By DS Oswald
Content Warnings: Body horror, gore, animal death (briefly mentioned).
I noticed it first one evening when I was on a walk at the beach. It was summer, the year the record heatwave hit so hard even Target’s industrial-grade air conditioners broke. Birds dropped out of the sky dead of heat-stroke so often that kids started making a game of how far they could punt the corpses. There were dead birds and fish on the beach then, too, but they’d been picked pretty dry. Still, it smelled awful while I walked down the unlit beach, hands swinging loosely, listening to a song that kind of made my ears hurt and gazing at the flat black mass of the sea. There was no wind, and aside from my music, it was quiet.
I reached up to my ear – I forget why. I think I was worried a mosquito had landed there, or maybe the sound from my headphones wasn’t coming through quite right. Whatever. I reached up to my ear and touched it, and when I pulled my hand away, something came with it. I felt this weird sensation from my ear like it was being tugged on and pulled my fingers further away. By the time I held them up to my face, the tugging sensation had stopped, but there was still something on my fingers. I couldn’t see too well. It was dark. I rubbed my fingers together. The stuff on there was like putty. Smooth and slightly damp and rubbery. I held my fingers close to my face and still couldn’t tell what it was. Finally, I got out my phone and turned the flashlight on.
It was my skin. Rubbery and growing soft under the manipulation of my fingers like playdough but the same colour with the same tiny dark hairs sticking out of it that I grow pretty much everywhere. I held it up and smelled it. It smelled like sweat.
I decided it wasn’t my skin. Not because there was a lack of evidence surrounding the matter (it was pretty definitely my skin aside from texture) but because that’s not how bodies work. I threw the nasty bit of whatever it was onto the sand and began trying to come up with different answers about what it was. It was late, though, and I wasn’t at my sharpest, so the best I could come up with was that it was a prank or some sort of, like, scab thing that I’d accidentally picked off, and that was it. I finished my walk and went home.
My house was dark and quiet, much like the beach I’d just left. I live in a gated community, so it looked identical to the rest of the houses, to the point that several times after going on a walk late at night, I’d pulled into the neighbour’s garage and set off their burglar alarm trying to get in. That night I knew I picked the right house because my older brother’s piece of shit bike was sitting out in the driveway, and nobody outside my family owns a motorcycle that ugly. I went inside, went to bed, and forgot about the incident entirely.
The next day, I woke up at seven and went to work. I work at a big-ass department store that sells clothing and stuff. My manager, Noel, put me on the registers at first, but after a bit, they switched me to the back rooms moving boxes. It feels like a secret back there. It feels like someone took the space and twisted it open and put something new there, and the only reason for this miracle was so that Bealls could put boxes of the same brown-grey cardigan ($19.99 plus sales tax) somewhere the customers couldn’t see it. It’s often dark. There are automatic lights that are supposed to turn on, but they don’t work all the time. I don’t mind. I don’t like the light; it flickers in a weird way that gives me a headache.
My favourite room amongst the collection of back rooms is the mannequin room. It’s a smaller room towards the back of the back rooms, and it’s where we keep all the old or not-in-use mannequins. I like their painted faces. Their blank bodies with limbs smoothly chopped off where convenient. I like how close they are to people. Sometimes, in the dark of the malfunctioning lights, I will sit very still with my back to one wall, look at their outlines, and imagine they think I am just as beautiful as they are. I don’t always have time to sit in the mannequin room because there are so very many boxes to unpack, but that day, I did. The delivery truck was late. They usually arrived when I got to work and unloaded the boxes onto the loading dock, but this time, nothing was there.
The mannequin room was warm and humid. Everywhere was warm and humid that summer. But at least it was dark, and I had my mannequin friends. I felt uncomfortably sweaty and sticky. I made a game out of pressing my fingers together, spreading them apart and checking to see how much they resisted, how much the flesh clung to itself and stretched to stay together. It was fun until suddenly it wasn’t because I was thinking of last night and the feeling of my skin pulling away from my head. I slapped my hands against my ears, though that didn’t do much to block out my thoughts. And then, with all the caution my brother gives his ugly bike, I gently moved my fingers down into the crevice between my ear and my head where last night I had pulled away a lump of flesh that felt like putty.
I had expected to find the hardness of skull and bone and the fine down of hair that grew back there, but instead of hitting against anything, my fingers just kept going. Into the pliable, sweaty warmth of my skin and in and in and in up to my second knuckles. In up to the place where my palm started, and the mannequins were staring at my wide-open eyes and listening to my soft animal gasping as I withdrew my hand and felt my flesh stretch with it, unwilling to part, unwilling to let me go, dripping, melting under the extra warmth that my palms carried and dripping down my neck. I held my hands up in front of my face, and slick streams of skin hung from them, phlegmatic things not quite liquid yet but close. I wanted to vomit. I did not. I felt embarrassed. The mannequins had seen me melting. They’d be disgusted if they could be. I looked up at them with hands dripping, the flesh I could still feel running down the back of my neck mixing with sweat, and I told them I was sorry. As if in response, the lights flickered on, casting the whole room in a sickly fluorescence that made me look almost yellow. I remembered that the mannequins were not alive. They could not think of me. They could not be disgusted.
A secondary problem presented itself: what to do with the mucus-like skin that webbed my hands. I moved them vaguely towards my shirt for one moment as though to wipe them there, but then I looked down and remembered I was still in my work polo. They’d be mad if I fucked it up. I thought about my pants and decided no, they’d be mad about that too. And I couldn’t picture anything worse than someone being mad at me, so I eventually put my hands together and gathered it all up into my palms, all the melting flesh, and slowly, carefully stuck it back behind my ears.
At that point, Chrissie walked in to ask me what I was doing, the delivery truck had already arrived, and I got up to go move boxes. And the whole time I moved boxes, I was shivering despite the heat, ’cuz I had no way of knowing how much of what was dripping down my back was actually sweat and how much was the same ooze of mucus-y flesh I’d stuffed back in there earlier.
When I got home, my parents were making dinner. They asked me when I was going back to school again. I told them around mid-August. They nodded. I was going to be a senior. I was close to moving out. I’d selected a college. One of the local ones so I could stay home and help out.
In my room, I took off my employee polo shirt and clapped my hands over my mouth to stop from screaming. The inside of it was smeared with my skin. I put my hands to my stomach; they sank in. I pulled them away, and my breathing got fast, and my thoughts started repeating, and my breathing got fast, and I started feeling nauseous, and my breathing got fast, and I wanted to do something, and my breathing got fast, and I went out into the living room to tell my parents, gasping and crying, and they looked alarmed, and my mother pulled me into her arms, and my father asked what was wrong, what had happened, and I just stared at him.
How could he not know? How can you not see?
I pulled away from my mother and saw my skin stick to hers for just a moment and saw my own body deform and smudge like I was a wax seal she’d stamped, and I wanted to say to my father, what do you mean? I’m melting, I’m melting, but I didn’t. I shook my head and sucked it up.
Sorry, I said, it’s just stress. The job is a lot.
My parents looked worriedly at each other.
You don’t have to take it, my mother said. You can stop if you want.
I shook my head again and went back to my room. I was shaking almost. I couldn’t believe they couldn’t see it, but if they couldn’t see it, did that mean it was nothing? Maybe I was just hallucinating, maybe it really was just stress. I resolved to live with it, and I have only reversed that decision now when it is far too late.
The heatwave was surging again, and I spent more time indoors and more time in the mannequin room. Nobody missed me too much anyways. Noel did come in to check on me when she was working, but she wasn’t always working. The store had switched to rotating in some other managers. The new ones didn’t like me. Too odd, too out of sight, too happy sitting in that creepy room with all those creepy mannequins, dreaming of a world where I was not melting, and I was perfect just like them. And on the day when my teeth dripped from my mouth on long strings of gums, I went to the mannequin room and looked at my teeth on the floor and thought about my face slipping down and my bones feeling achy and messy like they too were melting and sobbed. The saltwater of my tears carved twin canyons down my cheeks, and it hurt.
When I looked down at my teeth again, they had melted as well. All that remained of them were a few white droplets on the ground. I went on, though. I cut food into tiny bites and swallowed the pieces whole. I ate in my room. My parents thought it was a puberty thing. My brother was barely around, so what did he care? I went to the beach at night for a while since it was easier to exist there without hiding my melting body, but then at some point, a bit of sea spray hit my hand, and three of my fingers dropped into the wet sand and vanished amidst the tides. So, I don’t go there anymore.
The next day, I could barely get out of bed. I was scared. I managed to get my phone and lay whispering to it, not because I was trying to be quiet but because there was a strange pressure in my lungs. My teeth were gone. Half my hand was gone. When I turned on my camera, I could see that at some point in the night, I’d missed my nose and lips collapsing in because my face was a flat, oily morass with only my dark eyes glinting out of it.
I remember once, earlier in the summer, before everything, I went with my friends to the boardwalk, and we all got sno-cones. We walked along the hot wood planks. Every so often, one of us punted a dead bird and watched it sail off into the distance. Sometimes someone else told us to knock it off. Sometimes nobody said anything. The heat was a kind of blanket over the town. It made everything muffled. It stifled action.
I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t remember what else we did. But I remember that at the end of the walk, I’d forgotten to eat my sno-cone, and it was dripping thick red syrup all over my hand. I wondered – when I finished melting, would I be red at all? I have seen swirls of blood amidst the parts I dropped. I have seen red enter the whites of my eyes, swirling like ink dropped in water. But I have also seen my flesh on the ground, not red, but pale peach, as though that’s all I was: just a slab of skin, moist and damp and already soaking through the dirt until it disappeared.
DS Oswald is a nonbinary lesbian writer, illustrator, and animator. They decided they wanted to be an author in the third grade, and their extraordinary stubbornness has kept that dream fixed in their head ever since. They have been an obsessive creator since the age of twelve—books, short stories, audio dramas, video games, comics, illustrations, short films, and terrible songs that nobody should listen to—and they intend to go on this way forever. They're on Twitter, tumblr and Instagram as @writingpun.