She’s left her hair curler burning on the bathroom counter again, and this time, when I stumble in in the dark and rest my hand on the counter while I’m peeing, I wrap my palm around the searing metal. I’m holding it there for a second before I realize what’s happening; it’s long enough for the skin to singe and the pain to travel up the long nerves and into my brain, enough time for me to say something like Yeeeeeeoooooooooow before I yank my arm back and the curler clatters on the tile.
Why was she curling her hair, anyway?
It’s immediately obvious that I’m going to lose that skin. It’s pale and papery where I grabbed the iron, an inch and a half of cooked epidermis in the center of my palm. I pick at it with my fingernail; the skin peels away like cellophane off a piece of meat. Underneath, the new skin is white and slick. Not ready for the sun.
She curls her hair when she wants to look pretty. Curls the ends, inward, a wave in toward her neck.
In the shower the rest of the skin comes off under the washcloth. It splats lightly on the tile and crinkles and drifts in the water, disappears down the drain. The bare skin on my hand stings under the water, ten thousand sunburns compressed into something the size of the cap of a pen. The new skin is pure, glowing and moon-colored, surrounded by tan and roughness. It’s a part of my body I’m not supposed to see. I force myself to stop staring.
Dried off and back in the medicine cabinet, searching for Band-aids. There’s some on the top shelf, behind the sunscreen. They’re Scooby Doo brand. I cover the burn up with a blue bandage with Velma on it.
I read in bed until Kitty comes home. It’s 3:15 in the morning when I hear the door open and close. She clomps across the floor in the other room. She’s trying to be quiet but she’s still loud; she’s wearing her high heels. She pokes her head in the door.
“I didn’t know you were still awake,” she says.
She’s wearing deep red lipstick. It’s too dark for her fair skin. It’s almost as red as her hair. Her hair is curled in toward her neck.
“Was just waiting up on you,” I say.
“You shouldn’t have.” She disappears, more clomping.
I put my book in the drawer beside the bed. “I was starting to get worried.”
“I was just at the library,” she calls from the kitchen. The refrigerator opens and its cold electrical sound fills the room. “I told you that. I was studying.” She comes back into the bedroom and kicks her shoes off in the corner. She’s quiet now that she’s barefoot. She pads into the bathroom.
The library’s not open this late.
“Library closes at one,” I say. “I was getting worried.”
“They were open late for exams.”
“Did you cut yourself?” she says. She stands in the doorway of the bathroom with the Scooby Doo box in her hand.
“Burn,” I say. I turn the light off and roll up in the covers. “From your curler.”
“Oh, baby,” she says. She climbs onto the bed. “I left it on again?”
“I’m so sorry. Let me see.”
I pull my hand out from under the covers and hold it out at her. She pulls the fingers open like the tendrils of an anemone; she kisses the Band-aid. Her lips feel like wet marshmallows. “Better?” she says.
She goes back into the bathroom and runs the water for a bit. She brushes her teeth. Washes off her makeup. She puts on one of my t-shirts and climbs into bed with me. We say goodnight. We’re silent for ten minutes. Then she gets up.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to call my sister,” she says. She’s pulling on a pair of shorts. “I forgot I told her I’d call her.”
Her sister works early. She won’t be up this late.
She pulls her cell phone from her purse and slips on her sandals and goes outside. She doesn’t come back for an hour and a half.
· · ·
In the morning I tear the Band-aid off slowly. It takes a bunch of dead skin with it. The burn looks worse than the night before. It’s turned scabby, but not a hard, healing scab—everything is still wet and gross. The bright white is covered in crusty browns and squishy reds. It looks like chopped-up bacon. It looks bigger than it did last night.
It just looks bigger because of the scabbing.
I put a new Band-aid on it. In this one, Shaggy and Scooby are running from a bed-sheet ghost. I wrap my hand in a strip of white medical tape to keep the Band-aid in place.
Kitty is still in bed while I get dressed. She’s breathing loud and raspy, something just below a snore. Her mouth is slightly open, slightly smiling.
At work, the boss wanders by my desk around the same time every morning. “Cute Band-aid,” he says today. “Are you ten years old?”
“It’s all we had,” I say.
“What did you do?”
“Burned myself. Kitty left the curling iron on.”
“What a bitch.”
There’s brown around the edges of the Band-aid by the end of the day. When I pull it off, the burn is wider, longer, deeper. It takes two Band-aids to cover it.
It just looks bigger because it’s healing.
Kitty comes home after three again. I’m on the couch when she opens the door. She doesn’t have her books with her.
“I was studying online,” she says.
· · ·
In the morning the Band-aids have fallen off because the skin they were stuck to is gone. I close the door to the bathroom and turn on the lights. The fluorescents hum. The incandescents burn yellow. The wound takes up most of the inside of my hand, stretching out over and around the fingertips, up in a shock of red on my wrist and forearm.
The edges are red and raw. The skin is grainy and a million shades of rust.
The burn is long and deep now, a hole in my arm. It’s like someone scooped me out with a melon baller. At the center of the burn, at the deepest point in the middle of my palm, there’s something smooth and hard and red. I wipe the red away; it’s shiny white underneath. Polished bone.
I’ve lost a couple of fingernails. My feet are itchy.
I wrap everything up in gauze and get into the shower. I try to keep my arm dry. Wash with one hand.
There’s a trickle of blood running to the drain.
It’s bleeding now. Shit.
The gauze is still pure white. No blood. The blood on the tile is a burning red streamer from the drain to my foot. There’s something in the drain, some flesh-colored nub.
That’s not my toe. That’s not my fucking toe.
I get down on one knee and pull it out of the drain. It’s my little toe.
In the next room, Kitty is talking in her sleep.
· · ·
The boss stares at me. He wrings his hands.
Just let me do my job.
“You okay?” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Why?”
“You just look kind of, you know, sickly.” He looks around the office. “You don’t have anything contagious, do you?”
“I just burned myself.”
“But your other arm.”
I look at my left arm. There are two new burns, one near my wrist, the size of a quarter, and another one wrapping its way around my biceps. They start to hurt as soon as I look at them.
“Damn curling irons,” I say.
I smell copper.
He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and hands it to me. I put it to my nose and it comes away red. Blood flows freely, over my lips, onto my shirt.
“I think you should take the rest of the day off,” the boss says.
· · ·
Kitty is going to be waiting for me at the restaurant. It’s date night.
It takes the better part of the afternoon to wrap the burns. The granddaddy burn, the first one, runs from the middle of my palm all the way up and over my shoulder. It’s ragged at the edges. I pick at a piece of skin near my collarbone and give it a tug; it peels off in a long smooth sheet from my right shoulder to my left hip. That wet, bare white skin is under it, a stripe like a sash across my chest. There’s more new burns—one under my left nipple, a crescent shaped one on my stomach, several little ones dotted on the tops of my legs.
And the other toes. The other two that came off in my shoes, at some point.
It takes four rolls of gauze to cover everything up. I’m wrapped head to toe. Good God, like a burn victim.
I wear my winter clothes out to dinner, even though it’s summer. Everything is covered, except for the part on my palm and a stab of red on my neck, a feeler creeping up from the wound across my chest. I keep my fist clenched. Outside, the evening’s covered in that midsummer, late-day sunlight that turns everything gold. I walk to the restaurant. It hurts to walk. My legs don’t fit right in my hips.
She’s at the table, on the phone, laughing into the phone. Her hair isn’t curled. She hangs up when she sees me.
“Why are you wearing that?” she says.
“I didn’t want to sport the Scooby Doo Band-aids at dinner,” I say. “And I like this shirt. You don’t like this shirt?”
“It looks ridiculous.” She looks at her menu. We don’t talk. The waiter takes our orders and leaves.
“How’s the studying going?” I say.
“When are your exams?”
“I have one on Thursday and one on Friday.” She taps her finger on her glass and swirls the water with her straw. She looks around the restaurant, out the window.
“You think you’ll do well?” I say. My back is itching, stinging.
New burns are opening up.
“Where are our salads?” she says.
I’m going to be more scab than skin.
She keeps looking out the window. She takes her phone from her purse and looks at it. She drinks all the water in the glass.
The waiter brings the salads. I pick up my fork and stab a piece of lettuce and my ring finger comes off and lands next to a cherry tomato. Kitty is looking at her plate, mixing the dressing with the vegetables.
Tell her it’s an anchovy. Tell her it’s a big crouton.
She doesn’t see. I put the finger in my pocket. She looks up and I smile at her. She goes back to eating.
Her phone rings. “Be right back,” she says. She goes outside with the phone.
My teeth feel loose. I can wiggle each one of them with my tongue.
My tongue is loose, too.
She comes back in and stands by the table. “I have to go,” she says. I nod. “Just stay up tonight. I won’t be home too late.” She looks around the room. Bites her lip. “We need to have a talk.”
I give her a four-fingered wave, but she’s already gone.
· · ·
The sun is going down when I get home. I sit on the couch and watch the square of liquid-orange sunlight slide across the floor and up the wall. It’s getting dark, so I get up to flip the switch by the door and turn on the light. I take a step and my right foot stays behind, sitting all alone where I left it. So I hop to the light switch and back on my left foot and collapse back into the couch. I turn on the TV.
I’m coming apart.
My lost foot is collapsing in on itself. It’s falling into the shoe. Like a sandcastle in the rising tide. It’s a lump, now it’s just brownish grainy stuff on the inside of the shoe. I pick up the shoe. It’s empty.
I try to pick up the remote, but my hand breaks off at the wrist. There’s no pain, just a short cracking sound, and some dust that rises and drifts through the waning sunlight and vanishes. The gauze slowly unravels, falls like ticker-tape to the floor. I can’t even turn my head to look at what’s underneath. I swallow my teeth, one at the time.
Then the room jolts, jars, tilts forward, bounces and spins. I see the couch and my shoes and the bottom of the coffee table, then the floor, then the couch again, and the room rolls by, then slows, rocks, and is still. I’m under the TV stand. It doesn’t make sense. I can’t fit under the TV stand.
My eyes can fit under the TV stand.
From where my eyes end up I can see my body on the couch. My legs are unmaking themselves from the ankles up, the skin and sinew and bone trickling like sand through the cracks in the floor. My body is still and hollow. My mouth and my eye sockets are dark holes in my head.
And Kitty was right. That shirt looks ridiculous.
The floor is dirty, dusty. It’s easy to see that from here. I watch as my pants flatten and collapse while the legs drift away; my watch tinks on the floor when the wrist goes. My head tilts further and further forward until it comes loose and lands in my lap, then melts into the folds of the couch cushions.
After a while there’s nothing on the couch but clothes.
Nothing happens for a long time.
Then Kitty comes home. She’s on the phone. “Yeah, I’m here now. I’m going to tell him,” she says. She hangs up. She calls my name. Walks from room to room.
I try to get her attention.
She pauses in the bedroom. She dials her phone, puts it to her ear, taps her foot. “He’s not here,” she says. She comes into the living room and stands right in front of the TV stand. Her feet are too big for her high heels. “No, no. I’m not waiting on him. I don’t know where he is. He left his shit all over the couch.”
She walks back to the door. I try to wink, blink, or bat my eyelashes, squint or roll or cross my eyes or anything to get her attention, but eyes don’t do much when they’re not in your head. So I stare daggers, I burn cold holes into the side of her head.
She always loved my eyes.
“Fuck it,” she says into the phone. “No. You don’t need to come over here. I’m taking my stuff. He’ll figure it out.” She hangs up the phone and puts it in her purse. She clomps around the house, taking pictures off the shelves, CDs off the rack, putting them all in her purse. It’s a big purse. She goes into the other room and shuffles through the drawers. Then she’s back in the living room. I want her to see me so bad.
She loved my eyes. Said they looked like the big sky in Colorado. Like clean swimming pools.
Kitty looks around the room; her eyes fall on the shirt on the couch. It’s moving, twitching. She picks it up and reaches her hand inside. I can feel her on me, electric and cold and firm. She throws the shirt away and holds my heart in her hand. From under the TV stand, the heart looks small and sad, like something you pull out of a turkey before you cook it. She holds it to the light and looks at it, hefts it like she’s checking out tomatoes at the supermarket. It beats its weak beat in her grip. She opens her purse and puts it inside. Then she walks out the door and flips off the light.
The room is dark. I feel my pupils dilating. They get wider, the blackness spreading like an ink spill across the blue of the iris. The black crosses the borders of the cornea and spreads over the white; my eyes darken until there’s nothing left but black, black like nighttime on the bottom of the ocean, like a hole cut in the far side of outer space.
Brock Adams received his MFA from the University of Central Florida in 2008 and is currently an Instructor of English at USC Upstate in Spartanburg, SC. He received second prize in Playboy’s College Fiction Contest 2008, and his fiction has been published in Eureka Literary Magazine, Barrelhouse Online, and Cafe Irreal, among many others.