His morning ritual was endlessly fascinating, involving as it did many different tasks and preparations, intimate touches of the body, puffs of talcum, snail lines of cologne, plucking, scraping. Also there were the less personal chores, such as when he cooked and ate, set a glass down a certain way, with a certain fluidity, filled a bowl, slid in a spoon, licked the corner of his mouth. He smelled himself. Patted his clean hair, felt air tickle his taut skin. He shifted in his seat and his thighs were warm, his bottom soft. He rocked back, made a phone call to get the weather. He scratched and read, drank, coughed, moved things around and cleaned up a little.
It was not yet fully light out when he was all ready except for his shoes. And socks. He was walking the white tile in the kitchen, lifting a foot backwards to brush away crumbs, wringing a rag to hang on the faucet. He stared at the dirty dishes and the phone rang.
"Hello?" he asked uncertainly. Very early.
"Don't worry," she said. "No emergency. Nothing's happened."
"Thank God," he gasped. "Are you sure? What are you doing up?"
"I just thought of something. Listen, bring your camera today. We can take some pictures of the statues. You know, generals and things."
"Are there statues there?" he asked. Already he warmed with infatuation. He started purring. "Is that the only reason you called?" he teased.
"Well?" he asked. "Well?"
She hung up.
A wide smile took hold of him, brightening his face. Today he felt very much in love. He closed his eyes and smiled wider, laughed, murmured. When he opened them again and reached out to hang up the phone, he spotted the cricket-spider on the kitchen floor, just beneath the cabinets near the stove. He froze. The insect had the central body of a cricket, but its back end was long and pointed. It was very large. And its legs – its legs were horrific. Long, thin, gothic legs that rose in shaky spires to pointed knees and descended, bent inward, to fold tiny feet beneath the creature's trembling brown stomach. The cricket shape tottered in its web of legs. It scuttled. It paused. Scuttle.
Without thinking of his feet he bounded over and stepped on it. At first he felt nothing but satisfaction, but a second later, wetness, cool moisture and mad scuttling reached him from his sole. He shouted and ran to the bathroom. He didn't want to look. When he reached the bathtub he wrenched the tap and a stream of cold water gushed out, into which he thrust his foot. Dimly, through the mineral haze of water, the crushed half-body, half-leg remains of the insect could be seen before it was washed away, an almost imperceptible weight leaving his body. He waited for the ooze to go as well. Water cleansed him, water numbed unpleasant sensations, made him shiver, cleared his mind. Then he bent his leg toward him and stared.
Pink. Smooth. Gone.
"Hah!" he cried.
Moments later, with closed eyes and a quick brush into the dustpan, away went the rest of the cricket-spider, into the trash. He slammed the trash can lid and strode off to finish dressing. Maybe it was his imagination, but it felt like his foot throbbed once. Foolishly, however, he shrugged and ignored it.
His keys tinkled as he skipped out the door into the dawn. Once inside his car he selected some music and peered at his nose in the rear-view mirror as the car warmed. The engine revved. A neighbor passed behind him, waved and smiled. He smiled back. Then he moved out of the parking space. A glorious absence of traffic heralded for him the onset of a nearly rapturous mood as he entered the main highway. The window was down and the air was wet and vanilla. For one second, for one half-second, he almost started crying. His eyes flashed with tears. All the while he grinned.
Then he winced, his wordless epiphany disturbed. The foot throbbed again, a single time, the beat of a slow heart. Yet a strong beat. And in that beat, it felt as though a vacuum sucked the flesh upwards, one strong suck, then a release. But he remembered the cleanness he'd seen. Not a mark. The beauty of perfect skin. He felt reassured. He assumed it was phantom pain, nerves remembering a shock. Then a tremendous idea seized him. He decided, right then, to change course and drive to her house and take her somewhere. They could start the day together. Now, early. Without makeup, without plans, with messy hair and sleepy neck smell, with surprise and then love and then joy, so much joy. Her image beamed onto the road and became his guiding star, and his car ate the pavement greedily until he arrived. He stopped in front of her dark house.
He climbed out of his seat and took a step. His foot cramped. Brief but deep pain. He felt the tendons spasm. A moment of nausea. Suppressing a strong desire to pull off his shoe then and there, he righted himself and marched towards her door. The gravel crunched. The grass squished. Birds sang everywhere around him. More and more people were awake or waking up. Their front doors clicked shut, oily engines fired up and blew smoke, the breeze from passing cars ruffled his hair. He rang her bell and added a tiny knock. Waited.
"You!" she shouted on the other side of the peephole. The chain rattled, the door stuck in its frame, but at last it opened and she stood there, surprised, confused, but joyous, open to him. He felt exhilarated. He grinned, both teasingly smug and nervous. He planned to cry out something wild, to match her happiness and then add even more energy, make the joy almost unbearable. But instead he embarrassed himself by suddenly groaning. His smile disappeared and he bent over, groaning from his bones. Then he shrieked and lifted his foot, and hopped. He started to fall. She screamed his name. He fell onto the entryway carpet. Her hands searched his body.
"What?" she cried. "What's wrong?"
"My foot! My foooot." He rolled from side to side. Like an inchworm he writhed further into the house. He rammed into a cheap table with his head and broke it. But he hardly noticed, focused only on his foot, which he now held in both hands. She followed him and tried to keep him from thrashing around.
"Can I take your shoe off?" she asked. "Do you want me – Should I call an ambulance?"
"Ah," he bellowed. Like a wild animal, he clawed savagely at his shoelaces, spread the canvas of his tennis shoe and yanked on the tongue. The shoe popped off. The sock followed like a blur. She watched him, dumbstruck. At last he held his naked foot in his hands and he pulled, bending his leg, swinging the foot towards his watery eyes. His eyes widened. For a moment he was quiet. He panted, staring. Behind him, she crept forward to get a look.
It was very odd. Suppose someone had dipped their hand in red dye, gotten their fingers wet. Then flicked the fingers at his foot, sprinkling it with tiny dots. His foot was sprinkled, dotted, with tiny red dots. The skin itself had swelled like bread. Freckled bread. Extremely soft and infected. The sight made her instantly sick. It reminded her of things she couldn't help but imagine when she had an upset stomach and was trying not to imagine disgusting things. Landscapes of skin blemished with pimples and blackheads; pores filled with chalky tubes; ill skin, aglow with subterranean blood, poisoned blood; smelly skin, painful skin. His foot swelled even as she watched it. The area of each dot grew. Indentations formed in the centers of the dots, tiny funnels. She had never felt so nauseous. She knew she would pass out. Closing her eyes didn't help. She could still see the dots, growing, suppurating, running together.
The sight also made him sick. He gagged. His foot hurt so badly he could barely stand to touch it, but he didn't want to let go. He needed her to help him. He needed her help!
The dots bled. They ran together, joining until much of his foot was red liquid that submerged his fingers. He screamed and let go of his foot, rolling onto his stomach. The foot jarred against the floor. He screamed again. He writhed. Meanwhile, she had retreated to the corner, where she sat on the carpet, eyes closed, holding her middle, her mouth as dry as sandpaper.
"Gow!" he screamed when he caught sight of her. "Gow, fob!" His mouth lacked muscles. He could not form words. She barely raised her lids to peer at him. She saw his leg was swollen now. She couldn't bear to think of what was under those pants. She lurched to her feet, retching. She ran out of the room.
He didn't see her. Instead he looked over his shoulder down his body, watched his leg. The swelling advanced. It twitched and boiled. His heel shone white and strange. The dots had grown but not completely destroyed his foot. Instead they formed canals and holes, conduits sunk in the remaining skin. The original flesh was now islands and curls raised above shiny wet tissue. White poked through the blood. The foot continued swelling. Now even the white skin changed, grew whiter, more moist. Intricate patterns of sickly white flesh expanded all over his foot, in levels like sediment growing higher, out of the red rivers. The white skin turned bluish. His foot was a hideous disaster.
He moaned and wanted to vomit but his throat constricted with panic. His calf itched. He thought he heard it squeak with released air, slipping bone, something. Suddenly he bounced. The crawling energy in his body bounced him. His flesh rippled. Then he shook so violently he couldn't catch his breath. A puddle of blood seeped past his elbows. His head snapped from side to side, spraying.
A door in the back of the house slammed and she came running out, trying to get past him, to escape. But the sight of him hit her like a wall and she fell to her knees, screeching. He lay there and saw the enormous, rotten islands in his foot, rivers of decay crawling up his ankle. His foot was bulbs of skin. The balloon of his lower leg started tearing his pants. He screeched with her, banging his head on the floor, even as his own body lifted him and threw him down again.
She got to her feet. She skirted past him, her face a mask of repulsion, her eyes sightless with tears. She held her hands over her mouth and nose. She breathed as she ran, smelling her sweet, clean skin. Deep, deep inhalation, a steadying breath ... deep, deep. Sweat and the scent of her own life. Behind her, he died, smashed, transformed into a monster.
About the author:
Currently a third year medical student in Washington, D.C., Corry Allen Chapman has had one poem published online at Red River Review.