Originally published in Slow the Pace, a short story anthology.
There’s a monster living inside me. I’m not pregnant and I don’t have worms or anything, but there’s definitely something living in there. I know because it keeps trying to get out. I hear it. And I get these crusty patches of skin that turn red and crack and flake and the monster tells me to scratch them so I do and Jesus Christ does it feel good. Pure relief.
This isn’t the kind of relief you feel when you put aloe vera on a sunburn, though. It’s not even like when you finally get to take a pee in your own toilet after holding it in all afternoon and then get stuck on a hot subway between some smelly stranger and the guy that’s going deaf day-by-day listening to his crappy music too loud. You know, you finally get to your stop, you push and shove out of the station until you’re on the street and then you rush down the sidewalk trying to look normal but at this point you have to go so bad your mouth is sour and your jaw aches and when you finally make it to your building you can’t get the key in the door because your hands are shaking so bad, but finally you do and you make it up the stairs and then finally, FINALLY you can pee – in your own toilet – and you feel like you actually accomplished something. Even though it’s just pee.
No, it’s not like that. This relief is way more fulfilling.
It starts with a whisper. It feels like when you’re walking through an alley and the wind blows a chill up your spine but you’re never really sure if the chill is because of the wind or because sometimes in the wind, you can hear a voice. Just a little voice saying something breathy in like, Italian – but you don’t speak Italian so you’re left wondering if you even heard a voice at all.
That’s what it’s like when the monster starts to whisper. It’s like I feel it before I really hear it. Next thing I know I’m slowly, methodically pulling back the scabs until I just have this soft, red, hairless patch of skin. And it’s so soft that in the next instant my nails are pulling that skin back and it starts getting clogged under my fingernails. But at that point I don’t care because the monster’s voice isn’t a whisper in my skull anymore, it’s coming out of my mouth, and it’s saying Yes and pretty soon my fingers are sticky with blood. And it feels like sex. It feels better than sex, my whole body trembles, my mind goes blank, I shudder, and then I bleed. And all the while the monster’s borrowing my voice to say Yes.
I guess I should’ve known. See, I kind of think I invited the monster in. I used to be a musician – I don’t play music anymore. Actually, I don’t even listen to it now. I used to do a lot of things. I used to wear lots of colors but now I only wear black. When I wore colorful clothing I played bad music. But once the patches started to appear and I was bleeding all the time, I started wearing darker and darker clothing until finally I was wearing all black all the time. And then I was playing great music.
When I played bad music I had to do the open-mic circuit. I didn’t like playing in coffee shops. Playing in a coffee shop is like being the youngest sibling. You’ll be telling a story and then all the sudden your sister or your dad is just talking over you. But you have something really important to say so you just keep trying to tell your story but they need an answer to the question they just asked your mom, so they’re not talking but they’re still not listening to you. So you talk a little louder and then the barista frowns at you and when your song is finished your dad looks up and says, “What was that?” So I didn’t want to play in coffee shops anymore.
After one particularly bad night I went home, lay down on my bed and thought to myself, “What could I do to be better? I would give anything to be better.”
And another voice in my head said, “Anything?”
And I was like, “Yeah, anything!”
“Well, would you give up your body?”
And I thought, “Yeah, sure, why not?”
And the other voice said, “Promise?”
And so I said, “Yeah, really.”
And the voice said, “Okay, now you’re better.” And I was! Fixed! Cured of my bad music. Within a few weeks I was playing so well, people started calling me to play places. But now I know that other voice in my head was the monster, knocking at the door to my body, asking to be let in. And I let it in.
A few months later I got my first patch of itchy skin. Didn’t even notice it at first. I was out to lunch with my dad and he was actually listening to me. I was telling him about all the gigs I was getting when I heard the voice, distant at first, almost muffled like it was coming through a blown-out speaker. Yes, it said. And as I spoke, my fingers found the dry patch and slowly my nails began carving away.
I kept talking to my dad natural like, but beneath the yes I could hear laughter and that distracted me a little. As the laughter grew louder my fingers began frantically burrowing to the pulp and blood beneath. Suddenly I couldn’t even speak. I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to finish making myself bleed. And as I scratched and scratched and blood began to run down my leg, the laughter crescendoed until my ears burned and my head buzzed.
A month later patches covered me from my ankles to my wrists. I started being very particular about my routine. Order, I figured, order will keep the monster at bay. I woke up every morning, put on oil, then the cream, and then lotioned myself twice over. On good days when I scratched very little, I tried to remember what I did so that I could do that again forever. If I landed right foot then left foot out of bed one day when I didn’t itch at all, it was right foot first from then on.
You’re probably thinking like, “Hey crazy person! Did you see a doctor?” Well not that it’s any of your business, but yeah, I did see a doctor. She gave me a cream and told me to take baths with bleach to “kill the germs.” But bleach doesn’t kill monsters, doc.
Still, the routine seemed to help so pretty soon everything had a routine. Locks came next. You know how sometimes you check the lock, then check it again and then maybe one more time to be safe – you know, to make sure your apartment isn’t going to be robbed? Well I check five times. But I’m not really checking. That’s what I tell people, but I don’t worry about being robbed. It’s the precision of the bolt sliding home that I can’t get enough of. It started one day as I was leaving my apartment. I turned the key. Then I turned it back. Then again. I couldn’t stop. The whisper started and with each twist and snap, I tingled a little more. Yes. Over and over I turned it until my neighbor came out and asked if it was jammed or something, but I was just giving in to the mechanics of the beat.
The click of a light switch: at least four times. And doorknobs I turn left, left, then right – just to hear that spring load and snap back. The creak of the fridge door and its wet slap against the gasket: delicious. I started keeping time as I walked, counting each step, slapping my toes on the concrete for accent. It felt so good to give in, to let the routine takeover and find the rhythm in everything, to become the music.
As you might expect, my music kept getting better and better. Eventually it got so good that my skin was always cracked and weeping this sticky bloody pus. I had to start wearing all black all the time – pants and long sleeves. My fans thought that was my thing, all black, but I wasn’t trying to make a statement. I mean, how else was I supposed to hide the gummy residue of my music? And really, by that point playing music didn’t even matter anymore.
It’s like, you ever walk to the beach but you don’t want to bring socks because socks are basically sand containers so you go sockless in your shoes and by the time you get there you have blisters so big and so raw you can’t even get in the water? And then your mom pops them and you cry and you hate her for a second and then you hate yourself because you love her and she was just trying to help you out but it hurt even though now it feels better? That’s how it got. All those things that were opposites somehow became tied up in the same moment. And that feeling spread. After a while there was no me and my skin and the monster and the music. Eventually we were all the same.
So I stopped playing music and completely devoted myself to the routine. I even made myself a schedule: on Mondays I would scratch my arms, Tuesdays were for my back (the most frustrating day by far), Wednesday was for my right leg, Thursday for my left, Friday was my belly, and then I spent all of Saturday and Sunday scratching my hips and butt.
Now I sort mail in an office that’s a five-minute walk to the subway (about 465 steps including the subway stairs), two stops (or six times I get to hear the shwick of the subway door), then another five-minutes to the office building (only 425 steps here, though), up three flights (fifty-six steps, a good number), and then I’m in the office. The mailroom is down the hall but I weave through the cubicles changing how I get there every day. Need some variation in your life, right?
I used to be a successful musician, now I’m a mail sorter. Am I a successful mail sorter? Well you can’t really be a successful mail sorter the same way you can be a successful musician because as a mail sorter you succeed by not getting fired. So success doesn’t mean too much. Not like being a musician where success could mean any shade under the sun except starving to death.
Sometimes people ask why I stopped playing music. They say I was going places – and maybe they’re right. I never tell them about the monster though. I just say I got sick of it. And maybe I did – or maybe I just found something I like more. I’ve grown to like wearing all black. I’ve grown to like having this thing that no one else knows about. My face is perfectly clear, handsome even, but beneath my black shirt and black pants and smart looking bowtie I’ve got a secret.
And frankly, being a non-fired mail sorter works for me. Being a musician is chaotic – there’s no stability to it. You can’t have routines without stability. It’s been almost two years with the monster living inside me and at this point, I don’t mind the patches and I’ve come to love my routines and the bloody ecstasy. I used to think my routines were keeping the monster under control, but now I think the monster was just training me the whole time, slowly teaching me to think about it and only it and nothing else. Who knows, maybe the monster’s a snake and that’s why I’m so scaly. Either way, even though I tell myself I’m still fighting it, my really sick secret is: I can’t wait to meet it.
S. Baer Lederman hails from Rhode Island, but his years at University of Michigan taught him that he is a Midwesterner at heart. Since completing ROTC and his Navy service, Baer has focused on writing. His fiction has appeared in Dapper Press and Nebo. He was also named a finalist in Slippery Elm’s 2015 Prose Contest, the Scribes Valley 2015 short story contest, and the Providence Journal’s H.P. Lovecraft short story contest. Baer is currently an MFA candidate at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago.