strength, for one thing, is incredible. Particularly against tears. Without something sharp to slice through it, skin will stretch with surprising resilience against a literal ton of force. I learned this the first time I shifted. Watching as the bones in my greater extremities began to elongate, I wondered why they didn’t just split through my feet and fingertips. Until they did, of course, and then I blacked out from the pain of it. For mostly obvious reasons that first time was a complete mess. Like a lot of us, I had no clue what was happening to me. I’d contracted it a month or so before, and hadn’t been in contact with the person who gave it to me since (that situation was also a mess, but that probably qualifies as obvious too).
That night I was mercifully alone in my house (my three roommates, all in their early twenties, were away at their respective night gigs). It began as a series of cramps – the kind that double you over and make you wish it was somehow socially acceptable to conduct your life from the comfort of a warm bath. I’d been watching some trash TV show and I remember that despite the blinding pain I’d had the presence of mind to close my laptop (being found as a contorted corpse in the living room is traumatic enough – no need to have your nearest and dearest associate your death forever with a screenshot of RuPaul’s Drag Race). For some reason I truly believed that everything would be ok if I could just make it to the bathroom: In the bathroom I could be as disgusting as was necessary to ride out this sudden sickness (Food poisoning? Appendicitis? Delayed-onset alcohol poisoning?). Moving seemed to make the cramps worse though, and the pain spread like boiling whiskey from my abdomen throughout the rest of my body. I can remember tasting copper as wave after wave of nausea hit me, though I don’t think that I actually vomited. By the time I found the staircase, the skin on my arms and legs had started to burn. I didn’t realize it then, but at this point the epidermis was spontaneously separating from my muscle tissue. By the time I made it to the upstairs bathroom, my upper lips must have split because the face (a generous term) I saw in the mirror looked something like an aborted cat fetus forcing its way out of a sausage. Slick, shiny scales had begun to emerge beneath my scalp.
There’s not a lot I can remember after that. Things went red and the night itself is a blank. I must have run into something pretty foul though, because whatever it was gave me wicked bad indigestion the next morning.
If I’m honest, something had felt off with me for a couple of weeks before the full shift. Flu-like symptoms, lethargy, bumps, itching and unusual discharge – all of the things a Google search will tell you amount to cancer, AIDS, or herpes. In short, the imminent demise of you or your social life. There’s a special kind of dread that comes with the possibility of real illness. All of a sudden you can’t just ignore the timestamp on your body and the puniness of your life. This is the mortal meat that you occupy, and there’s a chance that you fucked it irreparably for a lay, or a hit, or a high. I was worried enough to book a physical (at least I could be retroactively responsible), though I’ve cancelled the appointment since. The dating pool in my town is shallow enough, and for a while there were rumours about something going around, something else – but this isn’t exactly the sort of thing you can campaign about with pamphlets. Or list in your Tinder profile.
Not that I got out that much anyway. There’s really only one person who could have given me this. They’ve probably given it to many others. That thought, for some reason, is one that’s stuck with me. In those moments when I believe that my life might not be over – I fixate on this idea of the bug existing in others. Passing between us, linking us through this strange, unmentionable horror.
It feels as though I’ve been in hiding for months now, beneath my human skin. On most days I could pass for normal, and sometimes I almost forget what’s really there. How many others live this way? Do they worry that the horror might consume them too? Do they care? I spent most of my twenties dodging serious relationships out of a pretty basic fear of emotional fallout. I get that I was lonely then, but that’s nothing to what I feel now. Every day I wake up knowing that, with one touch, I could destroy the people I love. My body is poison, and worse than that; it’s insatiable. Even on my best days, the days I believe that I can control it, or somehow embrace it as part of myself – there’s only so long I can ignore the hunger. It’s been three months now, and my appetites have not waned. Even without the shift I crave meat. Weeks before the change, I can feel the scales beneath the skin, straining it. It will hold, but I never know for how long.
Jenn Huddleston ©
jennhuddleston (at) gmail (dot) com