The nights leading to my first encounter with Dr. Jessica were spent sleeping in my parents’ room. I couldn’t stay in my own. Whenever I went back, I was greeted by the sight of the black woman’s ruined body. It looked like the creatures had taken away the parts they needed, but what they left was hideous: tendons and gristle and fat stuck deep inside the recesses of her skeleton. The one time I ran in to grab a shirt for school, I saw one of the things curled up inside her splintered rib cage. When it noticed me, it uncoiled itself and rose like a cobra until it reached my height; a tube of glistening muscle as thick as my thigh standing at attention as I rushed to get the shirt. I stifled a sob when I saw how much bigger it was than the others I’d encountered.
The death of my friend, or my “episode,” as my parents called it, was on a Saturday. I was allowed to stay home from school on Monday, but Tuesday and Wednesday were business as usual. I was happy for this; I loved school. My teachers enjoyed me, I had a couple friends, and I always got good grades. I was scheduled to meet with the school psychologist on Friday, and I was looking forward to whatever help he might be able to provide. On Thursday morning, though, something happened.
Dad and I had just finished breakfast at the diner and he was bringing me to school. I was looking out the window, still half asleep. It was a cloudy spring morning. The weather people on the radio had predicted thunderstorms, and, for once, their forecast was accurate. A bolt of lightning lit up the sky. As I traced the jagged path, I noticed something weird. The edges of the bolt looked fuzzy, almost like the lightning was covered in windblown fur. The bolt was too far away for me to see anything clearly, so I just chalked it up to being overtired. I’d barely slept since Friday night.
In class, about halfway through a day like any other, the storm that had been threatening us the whole morning finally came. Now, this was southern Florida, so we’re used to thunder and lightning. But this one was abnormally strong for the time of year. Even in the summer, it would’ve been one the jaded locals would’ve commented on. Torrential rain started, followed by small hail. Then came the lightning. It was very, very close. In his calm voice, Mr. Davis asked the students sitting in the row nearest the windows to sit in seats closer to the middle of the room.
I was sitting on the other side of the classroom when lightning struck a tree across the soccer field. The explosion of thunder was instantaneous and a couple kids gasped. Even Mr. Davis jumped a little. But those reactions were only on the periphery of my attention. At the forefront was the bolt of lightning. When it struck the tree, I saw the furry edges again, but with much greater clarity. From this distance, I could make out individual hairs of the fur. Not fur, I realized, but those vile creatures. Countless, seething tendrils of raw muscle writhing around the edges of the bluish-white plasma. As the bolt faded, so did the things. Every flash which followed had the same edges. I felt panic rising in my chest and I excused myself to the restroom.
I sat in the stall and worked to control my breathing. The fragility of my mindstate had me on the verge of crying. I rested my head in my hands and tried to stifle my emotions. The collisions of heavy raindrops on the metal roof of the school seemed to mock my attempt, so I let it happen. Hot tears drooled from my brown eyes and puddled silently on the bleached tile floor. I pressed my hands into my eyes and concentrated on the fireworks display of meaningless, organic shapes. When my breathing slowed and the tears stopped flowing, I opened my eyes and stood up. I left the stall, turned the corner, and went to the mirror. I stopped breathing.
Everything that would normally be reflected was there, except it was blanketed in gore. Not just blood, but hair and veins and patches of skin. Stretching through the room like perverse pneumatic tubes were thick ropes of intestine. Bulging things traveled inside them and disappeared into the walls and floor where the ropes were anchored.
I whirled around and was greeted by the usual, untainted view. Another kid, Luis, was just coming in. He greeted me with a smile, but upon seeing my pale, tear-streaked face, he furrowed his brow in concern and asked if I was okay. I turned back around and looked in the mirror. Luis was standing in the same spot, but he was grotesquely deformed. One eye socket was stretched into an abyssal caldera from which the creatures poured their endless lengths onto a floor carpeted in patches of cracked, eczematous skin. Both arms were whittled down to gleaming white bone and his viscera was tied into the intestinal transitway that stretched the room. I passed out.
Apparently when I was unconscious, part of me was awake — and all that part did was yell. I screamed about “snakes made of meat” and “they’re coming out of the lightning” and “someone help Luis.” When I woke up, I was in the hospital. Both my parents were next to me. Both, it appeared, had been crying. My face hurt and I tried to raise my hands to my cheeks but my arms were strapped down. Legs, too. I struggled but mom came over and put her soft hand on my forehead.
“It’s just to make sure you’re safe,” she whispered, “you scratched your face up pretty badly when you were asleep.” I wrinkled my cheeks and winced when I felt the swollen skin bunch up near the scrapes. I didn’t say anything. After a little while, a woman who called herself Dr. Jessica came in and sat down next to the bed. She asked me a few, basic questions. My name, my age, my favorite food; I figured she wanted to get to know me. Then she asked if I would be comfortable if my parents left so we could have some privacy. I looked at them and they nodded to say it was okay, so I agreed. They went out in the hall.
Dr. Jessica wanted to know what happened today and on Saturday. I told her everything. She had a warm, supportive look on her face as I gave all the details. I worried that she’d laugh and call me crazy, but she never did. She even told me how sorry she was that the black woman had passed away. I liked Dr. Jessica. I asked what was wrong with me, and I was told, “Sometimes kids see things that other people don’t. It doesn’t mean they’re bad or broken or anything like that, it just means they might need some medicine to help them from seeing more scary things.”
I nodded, then I asked if I could have that medicine. She said maybe, but she’d have to talk to my parents about it first. After a few more questions, she pressed a button near the bed and told the nurse it was okay to undo the straps on my arms and legs. Once that was done, Dr. Jessica told me I’d have to stay in the hospital for a couple days, but she’d see me the next morning. Then she gave me a hug and left to talk to my parents outside.
As I cautiously touched the scratches on my face and neck, I watched my parents and Dr. Jessica talking through the glass. Mom wiped her eyes a few times, but they both looked like they appreciated what the doctor was doing. Dad peeked his head through the door, asked me if I was okay, and then said he and mom and the doctor had to go down the hall to fill out some paperwork. If I needed them, he told me to push the red button next to the bed. I said okay.
The room was quiet. A small, wall-mounted television displayed a baseball game without any sound. I sighed and wondered if I was crazy. I’d never heard of these things happening to anyone else. None of my friends were ever in the hospital except for Pat when he broke his leg. But that was different. I’m different. I rubbed my eyes, being careful not to reopen any of the scratches on my face. The familiar fireworks display behind my eyelids greeted me as I modulated the pressure. When I stopped and I opened my eyes, the room was blurry. I blinked to get everything back into focus.
Standing at foot of my bed, towering over all the furniture in the room, was the black woman. I gasped with surprise and felt a rush of delight until I saw her disfigurements. Heavy, keloid scars rose like scraps of gray leather across the totality of her flesh. Her left breast was gone; in its place was a crater of gnarled tissue. Thin, strong forearms were crossed over her belly, but behind them were unhealed gashes. This woman, my friend, despite being alive through some miracle, was in pain. Agony. Still, hidden within the benthic depths of her eyes was the protective warmth and powerful confidence I’d grown to cherish. She turned her head to look outside. It was raining again. Lightning streaked by, its edges squirming with coils of hellish flesh. The sound of her voice filled my mind.
My parents entered the room and sat in nearby chairs. Mom was closest to me while dad was by the bottom of the bed. Of course, they didn’t see the woman. She remained at her post, watching everything. They spoke to me about the medication I’d be starting tomorrow and the scheduled therapy sessions with Dr. Jessica, and although I heard them talking to me off in the distance, it wasn’t what I focused on. Because now, for the first time, I could understand exactly what the black woman spoke into my head. No more syllables and formants carrying vague, emotional cues. This was a statement. A warning.
“This will get much, much worse for you soon — and I’m so very sorry.”
I started to weep and my parents did their best to comfort me. I didn’t say anything to them. What was there to say? They wouldn’t believe a word of it. Mom stroked my hair and dad put his right hand on mom’s shoulder and reached over to hold my ankle with his left. The whisper of gentle rainfall filled the room, occasionally interrupted by my desperate whimpering. A single, massive tear slid from the glistening corner of the black woman’s right eye and landed on my father’s index finger. Dad glanced at the ceiling with confused annoyance and wiped his hand on the blanket.