Scampering on all fours, the deformed arch of his spine protrudes through his flesh, the flex and buckle of his bones twisting him painfully. Night has fallen but he can’t sleep or stop for long. They are hunting him, getting closer, the more they track him the more they learn about him. He keeps his mutating body shrouded, only in the most quiet and private moments can he bare to look at himself. He scuttles under his damp blanket through the dense shrub of the city foothills.
The worst thing is the hunger. A perpetual, insatiable hunger that festers within his empty gut and grates against his bones. A hunger he has only begun to understand. The last time he was inside a supermarket his desire for human food had almost diminished completely. He roamed the aisles, restless, agitated, trying to find something that looked appetizing. He dragged dirty fingertips along rows of tins and jars, everything was pickled in salt and sugar. He stared blankly at cuts of flesh packaged neatly in little trays. He stuck his nose into piles of fruit and vegetables, sniffing deeply, fascinated by the smell of pesticide and wax. Everything on display was rotten; toxic. How can people eat this shit? he thought to himself but he must have spoken out loud, a woman standing nearby gave him a sharp stare and stormed off. He scuttled over to the bakery section where he fondled the bread. He crushed a loaf in his hands, his fingers easily popping the crust and sinking into soft, white pulp. He longed to crush something alive, something with a still beating heart. The store security guard appeared, strolling up to him casually. Crossing his arms over his bulging chest, the guard said, “I’ll have to ask you to leave now, sir.”
What is his name, what did they used to call him? He lifts his sleeve. The scar says ‘BEN’. He cut it into his flesh himself, clumsily, with a razor blade. They have taken away almost everything but he won’t let them take his name.
“Ben,” he mumbles to himself “Ben, Ben, Ben…”
It becomes a dangerous chant and he covers his mouth to make it stop. He must not let them hear him. He stops under low-lying branches, his stomach in painful spasms; he’s shivering. It has begun to rain softly. He picks up the waft of a familiar smell and he freezes, perfectly still, as the scent invades his flaring nostrils. Something to eat, something delicious, but he is too tired to move, to hunt, he needs rest. His eyes are so heavy, burning with exhaustion. Sleep circles him.
Rarely does he sleep, he knows better by now. When he does nod off, even for a few moments, the dream comes and it is always the same.
They are sitting side by side on the roof of a high-rise, their feet dangling over the edge. He is clean-shaven and dressed in a suit; his polished black shoes gleam. “Remember the lights in the sky?” asks the little boy next to him. He turns to glance at the boy but never sees his face, he is startled by the sound of smashing glass. He looks down to see the windows below him shatter one by one. Huge jagged shards begin sailing down to earth. Then the windows blow out in the surrounding buildings. He is watching a sea of falling splinters, glittering in the sunlight. The buildings begin to crumble, folding in on themselves and rushing toward the ground. Far below the people look like insects, disturbed from their ordered paths, they scatter chaotically. The little boy is laughing hysterically. The building they are sitting on begins to tremble.
He wakes sweating and dizzy with nausea; he vomits. He checks his scar to make sure he is really awake, ‘BEN’. The scar is the only thing he can be certain of, the only thing he can trust.
He was already a wasted man when the change began; who would listen to him, who would help him? Just another homeless drunk sleeping under the bridge, paranoid and hallucinating. That’s why they chose him. A flourish between his toes, skin dying and turning white, flaking off in patches. He didn’t pay it much attention at first, his body bore many scabs and wounds from living on the street. It spread quickly, crawling up his leg. It sprouted between his fingers, flowered along his arms. He scratched and clawed at the infuriating itch. A new skin was revealing itself as the old was shed. A smooth, slippery skin of tightly laced brown scales. Terrifying to look at and even more terrifying was the thought, the distinct feeling, that what was emerging was his true self; his real body. There is constant pain in his joints as his bones squeeze and knit themselves into new shapes, his feet and hands are now mangled claws.
Maybe it began long before these physical changes. He has vague recollections of his past, not that he can rely on the past, anyway. His drinking habit got worse; he began stumbling into work until they told him not to come back. His marriage collapsed; he didn’t fare well in the divorce. He ended up homeless with a box of useless stuff his wife left him: a hair dryer, a blender, a crystal vase, a few books. He pawned it all, enough for a room for a few nights and a bottle of bourbon.
There are a couple of earlier memories he toys with for comfort: looking up from his book in maths class, a girl across the room turns to him and smiles shyly, her blonde hair shining; playing football with his brother in the park, the ball sailing fast and hard into his face; tucking a comic book into his jacket and making a swift exit, the bell ringing as he slips out the door. Through out it all, they were always there, sinister figures looming at the foot of his bed. He caught glimpses of them in those moments between sleep and waking. He remembers only what they want him to remember, he is aware of that, and it may not be the truth. Does he even have a brother? Stop thinking, he commands himself, keep moving. He stares at the name carved into his skin.
The delicious smell is coming closer. A dog wanders past, sniffing the ground. It spots him and lowers its head, growling. Without hesitation, he leaps the distance between them with ease and pins it to the ground. The dog lashes and snarls as it snaps at him; the battle is exhilarating. They toss in the rain, two desperate beasts. The dog lunges, sinking its teeth into his thigh. He pulls its jaw free then snaps its neck with a dull click. He is too hungry to waste any more time.
He bites at the dog’s stomach, spitting out mouthfuls of coarse fur. When finally he breaks the skin, he tears the body open with his hands. He scoops up the entrails, eating madly. He cracks the ribcage, chews on rubbery lungs, sucks the small heart still hot with life. Finally his hunger begins to subside. Panting, he crouches over the gutted dog; his face dripping gore. The dog’s blood is sweet and thick and he begins to fantasize about the taste of human blood. He clasps his claws to his face, revolted. He may be capable of anything, he doesn’t know what he will be compelled to do next.
As if to salvage some inkling of humanity, he decides he must bury the dog’s body and he begins to dig frantically in the mud. He manages a shallow pit and pushes the carcass into it. Something on the ground shines and flickers in the dim light, catching his eye. He stares at it suspiciously before he decides to pick it up. It is a round, smooth metal blank; cold between his fingertips as he wipes it clean. The tag from the dog’s collar. There is something etched on it and his heart begins to race as he holds it up. He knows what it will say. There in fine, elegant letters ‘BEN’. He wants to laugh, he wants to shriek. He emits nothing but a dry, lifeless chuckle. Clutching the tag with both hands and curling beside the remains of the dog, he begins to cry softly.
~ Magenta Nero
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