I’m bench pressing a personal record of 75 lbs when the hunger hits me. My skin is wet, clammy and itchy all at once. I lower the bar slowly and glance around the gym at the sparse late night crowd. As soon as I wipe away the sweat careening down my face, my pores weep anew. It’s my own fault for not keeping track of my scheduled quarterly feeding. I pray to the gods it is not too late to leave and forage through the homeless people around the corner. Even one of those meandering dogs would do.
I rise slowly but the ground becomes a swirling sinkhole beneath my feet nonetheless. It’s too late to leave the gym, I realize.
“Are you alright?” a gravelly voice asks.
I will my eyes to focus on the man whose hand is resting on my shoulder. His skin is a lighter shade of caramel than mine and I can see silver-grey eyes through my blurred vision. Pain burns through my body as quickly and as violently as an uncontrolled blaze. The nausea will set in soon, forcing the remnants of my last meal out of my mouth and possibly my nose.
“I…I need the restroom please.”
He places his hand behind me for support and allows me to rest my head against his shoulder. His warmth and the rhythmic pulsing of blood through his veins provide comfort but also causes saliva to pool in my dry mouth. Our clumsy tandem walk ends and he is hesitating before the large white door with WOMEN ONLY engraved in its centre. The letters jumble before my eyes and I grab a handful of his sweat soaked shirt while swallowing rapidly.
“Please…” I beg.
He mumbles something I don’t hear and pushes the door. Thankfully the room is empty and he leads me to one of the benches. As soon as I sit, nausea lances my stomach and vomit launches from my throat unto his shirt. He looks at me with equal parts of concern and disgust.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I mutter.
“It’s okay,” he says with a sigh and removes his shirt.
He is quick to forgive because he does not know the depth of my malfeasance. He is rinsing his shirt in the sink while casting furtive glances at the door when I sidle up behind him. There is a faint click as my jaws unhinge, a slight creaking as my body stretches to get close to my true height. His eyes widen in the mirror but I suck his head into my mouth so quickly his scream is reduced to a wet gurgling sound inside my throat.
I walk backwards slowly, dragging his body with me into a large cubicle and reach around his bulk awkwardly to close the latch. My throat expands further and its internal suckers pull the body down at a steady, even pace. The sharp teeth on my insides move back and forth, cutting the flesh into pieces my stomach can easily digest.
The restroom’s door squeaks open and my heart sputters. The stranger’s feet are upright and sticking out of my mouth like twin pillars. I pull on the feet frantically, stuffing the body down my throat faster than the suckers will allow and though I gag a little, there is no reaction from the person outside. I know this sound is not an unusual one in the restrooms of this realm.
My body starts to digest the body and he is a stranger no more. The brain is the most delectable and heart rending organ of a human being. As I savour Emerson’s intricate flavours, his memories flow into my mind. I see his smiling voluptuous wife with her kind eyes and infectious laugh, who I have now widowed. I see his now fatherless athletic twin boys who bring Emerson endless pride and joy. For the first time in a long while, I am consuming a blameless man. The memories will fade in a week but that does not stop guilt from twisting my heart. The last bit of Emerson makes it into my stomach and I am reaching for the latch when I hear it. It sounds like the slow opening of a Velcro closure.
“Oh no. Oh no. Oh…”
I know it is natural but still my chest clenches with unbearable anxiety. It reminds me of my realm of Carphantia and I hate to remember. I hate to remember my kind being hunted, imprisoned and bred for the consumption of my fellow Carphantians. When a member of the guerilla forces offered me the opportunity to escape before capture, I took it.
Fortunately the supply of my kind is so secure I am not worth the energy of combing through thousands of alternate realms.
I remove my clothes quickly and run my hands along the split skin at my sides. The gaps widen along an invisible seam and sensitive nerve endings disconnect before there is significant pain. I place my fingernails under the old skin and carefully pull it outwards. There is a slick, sucking sound as it comes away.
Soon I am holding the sheath that once held my body. Once detached, the skin’s camouflage disappears and I hold the iridescent scales of my kind, shimmering and soft as silk in my hands.
This skin is all I am to the hunters in my realm but here I am so much more. Here, I am Mayana – a valued woman in a profession where my opinions matter to those I see daily. There, I am nameless – a wearer of the skin eaten to boost the immunity of soldiers fighting a seemingly endless war. Sometimes they would wait for us to shed the skin, sometimes they would not.
I wrap the sheath around my chest and pull my clothes back on before leaving the cubicle. I stare in the mirror at my now unlined skin. I will now need a daily ritual to create the lines and wrinkles of a 45-year old face. Soon I will also need to add grey streaks to my ebony tresses. I know I must be careful as while human beings are not as ruthless as Carphantians, they are still suspicious of that which is unlike them. Even more so of a creature that must feed on other living beings every few months to survive.
I have many sheddings left in a lifetime which surpasses the oldest living human by a century. I am hopeful my entire life will not be a lie. I am hopeful there will be a time when I do not have to hide who I am. I wish to end my life being true to my inner self and being more than the skin that encases me.
Karen Heslop writes from Kingston, Jamaica. Her stories can be found in The Future Fire, Apparition Lit Mag and The Defiant Scribe among others. She tweets @kheslopwrites.