by Noel Osualdini
“Psoriasis,” said the doctor, with a conclusiveness that surprised her. “Skin cells being replaced faster than they’re being lost. It’s a common problem, and nothing to worry about.”
Lying on the examination table, her jeans unzipped and her shirt rucked up under her breasts, Alison had flinched every time the old man prodded one of those red spots on her abdomen. When he leant close to her face, she could smell his fetid breath. Was that the smell of cigarettes? She wondered whether he smoked tailor-made or roll-your-owns. Her father had preferred rollies, until he was diagnosed with cancer. Nigel, her husband, had given up smoking last year, less for his health than because nobody else in the mine smoked any more.
But doctors should know better.
The old man adjusted his glasses, tottered to his desk and drew a magnifying glass from a drawer. To Alison’s great relief, he seemed to rethink it on his way back, and returned it to its resting place.
He motioned that he’d finished. She sat up, tugging down her shirt and buttoning her jeans again before swinging her legs over the edge of the examination table. Over the past couple of days, she’d noticed the odd, reddish spots on her skin: one under the arm, a couple on her lower abdomen.
“Psoriasis,” he repeated, taking a seat behind his desk and drawing his prescription pad to him.
“Suh-RYE-uh-suss,” Alison mumbled to herself. Now she knew it had a name.
“It may get a little itchy at times. Annoying, and not pretty to look at, but not life threatening. I can give you something that might help.”
She took the prescription for an ointment, and had it filled at her local pharmacy.
At home, she unscrewed the jar and took a sniff, and decided that she’d apply it in the mornings so Nigel wouldn’t smell it on her in bed. That night, she didn’t mention she’d seen the specialist, didn’t mention a diagnosis or a cream, and her husband didn’t seem to notice the red marks when they made love in the dull light of a bedside lamp. It’d been a few weeks since they’d bothered, especially with the summer heat beating through the house.
On Thursday, passing the full-length hall mirror naked as she walked, still a little damp, from bathroom to bedroom, she noticed those spots again. The ones low on her abdomen seemed to have spread slightly, growing towards each other as though reaching out to friends. They’d changed from spots to ragged-edged blotches. She recalled she’d forgotten to apply the ointment the morning before, and sitting on the edge of the bed she found a new reddish mark on the inside of her left arm, just below the elbow.
She touched it with the tip of a finger. The area felt slightly warmer than the rest of her skin. She pressed down harder, until it hurt. When she released the pressure and took her finger away, she found the flesh had gone a blanched, bloodless white compared to the surrounding skin. As blood returned, the skin resumed its normal, healthy shade. Slowly, like something emerging from the dark, that reddish blotch reappeared. She imagined she could see it pulsing slightly with the returning blood, before she dabbed the cold, yellow cream onto it and rubbed it in with a forefinger.
“I’m going to kill you,” she addressed it. She had only a vague idea of what psoriasis was, but whatever it was supposed to be, it wasn’t going to be a part of her life.
Their son came over that night with his wife and their new baby. Just out of the hospital in the city a couple of days, the boy was a pinkish little thing, unexpectedly long and thin when Emma undressed him for his bath. Alison felt that same sudden, overwhelming sense of love that she’d experienced when she’d first held her own newborn son, twenty three years before. She pressed her lips to the baby’s belly and blew a raspberry.
“Oh, you’re so beautiful I could just eat you up,” she said, but the baby burst into sudden tears.
“I’ll take him,” said Emma, and they both laughed at the young boy’s distress.
Afterwards, Alison rolled out the parts of a jacket she’d been crocheting for the baby, indicating the sleeves and the lapels and how she’d have to sew them all together.
“Oh, Alison, that’s going to be gorgeous,” said Emma, throwing her arms around the older woman.
Too soon, they had to go home, taking the baby with them. It left Alison feeling oddly empty, until Nigel took her by the hand and led her to the bedroom.
A few days later, there were more of them: more of those spots she’d discussed with the skin specialist. They formed a little archipelago that began with a couple of marks just below her ribs and followed a rough course over her flat belly, around her navel, and down to those growing blotches at the edge of her pubic patch. She carefully explored further, and as she sifted through the thatch of hair she found––yes, there! and there! Nigel would surely notice the spots on her abdomen, might explore further––in their younger days, she’d welcomed his inquisitiveness––and what would he say? Would he want to continue making love to a woman who had something wrong with her skin? Would he be concerned he might contract it from her, like herpes? The doctor had told her that was not possible, but she wondered whether she should start stockpiling condoms.
That night, she wore a cotton nightdress and insisted on the lights being off before he started fumbling his way under the hem.
It was in her ear! She noticed a red blotch in the mirror while brushing her hair. She dabbed some ointment onto it, rubbed it in, and decided she’d be wearing her hair over her ears from now on, instead of behind them.
Nigel seemed to notice the change in her hairstyle as soon as he walked into the house that afternoon, but when he reached out to sweep it back and draw her in for a kiss, she flinched away.
In the morning light, she rolled over to face his snoring back, and noticed a small red blotch on his shoulder. For a moment, she was terrified that she’d passed on her problem to him. But no, the doctor had explained that you can’t contract psoriasis from another person any more than you can catch their eye color. So it must be something else: something to do with the mine, perhaps?
She reached over, intending to touch that spot with the lightest of pressures. But as she extended her arm, she felt her fingers curl unintentionally into claws and her lips peel back from her teeth. It was so unexpected, felt so odd that she pulled her hand away without thinking.
She noticed the glowing green figures on the bedside clock, and decided she should let him sleep another hour.
She dressed and got up to crochet, but her restless mind wouldn’t let her concentrate: if you could pass on that skin problem, then everyone she’d touched––her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law, and even her beautiful grandchild––might contract it. And what of the friends she’d greeted with a kiss or a hug? Would they pass it on to their friends and families?
The thought nagged at her for a few days, until she convinced herself she should trust in her doctor’s advice. She tried to work on the jacket for the baby, but after she’d gathered all of its parts on the table, she found she couldn’t manage to get cotton through the needle, and she had to fumble in her sewing kit for the threader.
She woke, and her body was on fire.
Nigel had already left for work, and she was alone in the dark, hot room. Something was crawling across her skin. A million tiny feet, it seemed, were dancing across her body. Her back and arms and legs were itching so badly that she drew blood scratching.
The doctor had warned about an itch, but he hadn’t warned her that she’d want to tear her skin off. She opened a drape to let in some light, but their bedroom was close to the front fence and the street would soon be filled with mothers and children on their way to school, the next shift on their way to the mine.
The sunshine, anyhow, brought in the heat, so she pulled the drapes closed again. Those angry red splotches on her body had, over the course of a few days, become whole patches of tainted flesh. In the heat of the bedroom, they’d flared into a rash that seemed to glow, and even pulse, under her gaze. Tiny welts down one arm and across her chest showed she’d been scratching even in her sleep.
She stripped off in front of the mirror, pulling the nightdress over her head and even dropping her panties, where the problem would have been concealed anyway beneath pubic hair. Her breasts sagged a little. That red blotchiness had spread from the small patch on her lower abdomen, across her flanks and belly, and there were signs of it across her chest. There were patches of reddish skin on what she could see of her buttocks. She cupped a breast in one hand and raised it to reveal––yes, even there! Hiding in the sweaty flesh under her breast was a murkiness of red blotches and small lumps. Along both legs there were streaks of discoloration that burned and itched.
As she watched, the redness along one arm seemed to undulate. At the edges of some of the spots, there seemed to be a tiny movement, and there were tendrils of color stretching from some towards others, as though they were seeking each other.
She couldn’t stop herself from scratching. She unconsciously raised her hand, about to place a contemplative finger against her lips, but as she did she noticed, under her nails, skin that had been grated off. It had an almost liquid look, but she found she couldn’t focus closely enough to see anything more.
She pulled on her nightdress and ran to the junk-filled drawer of her grandmother’s old kitchen stand. Sorting through the mess of cloths and papers and other detritus in there, she found a magnifying glass that her son had left when he’d moved in with Emma.
She sat on a kitchen chair to check one of the marks on her arm, holding the glass too high, lowering it slowly and allowing her eyes to refocus. Below her gaze, something was moving. The edges of the red spot seemed to be ebbing and flowing, a miniature tide lapping at the shores of her healthy, pale skin. She thought of old images she’d seen of amoeba creeping along by extending and withdrawing parts of themselves.
The red spot she’d concentrated on was growing, and pushing out filaments of red that wavered along the edges. She recalled the doctor telling her that psoriasis occurred when new skin cells were added faster than the old cells died off.
But wasn’t that––she thought of her father wheezing, dying, unable even to speak during his last days in hospital––wasn’t that the definition of cancer?
There was a pocket microscope in the drawer, too, something Nigel had bought at a museum outing years before. She pressed one end to the inside of her arm, turning the focus wheel with her thumb. She saw normal whitish-pink skin, an occasional fine hair. She moved the base of the microscope to a flare of redness, and refocused.
She drew in a shocked breath.
There, on the landscape of her skin, she could see a small army of creatures: not insect, but a jumble of something both human and squid-like. Tiny monsters on the surface of her body! They seemed to be exuding something that grew quickly into other individuals. As she watched, fascinated––appalled––one of the creatures tilted its gelatinous head, seeming to look up at her, and sprayed the lens with red gunk that clouded out her view.
She dropped the microscope on the floor, and realized, suddenly, that one of her fingers was twitching uncontrollably.
She called the doctor, and by chance found she’d caught him between clients. His receptionist put her straight through to his desk.
“Body lice?” he suggested. “No, it was obviously psoriasis.”
“But it’s not like that at all,” she protested.
“Alison, I can recognize these things in an instant. I’ve specialized in skin ailments for many years,” he reminded her. “In fact, I’ve recently discovered a patch of it on my own skin. It’s really nothing that I’ll be losing any sleep over.”
Silently she cursed his poor eyesight and wondered how she could have been relieved, weeks before, that he’d allowed her to dress without first checking her with a magnifying glass.
“Many people have this sort of problem,” the doctor continued, his practiced voice meant to be soothing. “Make an appointment for next week and I’ll write you a prescription for something new. Would you like to speak with my receptionist?”
“For God’s sake,” she wailed, “I don’t have a skin problem: I’m being colonized!”
But he’d already transferred the call, and she hung up while she was waiting for the receptionist to answer. As she replaced the receiver, she felt––no, it must be imagination––that her right hand was no longer completely under her control. She had to pry her thumb from where it was curled around the smooth plastic receiver, and wondered whether she was getting arthritis, too.
Over the next few days, she found herself checking every couple of hours. Not only was there something living on her: she discovered there seemed to be two opposing forces, one red and the other a more pale brownish-pink, waging war against each other for the real estate of her skin. Scouting parties would be sent out, forming filaments and networks; individuals were shredded by the enemy, new camps were being set up, some of the groups of spots would combine and encircle other colonies. Where the two armies met, the flesh welled up in nasty lumps. The reds seemed to outnumber the pinks.
And the symptoms had coincided with a numbness in her joints, a lack of responsiveness.
“Bend,” she told her left index finger, and watched it obey in slow motion.
The discoloration of her skin soon became so uniformly reddish that it looked almost as though she’d spent too long standing naked in the sun.
I’ll be glowing in the dark next, she told herself with wry humor.
She was a little relieved, though: anyone looking at her might mistake it for a slight sunburn rather than a rash. Of course, Nigel was the only one likely to see all of her at the same time.
She panicked the first time she realized it had probably reached her face, but it almost matched the sunburn she’d acquired from working in the garden.
Within days, only an occasional patch of whitish flesh showed on her body, and now it was those patches that, in contrast with the rest, seemed wrong. She wondered how long she could hide the problem from Nigel. She called the specialist again, but there was no answer. Brushing her teeth, she noticed a small reddish mark inside her mouth, pulsing like a lighthouse. Was this a new arrival, or a beacon to the soldiers who were fighting on the plateau of her body?
She was too scared to check again with the pocket microscope. She sat on the edge of the bed, spreading her legs to check herself and––yes! Even inside, glowing like a porch light. She imagined never being able to make love with Nigel again. She thought suddenly of her son’s new baby. In her mind’s eye, she saw that wispy blonde hair, the little button nose, those beautiful smiling blue eyes. She saw herself plucking out one those lovely big eyes and letting it roll around on her tongue like an olive.
And recoiled in horror from that uninvited, obnoxious, inexplicable thought.
She imagined herself wanting to hold the baby, and being told: “No, Mum, you’re diseased. Stay away.”
She shook her head at that––no, she couldn’t let that happen. She needed to be with people, with her family, she needed to be able to touch them. To hold them. To merge with them, to meld, to reach out to others.
She tried a hot bath. Very hot. Although it stung, she sat in the steaming water and scrubbed herself all over, the brush leaving streaks across her body and face. In the current drought, the use of water was restricted, and it was an exercise she couldn’t repeat too often. When she checked again with the pocket microscope, she found that most of the bugs had gone, leaving only a film of color.
At three thirteen that afternoon, she checked her face in the mirror and noticed a tiny patch of red swimming across the lens of one eye. Her scream filled the silent house, but it was mid-afternoon and everyone else who lived in the street was either down in the mine or collecting children from the school.
When she checked one Wednesday, Alison found to her relief that the redness on her skin was beginning to fade. Even as she looked at herself, she saw––even felt––the new shade washing over it like an army invading a beach. It occurred to her that maybe the battle between those two groups of––of whatever those things were––was over, or that the pinks had turned the tide against the reds. Anyhow, as it spread over her, the discoloration had become less noticeable. Pinkish brown was such a natural-looking color, she thought. The little patches of white skin that were left were now the anomaly and the annoyance, but they’d be gone soon. It was the pale flesh on the back of one knee, a small patch on her inner thigh, an occasional spot of whitish skin, that looked unhealthy now, so much so that she almost wanted to rend the paleness from the skin of her friends. Nigel hadn’t noticed the change in her––he hadn’t even noticed the spreading color on his own body!
As the days went by, and the rest of her body succumbed, Alison found herself accepting the change. Perhaps those gooey-looking squid creatures had done her a favor.
“I’m in the pink!” she told herself, recalling it was the color of healthy newborns.
How could she ever have feared the transition of her skin from pale to a near-uniform healthy glow?
One night, before sleep eradicated her worries temporarily, she realized with horror that the problem wasn’t just skin deep: it had invaded her mind!
Alison woke one morning feeling better than she had in weeks. Standing naked before the full-length hall mirror, she found her skin had a healthy glow, and that glow covered her from head to toe. There was no blotchiness. She admired the image that looked back at her. Her lips were rosy, her eyes a clear blue, hair glossy, the rest of her skin a uniform pink with the hint of a light tan. Nigel wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her, she was sure.
But now it was time to dress. Her daughter in law would be over later in the day, and Alison would be able to play with the baby for half an hour before her husband and son finished their shifts.
Things were so bright, so wonderful! To think: all she’d had to do, all along, was to accept the change. She no longer itched, and those bugs had gone, leaving only their radiant color. If only the whole world could know. As she thought about all the people she loved, she was overwhelmed with feelings for her little family. She so wanted to squeeze them all: her grandson, her son, her daughter-in-law, her husband. She thought of her neighbors, close friends, and their families.
There were thousands, eventually millions, for her to reach out to, and with that warm glow she was now feeling, there would be no need to cover over what she’d originally thought of as an unhealthy skin condition. In fact, they could all do with a bit of the color she’d acquired. She loved them all so much she could just gobble them up!
Bio: Noel Osualdini is a member of the Australian Horror Writer’s Association, and received honorable mentions in their 2013 competition for his flash fiction story Night Escape (recently published in UK anthology 100 Doors to Madness), and for the current short story, Skin. His story Writer’s Retreat will appear in UK anthology Fear’s Accomplice early in 2014. Noel lives with his partner of 23 years, Joanne, and their four children, southeast of Melbourne.