After the accident my left leg, arm and torso were scraped up terribly. Most of the left side of my face was also raw and scabby and covered in a heavy bandage that covered my eye and hung back over my head. When I looked at myself in the large hospital mirror I saw only half a man, my vision flattened both by my reduced, single-viewpoint perspective and by the painkillers they pumped into my bloodstream. I floated in a haze of gauze and faint, impermanent impressions of visitors, of doctors, of what had happened and of all the distant, not-quite-real repercussions. Sometimes I even glimpsed Annabelle. A shadow in the hospital room, she was hesitant and elusive, pale as always. Annabelle could never stay; how could she? Even addled as I was, I remembered enough about the accident.
Eventually I was forced back into a fuller sense of existence. The doctors cut down my drugs, the bandages were removed. The scabs on my arm grew thick and cracked, like a dry mud flat. The deep lacerations on my leg knit together imperfectly, colliding and reforming in chaotic fractal patterns, like sugar crystals in a petri dish. Lizard scales of scar tissue bathed my left side in callus. My face was puffy and turned colors human flesh should not assume. I was told that it was my body healing and protecting itself, a puss filled suit of armor made out of my own skin. Out of me. It seemed, however, so alien, so other. The entire left side of me. The side of me that was left.
I quit looking into mirrors. I was discharged. I tried to live with what I had done. There was still pain, sometimes. With application of cool rags and modest pharmaceuticals, it was manageable. I could cope with physical pain.
It was the itching that drove me crazy. I could not reach it, as though it lay inches below the surface of my ravaged skin. I tried to distract myself, but the itch would stalk me, silent and subliminal, gnawing its tunnels through my flesh like grubs in a dead log. Inevitably my attention would return to the devious prickle under my skin, building itself to an unbearable crescendo of irritation, an insatiable urge.
I had been warned, countless times, not to give in. Not to scratch. It was hard to think of anything else. Instead of using my nails, I’d rub with my palm, pressing down against my rough bark, the chitin shell of my new form. No matter how hard I pressed I couldn’t crush the bugs inside. It didn’t feel like I touched my own body. I could feel the pressure, but it was muffled, indistinct. Like the voice of someone speaking to you through a thick window pane – every sensation matched up, but were wrong somehow, disjointed and otherworldly.
Eventually I could stand it no longer. I scratched, I clawed, I drew heavy dark blood. If felt so good, it hurt so deeply. I couldn’t stop. I tore big gory chunks of tissue away. My left arm bore the brunt of my mad flaying attack. I didn’t care what damage I did; I had to get what was inside out.
I must have passed out, because I awoke on the bathroom floor in a deep pool of sticky, drying blood. The itch was gone. I took a moment and laid there on my back, half stuck to the linoleum. I basked in the total absence of sensation.
I hesitantly looked down at my arm. It was a massacre. Thick strips of flesh hung together, loosely. Blood still oozed from the gashes. Yet underneath the meat of my tattered limb, a pale second skin shone. It was like an arm within my arm, a ghost carried within my rotting shell. I softly cleaned away the remaining scar tissue. Brushing my fingers against the new skin was like the feel of a strong wind, so insubstantial a pressure, yet so surprisingly firm. I soon had most of the forearm free of the carcass that held it. It was beautiful and fresh and small and delicate.
And this new arm was familiar. The pale, almost translucent skin, the slight build. The hint of a few freckles, just below the elbow. I recognized this arm, as well as I knew my own. It was Annabelle’s. She had found her way home to me, somehow. I had but to free her from the container she hid within, and make her whole again. My exhilaration to begin was unbearable.
Matthew Smart lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where he works as an information technology analyst. His writing has appeared in Vestal Review, CHEAP POP, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Unbroken Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly and elsewhere. He serves as Assistant Prose Poetry Editor at Pithead Chapel.