It was just a little cut, he said to calm his hypochondriac mind.
At least that’s what he tried to tell himself. It was the kind of thing that had been easy to believe for a while even if it wasn’t entirely true.
The knife had accidentally stabbed him about a half inch below his left ring finger, on the meaty part of his hand. It had been a deep cut.
It’s just a little cut, he told himself in between bursts of expletives and trying to stop the bleeding.
It wasn’t little, it wasn’t the end of the world, but it wasn’t little. The wound was deep enough that it could have done with a few stitches. Because the cut was self-diagnosed as small, however, the cut would be dealt with by bandaids and antiseptic ointment for however long it’d take to heal.
It was a while. He lost count of the number of bandaids he ended up using. Healing took around a month.
The cut slowly filled in as layers of epidermis seemed to stitch themselves back together one-by-one. At last his hand was whole again. Only a small quarter-inch scar permanently marked the accident on his body.
At least it did yesterday, this morning he saw no scar on his left hand at all. He thought maybe it was a trick of the light or that he was just not yet fully awake. But all he knew was that his eyes told him it was gone.
* * *
When he awoke the following morning he checked his hand before taking a shower. No scar again. But the cut was back as if it had just occurred yesterday.
* * *
I was dreaming. I was hallucinating. What’s the difference?
Those were the things he tried to convince himself of the next day. Being torn would not ease his mind. He had to choose.
Quel est la difference?
French, that was real life.
The cut was a hallucination. Decided.
Now, when is French? Is it today? Is it a school day? I’m sweating.
He looked at his alarm clock: 10:51 a.m. Tuesday.
Summer vacation. I cut my hand during the school year. It’s summer. I’m hallucinating. I’m wasting my summer hallucinating a cut.
* * *
In a few simple steps he was close to reclaiming his life; closer to reality than he was before.
Though he was acting like a child, he was not. He was a high school teacher. English, now; social studies previously. He was wasting his vacation worrying about a cut. He had fleeting hours of sunlight left to enjoy now that he’d showered and eaten.
He’d go swimming, then by night he’d write. That’s why he taught. It paid the bills and gave him time to try and get his writing in order. Not the most original plan in the world, but on occasion it even worked.
No more wasting the day, he’d forget the cut and go to the pool. But he wouldn’t forget.
* * *
As soon as he got to the pool there was cause to remember:
NO SWIMMING PERMITTED UNDER THE FOLLOWING CONDITIONS
- Open wound(s)
I heard they’re usually pretty sharp. That’s what we pay dues for: qualified lifeguards. They’ll see it.
He checked his left hand. The wound was now eye-shaped and half the circumference of a dime. As the cut was healing, sometimes he’d press the flesh of his palm and the gash would spread, forming the shape he now saw.
Don’t make that face it’ll freeze that way.
A parent’s lie. Would it apply here as the truth? Had the cut frozen? A tiny cesspool of blood formed within the wound. Surely, he was not getting in. Something compelled him to try. Maybe it was just nerves. He was up next to sign-in. Maybe he wanted to dispel the notion that he was hallucinating.
He put on his sunglasses. It was one of the few tasks he did left-handed. He did it when the lifeguard at the sign-in table looked up, so he had to see it.
“How ya doing, Mr. Johnson?” the lifeguard who looked like a displaced surfer boy said.
He didn’t see it.
How could he not see it?
Mr. Johnson signed in and moved on. He found a chair. Moving in slow motion he eventually tried taking a dip. The chlorinated water did not wash the hallucination away. He had the cut. It was larger now. There was blood in the water. He ran off.
* * *
He waited in the parking lot for fifteen minutes. Surely, they’d see the blood. Clear the pool. Clean it. Maybe even drain it.
The cut, now a hole, was the size of a quarter.
* * *
He got back home and considered going to the hospital.
What if the emergency room personnel don’t see it? What if they do and the doctor doesn’t? Even if I lie to get in, saying it’s something internal, I’d still likely end up in a psych ward.
He needed to say something innocuous. His confusion was not helped by his hypochondria.
Brian! That’s it!
He’d never believed in a twelve-step program until H.A. He had a sponsor for just this kind of situation. Brian would end it. How could he forget? Maybe there were dreams and hallucinations in his recollections.
He sent an ice-breaking text. He got a quick reply.
Good to hear from you. I take it you’ve done well. What’s up?
Johnson replied instantly:
Brian was engaged.
Walk through it. Baby steps. We got you through the cut.
The cut, yes, Brian knew about the cut. After he bandaged it up he’d called him.
That was the last time.
“Go to the hospital,” Brian had told him. Johnson insisted he didn’t want to.
“That’s your fear of doctors.”
“Isn’t going to the hospital for this letting the hypochondria win?”
“No. You cut yourself. You just don’t want to go because you think you’ll get really sick there.”
Johnson was not in the mood for a long debate tonight. He took a picture of the cut. He labeled it a crisis, but to a hypochondriac that could mean almost anything.
Does this look like something to you?
Which was shorthand for “Does this look like cancer or anything else life-threatening?”
His phone rang.
“Get to the hospital!” Brian said, eschewing formality.
“What? You see it?”
“I’m not blind. It’s a chasm on your palm.”
He could understand the lifeguard not seeing it. People can look right at you and not pay attention.
“I bled in the pool and no one saw it.”
“What?” Brian, said sounding more dumbfounded than before.
“I thought I imagined it when the lifeguard saw nothing. But I bled in the pool, dripped blood on the deck and left, but there wasn’t a scream, they didn’t shut the pool down. How did they not see that?”
The line was quiet.
“I’m picking you up. Don’t go on your own.”
“I’ll be there in ten.”
Brian hung up. Johnson looked at his left hand, the skin now blossoming away from his person in flaps that were—
— tattered. His hand was not large but he saw the maw pulsing, red, and bleeding. It was baseball-sized.
On his right hand was a wrist watch. Johnson would be in his house in nine minutes.
* * *
The dread was now more real. It wasn’t only his eyes that had seen it. As the rupture crawled from his palm to his fingers it became hard to breathe. He wasn’t sure he could move if he wanted to. No one would get him help quicker than Brian could.
All his brain, in a shocked and addled state, was good for was regurgitating nonsense that seemed apropos to the scenario.
That song about a boa constrictor, then something by Lovecraft. What was it? Did it matter? His fingers were being peeled from the bottom up like grotesque bananas.
His flayed skin moved to the back of his hand. As opposed to most, Johnson didn’t know that part of his hand that well.
Cool Air was the Lovecraft thing. Why’d he think of it?
Skin started to slough, then slither down the length of his arm. Before him he could see bone, musculature, tendons, and blood.
After a certain point it got to be as if it were happening to someone else, as if he were merely a spectator.
Is that the shock or had reality gotten fuzzy since the phone call? Is something more wrong with me than hypochondria? Something more dissociative?
As his skin popped over his elbow, splitting more, he saw that his funny bone wasn’t so funny, something distracted him: all the capillaries in his fingers exploded.
And blood ran through the Dardanelles…
He didn’t know what that meant, just that he was woozy.
The skin of his left shoulder came off as if ripped, tendons snapped, bones crunched.
He didn’t know why he couldn’t feel a thing.
The skin on his shoulder was being torn away in large chunks and then stopped. For a second that looked like the end of it. But then the virus, the entity, demon, vortex; whatever was skinning him, got back to it. Large sections of the skin on his back, like large sections of wallpaper whose glue had failed, slid off, pouring forth blood.
Shock, fear and adrenaline had seemed to have numbed him, but when his whole midsection began to spontaneously herniate that is when the screams began.
There were no more thoughts of being eaten alive, of Cool Air, or even that he’d see Brian; but as his body distended and burst; as his eyes popped from their sockets and separated from their optic nerves; as his eardrums burst irreparably; as several major blood vessels and arteries spontaneously ruptured simultaneously; with the onset of cardiac arrest; he knew there was no hope.
Adrenaline overridden, there was only pain.
And soon there was nothing and Johnson left the world, a man referred to by his last name, without understanding how or why that was.
Brian was due in a minute.
* * *
Brian actually arrived in two minutes having hit some slower-than-usual traffic. He was glad the door had not been locked, looking for a key would have cost him time he didn’t have to spare.
As he got into Johnson’s bedroom, he saw blood. Plenty of it. He saw his clothes. As for the body there were many fragments in the blood that could not be understood. Brian had no concept of what was going on.
* * *
When the police arrived the confusion he and they felt would grow by leaps and bounds.
“Sir, there’s nothing wrong with his hand in this picture.”
Brian was dumbfounded. He was about to protest, then thought better of it. He knew Johnson hadn’t been murdered. He knew what he saw and what they’d believe.
“I know,” he said calmly. “He was a hypochondriac. I was his sponsor.”
“Like in A.A.?” The cop’s partner said.
“Exactly. I…I broke a rule. I told him he was hurt because I couldn’t help him over the phone. I wanted to come over. Check the rest of the message trail.”
They did as he had given them his phone.
“So it took you exactly eleven minutes to arrive here?”
“I told him ten. It was eleven. I missed one light.”
“Were you with someone?”
“My wife is waiting by the phone.”
Nothing added up. The way the cops saw it if Brian killed Johnson then called them he’d have confessed by now. If someone else had come and killed him, even if you could explain the mess, how could you explain that there was no trace of an assailant? If it was suicide, where’s the body? If he was this violently ill, whatever in Heaven or Hell could cause that kind of sickness, why did he think it was his hand?
And as for that body, if it was really here but in smithereens, how’d that happen?
* * *
Brian was not held, just told to stay in town as a person of interest.
A spatter expert came in. The police and forensics concluded that most of his brain tissue, blood, intestines and a lot of bone could be accounted for in the fragments they found.
“Blood in a pattern like this, with shards of brain, bone, and tendons. It’s like a suicide bombing. But where’s the explosion?”
There was neither a murder nor a suicide to put on record. Though those cops would never forget what they started to call The Case of the Exploding Man.
Brian wondered why the cops didn’t see that cut on Johnson’s hand. He also wondered why the cut on his knee wouldn’t scab over.
Bernardo Villela has a BFA in Film from LIU Post. His first short film Suffer the Little Children, won four awards at 13 festivals worldwide. He’s since directed and edited short films, and a feature. He published a novella and three short story collections. www.miller-villela.com.