I have a condition called “dermatographia.” It is what it sounds like: you can “write” on my skin. It’s not as bizarre as it looks. All it means is I get scratches very easily. If I run my fingernail across my skin, I’ll get a raised, red trail. It doesn’t hurt or bleed and it goes away after a half hour or so. Still, it’s pretty noticeable.
Kids used to make fun of me at school, as they’re wont to do with anything they find new or weird. It wasn’t too bad, though. Nothing traumatizing. I’m grateful for that, because as I got older I realized how great a bar trick it was.
Maybe that makes me a little weird. I’m okay with it.
I’m going to dispense with the backstory because I need to talk about what’s been going on lately. The other day, I woke up with a word on my stomach. It said “soon.”
Now, I’m not the superstitious type. I blamed it on my wife, Cheyenne, who’s always trying to prank me. She insisted it wasn’t her doing and I didn’t push the issue. The scratches went away a little while later and I forgot about the whole thing.
That night, though, when I got out of the shower, I’d finished drying off and was shaving when I saw scratches on my belly again. I lowered the towel. Sure enough, it was the same word. “Soon.”
For the first time, I felt prickles of fear raising the hair on the back of my neck. My mind went into rationalization mode. I ended up convincing myself that the wrinkles from the waistband of my jeans had formed the shape of what I was identifying as a word. It didn’t matter that the writing was higher up than my jeans ever were or that the letters were far too neat. A little less than thirty minutes later, there was no evidence of text on my skin.
I did my best to put it out of my mind, but I’ll admit that I had trouble getting to sleep.
The following days were normal. Well, normal-ish. I came down with a nasty stomach bug. I get those every so often. I was home sick from work, both ends demanding a place on the toilet with a level of overlapping frequency I didn’t care for one bit. I couldn’t keep anything down.
After three days of puking and shitting, Chey hauled my useless carcass over to the walk-in clinic. She was about to fly across the country for a conference and didn’t want to come back to me dead on the bathroom floor. Fair enough.
The doctor asked me what was wrong, then ran a test or two. He remarked that the stomach flu was indeed going around and it was probably what had been ruining my last few days. He had me take off my shirt and pressed on my belly to see if I had any localized pain. There wasn’t any.
I noticed the doctor was grinning. I looked at him quizzically. “What’s this?” he asked.
I looked down. There, clear as day, written across my stomach was the word “soon.”
My eyes widened.
“You listed on your chart that dermatographia is a preexisting condition,” the doctor remarked, bemusedly. “Do you make a habit of leaving messages for people to find?”
I forced a laugh and managed to say, “yeah, I guess.”
He chuckled. “Well I gotta tell you, that’s a new one. You can get dressed. Looks like you’re on the last few days of a stomach flu. Keep hydrated and you’ll be fine. If you’re still symptomatic after 48 hours, come back.”
I thanked him and left.
While my wife drove us home, I pondered over why I didn’t mention to the doctor that I wasn’t the one writing the word. Part of me was worried he’d question my sanity. My step brother has schizophrenia. I feel terrible for the guy, but I’d always thanked God it was him dealing with that demon, not me. I thought if I told the doctor about a random word showing up on my skin, my own mental health would be called into question. That was the last thing I was ready to deal with.
Cheyenne left that evening. I didn’t tell her about anything.
I felt much better when I woke up the next morning. That was yesterday. I ate and drank without losing it all minutes later, which was a plus. My strength came back and I started thinking that I’d return to work.
Last night, I made myself dinner, watched a few episodes of Frasier, and got ready for bed. My stomach was bothering me again. It was different than it had been when I was sick with the flu. Instead of being nauseous, I felt stuffed, like I’d overeaten. I admit I may have done that, since I was pretty hungry after days of saltines and water and ginger ale. I cradled my puffy belly and went to sleep.
This morning, I woke up in pain. My stomach was distended and making awful, gurgling noises.
“Just my luck,” I thought to myself. “I have fucking food poisoning right after dealing with the flu.”
I texted my job and told them I’d work from home. Around 10, the discomfort in my belly had gotten worse. I knew I should go back to the clinic. I called and asked if the doctor was available. I was told they were pretty busy but if I came by later this afternoon, he could see me. I hung up and sulked around the house, returning to my laptop every so often to do a menial amount of work.
My stomach felt like it was going to pop. I headed to the bathroom and sat on the toilet, hoping whatever was causing the discomfort would come out of me. No luck. I gave up after forty-five minutes and stripped down to take a shower. I had four hours to kill before I could go to the walk-in.
I sat down in the tub and let the water run over me. It was calming and temporarily took my mind off the bloating. I zoned out for a little while.
An hour went by before a sharp, wrenching pain in my gut snapped me out of my mindless stare. I struggled to my feet as more, but slightly less acute, pains followed the original. I turned off the water and got out.
The bathroom was steamy and the mirror was covered in condensation. I studied my blurry shape in the glass. I turned sideways. Even in my pain, I let out a giggle. I looked like a pregnant woman. I rested my hand on my tender belly and tried to relax. I took a few deep breaths to clear my head. The room started to cool and the steam dissipated. My shape in the mirror went from fuzzy to sharp.
With the fog cleared, I could see my stomach sticking out over my waist like a basketball. I looked down and was shocked to see stretch marks on the sides of the protrusion. I said “fuck it” and decided I’d go to the doctor right then and demand that he see me. Before I could leave the bathroom, though, another explosion of pain in my belly made me double over and gasp. This one was longer. Deeper, too.
When it faded, I glanced at myself in the mirror. The breath caught in my throat and the room began to spin.
Scrawled across my belly was a different word. “Today.”
Unlike the word “soon”, the letters weren’t backwards in the mirror. I ran my trembling fingers over the new message. My legs shook and I had a difficult time not falling over. These letters weren’t raised. Whenever my skin gets scratched, the lines are always swollen and puffy. But these were concave.
As if they’d been written from the inside.