Despite the black woman’s dire warning, I slept through the night for the first time in nearly a week. Knowing she was watching over me imbued a sense of safety and comfort; something, to the deep chagrin of my parents, no one else had been able to provide since this whole ordeal started. The sleep was dreamless and restful. My only moment of discomfort was the space between waking up and opening my eyes; I felt certain my day would begin with the sight of my friend’s mangled body.
Thankfully, my worry was misplaced. She stood over my bed, cast like a scarred shadow against the harsh white of the hospital wall. Her darkly beatific gaze followed my smallest movements. Always alert. I smiled and noticed how itchy my face was. The scratches from my fingernails were healing quickly, but the sensation of their mending was unpleasant. I pressed my fingertips against the scrapes. It helped a little.
After about five minutes, my parents came in the room and apologized for not being there when I woke up. They wanted to bring me some breakfast that’d be better than what the hospital offered. I was given a box that smelled phenomenal. I opened it and was greeted by pancakes and sausages and potatoes from the same diner dad and I visited the day before. I devoured it all while mom discussed what my day would be like. It turned out I’d be with Dr. Jessica for a few hours. She asked if I’d be comfortable with that. I told her it was fine. I was curious to learn what was wrong with me. Mom did her best to explain nothing was wrong with me; just a little different. And soon that wouldn’t even be case, either. Things would go back to how they always were. I liked hearing that.
Once mom was done talking to me, dad and I took a shower. He hadn’t taken one with me in a couple years; he said he just wanted to make sure I’d be okay in there. I didn’t mind. It felt nice to have him wash my hair again. To my surprise, the black woman didn’t stay at the foot of my bed. She followed us into the shower and stood right in front of me. Dad spent most of his time passing in and out of her, totally oblivious to the third person in the stall. All the while, she watched every movement of my body with rapt intensity. Part of me realized she needed to stay by my side in case something bad happened. After what she told me last night, I was happy for her to be there; not only for my protection, but for dad’s, too.
I noticed, for the first time, I was close enough and in a room sufficiently bright to see between the black woman’s legs. Last year, mom sat down with me and we went through a book showing pictures of men and women while she explained what made us physically different. What my friend had looked a little like the pictures in the book and what I’d seen of mom, but behind the hair were ghastly scars. These were different from the others all over her body. With these, it almost looked like something had bitten huge chunks of the flesh away. I shuddered and wished I could hug her.
We got out of the shower, toweled off, and got dressed. My friend, who was never dressed, stood stoically as mom brushed my hair into a shape that would be somewhat presentable. A little while later, the four of us were walking down the hall and took the elevator up to see Dr. Jessica. I was excited.
My parents greeted Dr. Jessica, hugged me, and left. I sat in her sunny office on the biggest beanbag chair I’d ever seen. My friend stood directly behind me. Dr. Jessica sat very close, maybe just a couple feet away, on her own beanbag. She handed me a grape lollipop that had a tootsie roll inside. My eyes widened. So far, everything was going great.
The doctor asked me how I was doing. How I felt. I answered honestly: I’d been feeling pretty good since I woke up. Then she wanted to know if I’d seen anything since I got to the hospital yesterday afternoon. When I told Dr. Jessica that the black woman was alive, she seemed very interested. She told me to describe her as best I could. So I did. Much taller than dad — so tall her thick, frizzy hair brushes against the ceiling. Naked all the time, too. And so, so dark. Almost impossible to see unless the light was on. And now she’s covered in cuts and scars and bites.
The doctor wanted to know about my friend’s injuries: how they happened, where they were, what they looked like. I was very clear with my descriptions since I was able to turn around and look at every bit of damage on her body. Dr. Jessica appeared very concerned when I described the scarred bitemarks disfiguring my friend’s vulva. I was asked what might have caused the bites and why she’d been bitten there. Since I’d already talked about the writhing tubes of muscle that had bored through her body to cause the other scars, I’d mentioned those things didn’t have any teeth. So I said I didn’t know. But they were definitely bites. I got closer to my friend and stared. Lines created by what had to have been rows of tiny, terrifyingly-sharp teeth ringed each barely-healed gouge.
In my head, my friend spoke. “When you turn around, please don’t be scared – it isn’t strong enough yet.” With galvanizing force which nearly knocked me off the beanbag chair, I whirled back to face Dr. Jessica. As the doctor asked if I was all right, I stared at the area by the door. I did my absolute best to remain calm and informed Dr. Jessica that no, I didn’t think I was okay.
On walls and ceiling behind the doctor, was…something. It wasn’t a person or an animal or a plant or even those bleeding, fleshless serpents. Until that moment, I never thought I’d prefer seeing a writhing mass of those awful, murderous coils. But this time I did. My mind filled with the voice of the black woman telling me we were safe. It’s all that kept me from screaming.
My voice shook as I told Dr. Jessica about the monster. It reminded me of the scab that grew on my kneecap when I took a nasty spill while dad was teaching me how to ride a two-wheeler. In the hours and days after the fall, the cut dried in patches of red and yellow and white. It itched. Yellowish lymphatic fluid dribbled out the side of the dried parts when I scratched too hard. The atrocity by the door looked like that scab, only without the dry encrustations. This thing was wet. And thick. The cheery sunlight pouring through the large windows cast its rays on the thing, causing it to glisten and reflect sickening, amorphous patches of pink light onto the white walls around it. It moved, well, oozed, outward in all directions. I was vaguely reminded of the underside of my tongue; slick, veiny, and muscular.
I glanced back at Dr. Jessica as I described what I saw. She was writing furiously in her yellow notebook. Only when I gasped did she look up. Pulsating slits of swollen flesh split open over the entire surface of the creature. From the slits came thin tubes that reminded me of skinny versions of the serpentine coils from the other days, but these had round, bulbous tips on their front end. They looked like the eye stalks snails have, only veiny and muscular and dribbling blood and other, unnamable fluids. They extended further and further from the main body, slithering around the room and twisting through the air.
One slid through the back of Dr. Jessica’s head and exited via her mouth. I told her what was happening. She asked me something, her voice unobstructed by the ghostly flesh impaling her skull. I didn’t answer. While she spoke, the thick head of flesh capping the end of the tendril opened to reveal countless rows of tiny, impossibly sharp spikes. More and more of them gathered around me, all opening to threaten with their translucent, yellow teeth. I started to cry as I realized I’d wet my pants. The toothed bulbs leapt toward me and I fell backward over the beanbag chair in terror. I landed on my back between the feet of the black woman. She stared downward with her confident glare. “It’s gone,” she informed me.
Dr. Jessica was on her feet helping me up within seconds of my fall. My friend was right: the thing had disappeared. The doctor hugged me, then put her hands on my shoulders, looked into my eyes, and said she’d page my parents to bring me back to my room. She told me it was okay to end early on the first session. She was proud of the great work I did. I concentrated on her mouth as it formed her words. A ring of angry, chapped skin had developed around her lips. It wasn’t there when our session started. I pictured the fat-headed tendril pushing through her mouth. She’d been hurt.
The speed of my breathing increased and I pointed out the injury. She looked puzzled as she traced the cracked, dessicated flesh with the tip of her finger and winced when the left corner split and produced a droplet of blood. The look of confusion only lasted a moment. She tried to reassure me by saying it’d been like that all day. All the talking must’ve worn away her makeup or she’d rubbed it away with her hand. But I didn’t believe her. And she seemed shaken. She tousled my hair and hid my stained pants with an apron used by other kids who painted during their own therapy sessions.
My parents came moments after they’d been told I was done, and after they spoke to the doctor, the four of us walked back to my hospital room. I kept thinking about Dr. Jessica’s mouth. On our way, I saw tubes of wriggling muscle dangling from the ceiling. Again, the black woman let me know it was okay. She strode with authority down the hallway, never leaving my side. As we passed the writhing creatures, they decayed into smoldering ashes. I smiled. Dad noticed. He asked if I felt better. I told him I did. Mom let me know I’d be starting some type of medicine with my dinner later in the day. My smile broadened. Between my friend and the medicine, things were going to go back to normal. Still, what I was told the night before chilled me. “This will get much, much worse for you soon.”
The grin slipped from my face as the density of the creatures increased and the black woman wasn’t burning them all. Maybe she couldn’t. But maybe she didn’t need to. I forced myself to believe things were moving in a positive direction. As we walked by a reception area riddled with intestinal endpoints gouting thick, bloody foam into pustulent craters on the floor, my friend reached down and held my hand. I was overcome with surprise and joy. I could finally touch her. Her palm was warm and muscular. Safe. My dad saw my hand reaching upward and he took it in his own. I was beaming. Dad smiled to himself with contentment. He’d been waiting for days to feel like he could comfort me.