“Transformulation” – Fiction by Serena Johe

Metamorphosed Women – Salvador Dali, 1954

A young lady undergoes some bizarre & bewildering changes in “Transformulation,” Serena Johe‘s gloriously gruesome short story from our Fall 2017 issue.

{ X }

A SERIES OF HARD SCABS FORMS JUST BELOW SAM’S LEFT ARMPIT. Brown and oddly geometric and bedrock dry, they overlap down the length of her torso, creating tiny roadways in the subtle spaces between her ribs. On Thursday, they darken to the color of dried blood, but Sam remembers the perpetual red and white volley of immune responses in her preteens, the patchy scabs like rows of magnified cells, and she convinces herself there’s probably nothing wrong.

The week after, she finds a lump at the base of her spine, and she begins to worry. It’s round and dimpled like a golf ball, in the space where her last vertebrae should be. When it distends and breaks the skin like a clay-colored bone cap, gleaming wetly in the light of her bedroom, she begs her parents to take her to the doctor, but they brush aside talk of cancer and laugh outright at the idea of mutating poisons.

Their nonchalance doesn’t convince her. True enough, Sam has seen many doctors for the multitude of anomalies that sometimes raise her flesh like a topographical map, and half the time they turn out to be minor irritations that hardly warranted medical attention. Still, she never regrets the visits. Nothing unsettles her quite like the appearance of an unidentified object bursting from beneath her skin. She is reminded of the parasitic creatures on the Discovery channel, of the long yellow stalk of cordyceps fungus she once saw blooming between two bamboo trees, and of the mutilated bodies of its hosts. They splinter apart in hardened sprays of tissue like a still-life explosion.

Sam taps the bulbous growth on her back and it clicks like hollow plastic. The dread and disgust pierce deep. When it doesn’t disappear by the end of the week, the sensation transforms into outright horror, but her parents insist she’s being melodramatic. Her arguments of flesh-eating bacteria and mind-controlling fungi don’t appear to help her case.

On the way to school on Monday, her mother’s eyes keep meeting hers in the rearview mirror.

Sam asks irritably, “What?”

“Don’t worry so much,” her mother smiles. “You’re going to give yourself wrinkles.”

Wrinkles are the last thing Sam’s worried about, and her mother’s lackadaisical attitude towards the quickly spreading rash does nothing but exacerbate her distress. When she gets out of the car, she pulls her shirt over the bulge at her back, which by now has discolored to the same blackish-red as the network of scabs on her side. She attempts to blend into the crowd as always.

At lunch, on her way to Izzy in the far corner of the cafeteria, she feels the pressure of a hundred pairs of eyes and tries not to tug at her sleeves or the scarf around her neck. She reminds herself that not many people would likely pay her so much attention. Then again, Izzy has known her since third grade. She notices something amiss soon after Sam slides into her seat.

“What’s with the outfit?”

Sam pokes a plastic spoon into her yogurt and tries to sound indifferent. “What do you mean?”

“No offense, but you’re dressed like a nun.”

“I am not.” Sam freezes as Izzy tugs at her scarf.

“It’s cute, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like eighty-five degrees outside–” Sam feels the scarf come loose and slaps Izzy’s hand away. “Ow! Sam, I hardly touched you!”

“I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well,” Sam says. She abandons her yogurt and hurries to the bathroom.

Standing over the sink, she pinches the spot where Izzy brushed her collar, right above the bone, as if to erase the sensation of having been touched there. She traces the line over and over to be certain that Izzy hadn’t discovered the mutinous spread of scabs that now reach her chest.

Sam pulls her collar down and clenches her teeth. At least ten new scabs since yesterday. “This isn’t normal,” she mutters. Her voice reverberates against the muted beige tiles and thrums strangely in her skin. The rashes and irritations of her earlier years don’t compare to this, its rapid spreading, popping out of nowhere in isolated clusters, leaking slowly outward in a spiraled march towards the nearest unaffected skin.

Even stranger, she feels no irritation or pain. But it feels like this rash has a plan. The most efficient sicknesses can escalate without detection until it’s too late, Sam recalls, even while they’re silently rampaging a body and taking over its vital systems.

She vividly imagines the pestilent whispers of cancer with its painless tumors and quiet multiplication, and the invisible pathogens hidden in the folds of every wrinkle on her skin. She tries to tell herself that she’s being paranoid, as her parents had, but it doesn’t help, and the more she thinks about this foreign invasion, the more urgent her need to remove it. Slowly, Sam pries the topmost scab off her body. It sticks like dried glue until she leverages her fingernail under the edge, and when it finally peels away, the skin beneath stretches outward in taffy threads longer than her middle finger.

The tissue strings hang from the edges of the scab and twist together in the quick exhalations of her disbelief, spun-sugar fine. Sam observes the hard black crust between her thumb and forefinger. The exterior glistens just enough to reflect her horrified face in the jagged slants of its geometric surface. Even more alarming, the skin beneath the scab has been shredded completely, and underneath, where flesh and blood should be, protrudes another bulge like the one on her back. It shines as if slicked with oil, but she touches the reptilian-looking surface and finds it dry. And numb. She digs her fingernail into the wound and feels nothing.

“This isn’t happening,” she whispers, flicking the scab off her finger. It skips across the floor in little plastic clinks as if to argue with her. When she hears the bathroom door open, she yanks her scarf back up and pretends to wash her hands just long enough to reclaim the aberrant body part and bury it deep in the trash.

At dinner she tries desperately to get her parents to comprehend the enormity of the situation.

“This isn’t normal,” she shouts, rolling up her sleeve to show where the rash has spread to her elbow.

“Honey, don’t you think you’re overreacting just a little?”

“Overreacting? I’m sprouting scales!”

Her father chokes out a laugh through a sip of orange juice. “Don’t be ridiculous, Sammy. You’re not growing scales, for Christ’s sake.”

She tries to summon a reply, but the barrage of words bottlenecks and erupts from her mouth in inarticulate frustration. She retreats to her room in a huff, leaving her dinner untouched.

{ X }

The scab she’d removed grows back overnight. More appear on her right side, the top of her buttocks, the inside of her thigh, and then for two weeks, the rash stops spreading. The strange aberrations calcify. Despite her parents’ denial, they appear to Sam like the hard scales of a big snake.

She wants to show them to Izzy, but the spidery capillaries threaded between the oddities are too unsightly. No one should ever see her like this, she thinks. She can already imagine traversing the halls trying to avoid the looks and the hushed whispers of her classmates.

She strips off her clothes and stands in front of the mirror, cataloguing every scale, each hardened knob of flesh on her spine. Then she reaches for the pliers.

She begins to religiously cull the alien rash, determined to sculpt her form back into its natural state. Every twinge of pain and clatter of hardened flesh removes her further from a future of social expulsion. Halfway through the process, she finds a slick membrane of gelatinous liquid has covered the wounds, and after showering, she discovers the task is much easier. The hot water softens the corrugated shell, leaving it swollen and supple enough to peel. The bulges of distended vertebrae are more difficult to address. After a particularly tenacious maneuver with the pliers, she hears the surface crack like hardened sugar. It doesn’t hurt, but it scares her enough that she puts the pliers away.

She sweeps the debris into the trashcan and retreats to bed. Her skin feels raw, her muscles ache, and she dreams of a strange consumption.

{ X }

It begins with a dull pain around her left shoulder as she walks downstairs for breakfast. From the first step to the last, her father stares at her curiously from the dining room table. Sam follows his gaze and watches the flesh of her upper arm crumple and twist like wet paper. The limb prunes as if she’d taken a long bath, only it’s toughened like beef jerky. The deep ridges between the wrinkles resemble tree bark.

Shock briefly anesthetizes her terror, but the creeping fear climbs from the base of her abdomen, spreading through her arteries with each accelerated heartbeat. It sends Sam to her knees. Her body inverts, and her mind does not comprehend it. Her bicep narrows at a singular point, constricting like an hourglass until her forearm dangles from a thread of sinew. Then it falls off.

The arm wriggles momentarily on the floor in its state of new autonomy. A fresh bicep begins to grow from it, wet and slippery like the membrane of a worm as it contorts into the shape of smooth muscle.

Her father approaches her worriedly. “Sammy?”

Her lips snag on her teeth as she tries to answer. She pulls them from her mouth and they dangle there in her fingers, limp and soft and empty, stretching slowly towards her feet.

“Sammy? Aren’t you going to eat?”

Her father retrieves the severed arm and places it at the breakfast table.

{ X }

Sam awakens to a scene only moderately less horrific. The patches of abused skin beneath the scales have slipped off in papery ribbons. Underneath, the flesh has crusted into a hard black husk. She watches in muted disbelief as an inch-long jagged spine erupts from the back of her elbow. Her reflection in the mirror reveals the body beneath her skin. The inflexible carapace, shiny and numb, has consumed half of her torso.

It’s her inconsolable screaming that finally convinces her parents to take her to the hospital.

She refuses to let anything touch her more than necessary. In the waiting room, she huddles so small in her chair that she seems to float, and when her back hits the chair’s arm, she yelps like a startled dog. She can’t feel the new surfaces of her plastic skin. The noise of it clacking against the wood leaves her nauseated. When the nurse calls her up, she orders her parents to stay behind.

The zipper of her sweatshirt catches on a loose flap of meat, peeling it from her stomach to reveal more hardened carapace underneath, but Dr. Vero appears unbothered. He brushes aside the separated skin and presses a stethoscope to her chest. When he moves it to her back, she nearly shrieks at the alien pressure of the metal against the rigid shell on her spine.

“So,” he takes a step back, “what seems to be the problem?”

Sam looks down at the reflective black armor of her torso, at the spine on her elbow that had grown ridges midway between home and the hospital, at the desquamated flesh of her abdomen, and asks, “Are you blind?”

Dr. Vero misinterprets the sarcasm. “Is that a trick question?”

“Look at me!” She shrieks. “What is happening to my body?”

He leans in close to her face and examines her. “You look perfectly healthy to me. Maybe if you described your symptoms–”

Sam goes to put a hand on her face and pauses. Her nails have folded over the tips of her fingers in sharpened points. They’re black, like the rest of the shiny material exploding from her skin. “I must be losing my mind.”

Dr. Vero retrieves a notepad. “Confusion, you say? What else?”

She struggles for a moment to grasp the turn the conversation has taken. “I guess I just feel like I’m not myself.”

“Out of body experience?”

“You might say that.”

He hums sympathetically. “Do you play sports?”

“I played soccer until the symptoms started about a month ago. Then I couldn’t.” Gym shorts were completely out of the question.

Dr. Vero puts the notepad down. “I think you have a concussion.”

“I do?”

“Classic symptoms. Of course you would quit playing soccer right around the time of the injury. Concussions can have very dramatic effects on brain function.”

“They can?”

Dr. Vero chuckles at the redundancy, chalking it up as symptomatic. It sounds a bit like he’s hissing or wheezing, Sam thinks, but at least he seems sincere.

“Yes, they can. I’ll send you in for an MRI to make sure there’s no permanent damage, but the best you can do for a concussion is to wait it out. The symptoms should dissipate over time.”

The surety of his diagnosis unclenches the unbearable fear and anxiety in Sam’s chest for the first time in a month. She wants to cry in relief, and when her eyes refuse to water, she repeats what Dr. Vero said to help herself calm down.

“Thank you so much,” she shakes his hand emphatically, careful not to jab him with her pointed fingers. “You have no idea how scared I was.”

“Don’t worry, dear. It’s no trouble at all.” Dr. Vero pats her on the back and doesn’t seem to notice the hollow sound.

Sam glows with relief as she and her parents exit the hospital with a bill of clean health and no emergencies on the MRI. To know that her strange transformation existed only in her head feels like being reborn, and for a few weeks, life returns to normal. Sam finds that if she ignores the strangeness of her body, so do the people around her, and in that way the problem is solved.

When she checks her reflection in the bathroom mirror after fifth period one day, however, she notices that the scales have started growing again. They climb up her cheeks and end in a pointed horn on her forehead, but she refuses to acknowledge the oddity. It’s only imaginary.

When her eyes distend from her face a few centimeters, she reminds herself of what Dr. Vero said.

When her lips fold back over her teeth, his words become a mantra. She stops looking in mirrors. The sight of her deformation, illusory though it is, makes her ill.

It’s just in your head, she thinks over, and over, and over again. It might look terrifying, but it’s only as real as the image in a funhouse mirror or a desert mirage. Still, with her lips gone, her face appears entirely skeletal, all sharp edges and ridged points and bulging eyes. When those too turn completely black, she finally calls Dr. Vero again.

“It’s my eyes,” she explains. “They’re completely black.”

“You’re seeing black? Ah, that might be problematic. Tell your parents to bring you in as soon as they can.”

She’d planned to wait until the weekend, but when she wakes to find that the flesh of her legs has squeezed inward in ripples like the dehydrated meat of an animal, she decides that it can’t wait.

Dr. Vero listens intently to her symptoms. “I see the confusion hasn’t disappeared yet.”

“I’d say not.”

“This is highly unusual,” he admits. “The kind of hallucinations you’re describing don’t usually accompany minor concussions. What would you say is bothering you the most?”

“Probably these.” She points at the two horns that have sprouted just below where her nose once was. One extends further than the other. Both are segmented, and at the tips, the black bleeds into a mottled pink with the newness of the raw tissue.

Dr. Vero inspects her face. “These what?”

“These!”

“I’m sorry, dear, you’re going to have to be more specific.”

“Oh, I forgot,” she chuckles at herself, “you can’t see them.”

Dr. Vero steps back and scratches his skull. “See what? Your antennae?”

There is a buzzing in Sam’s head like the low note of a bassoon. “My what?”

“Your antennae, dear. Is that what you’re talking about?”

“Antennae?”

Dr. Vero’s perplexity increases with each question. “What kind of arthropod did you think you were?”

“Arthro – what?”

“Arthropod! What are they teaching you kids in school nowadays?”

“I’m sorry,” Sam whispers. “I don’t understand…”

Dr. Vero’s mandibles shut with an audible click. He sighs. “Will you excuse me for a moment?”

He hooks a foot around his notepad and disappears from the room.

Sam waits, too afraid to move, scared that any sudden gestures might tear down whatever fabric of reality has been woven around her. The low note rattles in her skull. This is a dream, she thinks. She listens to the vibrations of the doctor speaking with her parents in the hallway.

“I’m so sorry, Dr. Vero,” her mother says.

Her father quickly agrees. “I have no idea why she’d do something like this – for attention, maybe?”

“It’s all right,” Dr. Vero pats their shells soothingly. “Kids will be kids. If you need help in the future, do let me know. In the meantime, Sam is waiting for you in room seven.”

Her parents enter the room, clearly displeased. Sam can sense their anger as much as it reflects in every lens of her father’s eyes. They take her home, bickering all the way.

“I told you there was nothing wrong with her!”

“Honey, please, how can we say that there’s nothing wrong with her? It’s like she has amnesia, or–”

Her father scoffs. His wings beat the air agitatedly. “Nonsense. She just wanted attention, and look how much worry it’s cost us! Not to mention the hospital bills–”

Sam leaves them to argue in the living room.

She ascends the stairs, making a conscious effort to feel the bottom of each pair of hooked feet touch the floor. It’s the only stability she can find.

Her clothes have come clean off. She wonders if she’d ever been wearing them.

In the mirror, she sees herself fully now. The ceiling light reflects off the top of her bald head, the shiny chitin of her underside, the many hexagonal lenses of her compound eyes. She flexes her hinged antennae in the mirror and suddenly feels dispassionate. The world is real, and her nightmares too.

Tiredly, Sam doubles over, watching her lower halves flex around the ridge-shaped petiole below her thorax. Her stinger is barely grown. The pink tips of her antennae have darkened to a different shade, like the blush of a human’s cheeks, or the roof of a human’s mouth, or the fleshy pads of a human’s fingers.

Sam taps her foreleg against her exoskeleton, and it sounds as empty as she feels.

She reaches for the pliers.

{ X }

SERENA JOHE is an avid reader and writer with a particular interest in speculative fiction. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Colored LensWaccamawChantwood MagazineSchlock!, Typehouse, and The Forge Literary Magazine, amongst others.

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