“Alright, honey, I’m leaving. Last chance for any grocery suggestions,” Mom yelled through the stairwell. I cracked the bathroom door and poked my damp head out.
“I’m good, thanks,” I said, using a hand towel to finish scrubbing my hair dry.
“No, wait! Those little coconut chocolate cookie ring things!”
“Oh, Corey, those things are always broken and melted by the time they get to the store shelf. The caramel always sticks to the tray and it gets everywhere,” Mom said.
“Hey, you asked. I like them.”
“Okay, we’ll see. Remember to walk Bennie, please. He hasn’t been out since this morning,” Mom said.
“Fine, I will.”
“Soon. Like within the hour, please.”
“I said I will!”
“Okay, honey, I’ll be back in an hour or so. Call me if anything comes up,” Mom said as she fussed with her purse and made her exit. I sighed and threw my shoulders back in relief. Ever since she’d started teaching public school again, her schedule had aligned with mine. I’m eighteen, a legal adult. I need my space, some alone time where I can just, you know, be Corey, however I define him. It was a confusing time in my life: Not only was I applying to colleges and staring the S.A.T. in the face, but also my dad had moved out six months ago. It wasn’t a huge shock or anything dramatic; it had been building up for years. Frankly, I was glad he was gone—not in a macho Oedipus fashion, just relieved. The tension had made the house unbearable. Mom seemed to be adjusting to the new life pretty well, at least on the outside. Maybe we were in the overcompensating phase, she seemed to be treating me with a little extra space and trust lately. Was this respect totally deserved? I didn’t know. At my age, when my hand wasn’t on a controller, it was down my boxers. I’ll admit that these were not the actions of a tactful man, a man of discretion, or of a man of impeccable tastes, either way I’d play the part. I’d be the shut-in as long as it meant Mom would leave me the house all Saturday afternoon and return with the snacks of my choice.
Body spray clouds mixed with the shower steam, making the bathroom’s atmosphere dense and fragrant. I had no intentions of leaving the house; I’d gotten wrapped up in the getting-ready-ritual. Odds were, Kyle and Jeff wouldn’t be able to hang out until later in the evening anyway—them with their stupid mall jobs. I could have a mall job, too, if I had a car. Mom didn’t have the money to cover a new insurance policy for a teen driver let alone the savings for a car. If I was really honest with myself, I wasn’t ready to drive.
My parents fought a lot in the car, I think mom like having dad in a way where she couldn’t storm out. When I was a kid, we were coming back from dinner with my grandparents and things got nasty between the two. Dad changed lanes without looking and almost side swiped a motorcycle. He overcorrected the wheel and we drove into a ditch. It took hours for a tow truck to show up. We stayed in a nearby motel that night while the car was taken to a shop. The bathroom had little roaches and smelled like meldew. The mirror light hummed, my bathroom light didn’t hum and it definately didnt have bugs. I wanted to go home. Mom and dad hardly spoke that night. I didn’t sleep that nigh. I layed on the sofa and stared at the ceiling suspiouc of every speck, watching to see when they’d move. I could wait a little longer to drive.
Folded clothes rested in a pile next to the tub. I debated getting fully dressed and decided that the towel around my waist was enough coverings for the time being; it was definitely freeing with a nice updraft from the floor vents. A sudden strike of embarrassment hit me like a lightning bolt. What are you doing? Who does that, seriously, standing over a vent with your junk all out? I shook the voices from my mind. I was alone, no one was here, no one was judging. Besides, I wasn’t doing anything.
I sat on my bed and looked to my laptop on the floor with longing eyes. No, I’d wait a bit. Couldn’t seem too anxious. Besides, Mom had just left, and she could swing back around if she’d forgotten something.
Next to my dresser, my left-handed Gibson sat aching to be played. My hands needed something to occupy them. With no one to yell “turn it down,” I could play as loud as I wanted. C.G.D. I strummed and picked my way through the foundation of what could be a song. You’re kind of getting better. You’re not good, nor ever will be great. You don’t have the time or smarts to ever actually get great. You just play the guitar to hide how big of a loser you are. You think if you could get onstage, people would just fawn over you. They fawn over talent, not pieces of shit with who only know four chords. A popped string signaled the end of my practice.
I put the guitar back on the stand and stared at myself in the mirror above my dresser, first focusing into my eyes and then trying to look past them. I tried to escape my body by repeating the mantra, “This is who you are, this is who you will always be, this is who you ever were, this is who you are”. A tingling sensation rose up my back, a wave of calmness overtaking me and drowning out the voices. I would have not described this feeling as good or bad—more like complete neutrality. This ritual helped me center myself and shed the negativity from my head. The voices pushed further back in my mind with every breath. I contemplated the large concepts like the oceans, or the universe, or rock beds. My entire life was a mere blip in their stories. No matter how burdensome my problems, the tides continued to come in and go out like they had for millennia.
The voices had begun when I was about eleven years old. I called them voices, but it was really my own inner monologue with more of an edge. The thoughts had become louder and more demeaning in the last couple of years. My mirror mantra was a lot more helpful when I was younger. Every year it took more concentration and more time to achieve the trance, the quiet. I’d never told anyone about this method of mine, not even Mom or Dad. Full admission of this very private practice would have been sure to give the voices a field day of doubt. If I received my father’s trademark frustrated shortness or Mom’s cunning conversation redirection, I would probably sink back gut-first into where I was most vulnerable.
Once I was completely levelheaded again, I collapsed on my unkempt bed. I lied spread out with my arms and legs to make sheet angels. The stretching and ownership felt amazing. I loved my bed—it was the only real thing I felt like was truly mine. Obviously, I didn’t buy it, but nights of sleeping and days of lounging had crafted it into my perfect safe haven. It was an island separating me from the bullshit of the outside world.
Feeling much better, I mustered up the energy to grab my computer, and let’s just say I started to feel much better physically. It’s important to love yourself, right? I lied back, breathing at a comfortably fast pace. I could have melted into the mattress if only it would let me. I felt warm and out-of-control, the way you feel when you stop fighting the ocean and just let the waves carry you. I closed the laptop and tossed it back onto the floor without any concern for its wellbeing.
Bennie started barking downstairs. He barked all the time, so there was no reason to jump to my feet with alarm. I’d take him out in a minute and fulfill my duties as instructed. I just wanted to lie there a minute longer.
My fingertips wandering aimlessly back-and-forth between my chest and stomach. Waves of relaxation radiated throughout my body with every pass. With a turn of my wrist, the smooth path of my index finger was interrupted by a pronounced peak. Without looking, I attempted to pick the teardrop-sized area with my nail. Dried skin, food crumb, some crust, whatever it was. The patch did not pick clean, and it remained. I lifted my hand to reveal a circle of irritated pink circle that highlighted a centimeter-long bit of pale flesh that protruded from the side of my stomach. I had never had a skin tag, but I had seen plenty on other people over the years be able to identify one.
Why now? Why here on my stomach? I rolled the pad of my index finger over the area, exploring it more thoroughly. It felt firm, much denser than I’d expected from a skin tag. This new feature on my body deserved a closer inspection. My toes curled around the fibers of the carpet, my curiosity only heightened from the view on the edge of the bed. I got up and pushed in the drawers to my poorly organized dresser. I leaned in, practically pushing my torso to the mirror. From this angle, the tag looked actually longer. I saddled the nub with my thumb and index finger and felt the hard bit. I threw my whole body back in shock. It felt as if the disgusting little white bump twitched.
Bennie’s ear-shattering barks grew louder and more frequent.
“Fine, I’m going!” I yelled.
Back in the bathroom, I finally got dressed and gave my new “little buddy” another quick look-see in the mirror. Bennie barked and scratched at the front door as if he were a prisoner determined to claw his way to the freedom of sweet grassy relief.
“Chill out, Bennie, I’m coming. Damn,” I said, grabbing the leash from the end of the banister. I opened the door for our family captive and led him to the backyard. The dog had no interest in the front yard, much preferring the back. Maybe it was the scent of other animals or the noises cars made when driving by. I don’t claim to understand the mindset of an elderly basset hound, and I could not have told you what made one patch of grass more appealing than the other. I only wished that he would hurry up—this abnormality on my torso was really starting make me nervous.
My free hand would not stop rubbing the protrusion through my shirt, as if I would push it back down by toying with the thing. The skin tag had sprung out of nowhere. I hadn’t noticed it in the shower, and it stood to reason that it could leave as easily. Maybe I could put something on it like calamine lotion. That’ll help dry out the skin, which works great on zits. On second thought, it’s more like a huge wart. The Freeze Away stuff—I could freeze the damn thing off! My finger circled around the bump of my shirt. I contemplated discreet home remedies. If I have to cut it off, I’d better do it now before Mom gets home. There will probably be blood all over the bathroom, and I really don’t want to have to explain this whole thing. She’d probably overreact and call a doctor. It’s really not that big of a—
“Hey, Corey! How’s it going?” My eyes shot up from the ground to Rachel, the girl from a few houses down. She had called down to me from the sidewalk that overlooked our backyard. I dove my hands into my pocket as fast as sprung mouse traps. I didn’t to draw more attention to the would-be conversation piece lurking under my Strokes tee shirt.
“Oh, hey, what’s up Rachel? Running?” I asked. The tall, fit neighbor girl was wearing tight athletic clothing with just enough sweat that she glistened. Of course she is running, you asshole. Bennie, better hurry up, or your wart thing will poke her eye out, you moron. Slight tugging pulled on my stomach; luckily, my shirt was baggy enough to conceal the movement. Casually, I moved my hand to hip so I could stretch my fingers over the twitching deformity. Her eyes started to drop, following the path of my hand.
“Good deal. Must be quite the workout,” I spat with an over-excitable tone. Her attention refocused on my eyes. She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead and seeing her in this unusual fashion made me smile. I always held Rachel on a pedestal—especially at school, I enjoyed what little time she allotted me between classes or at lunch. My mind started to wander to a pleasant place as we spoke.
“Yeah, three miles today. Softball tryouts start in a couple of weeks,” Rachel said. Swiftly, she tossed back a strand of damp hair that was stuck to her shoulder, looking strong yet soft. Her skin was naturally tan and smooth, kissable, bite-worthy.
Bennie started to squat. DAMMIT!
“That’s cool, you look really hot-I mean because it’s hot outside and—yeah, you’re looking great. I gotta deal with—” Bennie shuffled his paws in the grass signaling he was finished.
“Oh, yeah, no, totally. See you around,” she said, and just like that, she galloped away over the paved hill and back towards her house. I watched her leave and longed to follow. I would so much rather have followed that woman to wherever she was heading than stay here and deal with Bennie’s mess. I pulled out a black plastic doggy bag, perfectly sized for me to wear like a glove. I bent down to scoop the dog shit into the bag. This crouched position pushed the tip of the skin tag to poke a higher portion of my torso, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’m still here. I won’t leave you.”
Bennie and I returned inside the house with a soft slam of the door. Quickly, I unleashed the dog, threw some kibble in his bowl, and lunged up the stairs back into the bathroom. Pulling my shirt up, I could see the tag thing was actually longer, a half-inch or so. I could actually pinch it with my fingers and pull a bit. Being an avid nail-biter, it was difficult to hold on tightly, so I searched the cabinet for my tweezers. These bad boys were perfect for pulling the most stubborn of rogue hairs, they would do the job nicely. I was sure of it.
I took a half-beat to analyze the situation, and decided I could at least throw some isopropyl alcohol on it before attempting exaction. Once the tweezers and I were all alcoholed-up, it was time to operate.
At first, I sat on the lid of the toilet so that I could really get a tight grip with the tweezers. I lined the bugger up perfectly between the prongs and slowly started to clamp. The appendage swept loose from the hold.
“What the hell?” I said. I blinked a couple of times to make sure my vision wasn’t askew, then got back to it. Faster and more forceful on the clamp, I pinned the growth and started to pull. The thing twitched again, only this time I was quick enough to recapture it. The pointed prong sliced a bit of the skin.
With my free hand, I inspected the liquid that secreted—it was pale gray and thick like turkey gravy. I don’t know what possessed me, but I raised the liquid sample to my nose. It smelled like purified swamp water and bile. My stomach swirled with nausea and disgust.
“Oh, Jesus, what the fuck is this thing?” I yelled out. If I wasn’t entirely panicked before, I sure as hell was now. I poked the tag again and realized something was not right, I couldn’t feel the tweezers. That gray stuff didn’t come from my body. Something wasn’t on me, it was in me!
Fear and anger overtook me, I gritted my teeth and started to pry the wiggling white skin bit. I drooled from pain and determination. The skin around the thing tore as I yanked, my own blood started to run down my stomach and leg covering my hands in the process. The tweezers were starting to lose their hold, slipping off the squirming blood and gray-covered parasite. My eyes smashed closed with a final horrendous tug and slip of my hand.
I collapsed on the floor, breathing through the intense pain and blood loss. I looked down to see it, my heartbeat racing as it pulsed inside my wound like a giant disgusting flatworm. It was a good inch-and-a-half out. There were blue veins running all under its pale, transparent skin. I lied there gritting my teeth, moaning and sliding on the slippery tile floor. I surprised myself—given this particular situation, it was not my mom whom I longed for, it was my father’s assistance and comfort, as if he, the account manager for a local bank chain, would have had vast knowledge on how to deal with demonic parasites. Maybe he forgot to mention this was the sadistic last stage of puberty and could reassure me that this was natural and everything was fine.
I had just enough time to grab the towel I had thrown on the floor, wipe the liquids off my hands, and psyche myself up in the mirror. Round two was going to be bare-knuckles. No holds barred.
“This is my body, you little fuck. There is no vacancy,” I said to the worm in my reflection. What are you doing? This thing is going to kill you. You’re going to kill yourself trying to get that thing out. You are so stupid—just go get someone who actually knows what they are doing. “Don’t think, don’t think, don’t—” I wrapped my hand around the parasite as it started to retreat up into my sternum. I alternated my hands as they continued to slide off, like climbing a greased-up rope. Every tug dragged more of the parasite’s body out of my own. Teeth bared like an attacking dog, I slid the tip of my thumb in between the thing and my skin and pulled back to enlarge the hole in my stomach. Don’t go into shock. Don’t pass out. Come on, Corey! Fuck! Fuck! Fuuuu-
I was Arthur and the stone and this was the most disgustingly morbid Excalibur to ever be pulled. With a fury-filled howl I pulled the pus-coated wormy parasite from my gaping wound. A closer examination revealed stringy, atrophied arms with disproportionately large claws lining the veined sausage body. It had two obsidian orbs for eyes that had never seen light until now and a mouth with dozens of sharp little teeth. It let out a chitter hiss of aggression, and I dropped the foul thing to the tile. It bounced and scurried under the shower curtain.
I lied on the floor in a pool of blood, spit, and gravy. My eyes fixed on the curtain, waiting for the creature to have its final attack on its former landlord. I steadied my breathing and readied myself for a counter. The curtain shuddered. My mind was blade-sharp.
The bathroom door swung open and my mom stood in the frame.
“Oh my god, Corey!” she screamed with a terror only a mother could afford for her child. Using its serpentine body and claws, the parasite dashed out of the bathroom between Mom’s feet.
“What did you do to yourself, my poor baby boy,” Mom said as she rushed to lift and hold me. No words came—too much blood had been spilt at that point. I passed out in her arms.
I awoke on a stretcher. Men and women plugged various tubes into me as they attempted to keep me conscious. Mom was frantic and pale as she stared into my half-open eyes. I looked around to see if I could find the thing. Did she see it? Had anyone found the parasite? Where was it?
Bennie was off in the corner away from all the chaos. No one paid him any mind as he entertained himself by chewing on what appeared to be a new toy Mom must’ve brought home. No, it looked more like a rawhide, all white, organic, and chewed. He was really going to town on whatever he had.
The doctors patched me up well and ran a bunch of X-rays to make sure I hadn’t damaged anything internal. Anxious and fearful, the tests would show more signs of complications due to the parasite, so I listened to the rundown. The doctor assured my mom, my dad, and me that there were no major lacerations to my organs, and that most of the wounds were external.
My parents sat with me in the hospital and tried to console me. I tried to explain that I’d had a skin tag and had simply been trying to remove it. Could they ever possibly believe there was some nightmarish parasite growing inside their son? I didn’t think so—at least not now, not in the heat of the moment. I had to put together some logical explanation for my actions. Unfortunately, they did not buy it at all. They believed, partly due to the conclusions reached by the hospital counselor that had met with me, that this was clearly a lashing-out, self-harming episode for attention. At most, a possible suicide attempt.
“With tweezers? Honestly, Mom and Dad, I wasn’t trying to kill myself with tweezers! Who does that? I swear, it was a skin tag that just got out of hand,” I pleaded for my sanity. Look, I knew I’d been through a lot recently, but this was real. This happened.
I was under suicidal prevention observation for the rest of my stint in the hospital. The only alone time I got was using the bathroom, and even then, someone waited to plop me back into bed. Above the sink was a six-inch mirror. This is so demeaning. I just want to be left alone, is that so much to ask? I’ll get through this. It’s all just a moment in time, I’ll be home soon. I breathed and enjoyed the cramped little solitude.
My next non-familial visitor was a much-welcomed surprise. Rachel had witnessed the emergency response vehicles outside the house. She was sweet to swing by the hospital and keep me company. I told her the same bullshit story I’d fed my parents, at the risk of seeming like a lame idiot, which was better than a would-be suicidal case with an affinity for tweezers.
Within weeks, things started to look up. I was home healing, and Mom and I spent more time together just talking. It was actually really nice. Bennie was still a dog, nothing too unusual there. Rachel and I even started to hang out more together. We were up in my bedroom, with the door cracked as per the house rules, and I was showing her a new riff I had strummed up. I guess she was impressed because we took to making out fairly quickly after that. This was a position I’d never believed I would be in, and you know what? I really loved it. I started to feel her hand creep up under my shirt. Her fingers were gliding across my skin when her face twisted in alarm.
“What IS that?” she asked, her hand stroking my stomach.
My face went ghostly, I felt the bottom fall out of my confidence. I started to pull up my shirt over my navel.
“Oh that, yeah that’s just the stitches from the hospital. They come out in a couple of days,” I said with a sigh of relief.
“Oh, that’s good. They look kind of gross and painful. Sorry,” Rachel said.
“They do and they are. It’s all good,” I said.
“Well, on the bright side, you’ll have a pretty badass scar!”
“Scars are cool?”
“Scars are very cool,” she said, and dove in to resume our makeout session with renewed energy.
I moved in on her shoulder, kissing that soft, tan skin, and glided my own hand up her stomach.
My eyes shut tight as I enjoyed the warm smoothness against my lips. However, this was not the same feeling my hand was experiencing. Her stomach felt like a tablet of animated fleshy braille. I jerked away from her shoulder with what must have been a confused expression.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Without waiting for permission, I lifted the bottom of her tank top and to my horror I saw a field of the skin tag-looking protrusions covering her stomach. They all expanded and contracted with their own independent rhythms.
“Corey, what is it?”
I had no words. I could only stare with unfiltered fear in my eyes.
“Corey, you’re starting to scare me.”