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Madeline peeled the first flake of skin from her thigh the day she turned fifteen. She had experienced the onset of puberty two years earlier — the sudden growth of hair under her arms and between her legs, the swelling of her breasts, the skin on her thin thighs growing thicker — and so assumed the peeling away of flesh was a natural, albeit slower, progression into womanhood.
A year later, she stood in front of the mirror and inspected her new sweet sixteenth birthday body, running her hands along the softness of her inner thigh, her fingers drawing circles on the darker areas where her legs rubbed together when she ran. She ran her palms over the back of her thighs, as a proper woman would feel around for cancerous lumps the day before an overdue check up at the doctors and froze when her fingers ran across an unusually hardened piece of flesh.
The strip of flesh came away like a Band-Aid, was roughly the thickness of a twenty-cent coin, and rectangular in shape. She stared at it curiously in her hand, running a finger across it, and she frowned. Her mind likened it to the strips of beef jerky her father always carried with him in his leather pouch when he worked on the farm. She gingerly brought it to her nose and sniffed, instantly recoiling as the pungent scent of unwashed feet and week-old food slammed into her nostrils. She flung the piece of flesh on the ground and took a step back, her heart thudding furiously against her chest.
She stared at the pink flesh, a stark contrast against the pristine white tiled floor, and wondered if her best friend Sally had a collection of her own skin, tied up in lavender rope and folded away in a neat little treasure chest. Sally had entered puberty early, at eleven years old, and had proudly worn strapless shirts and training bras that accentuated the flappy mounds of flesh that had affixed themselves to her thin, boyish body.
"I'm a woman now!" she had announced, excitedly. "I'm allowed to wear high heels."
Madeline wondered if she was supposed to mould the pieces of flesh to form breasts and strap them to her body with chunks of muscle. She had always been quite flat in that particular area. When all her friends wore bikinis, she would wear T-shirts and shorts, hiding away her lack of womanliness and femininity.
She dropped the strip of flesh on the bathroom floor and began to peel away more. The long, sinewy flanks on either side of her thighs came away with ease, as though she were pulling off chunks of hot, crispy flesh from a slow-roasted animal over a spit fire. The skin on the front of her thighs was entirely uncovered now, and she felt like a snake peeling away from its skin, except where its skin was scaly, hers was almost too soft, so tender it was almost like butter simmering on a hot stove. She imagined she was one of her father's bovines, butchered in the hot midday sun, her flesh quartered from top to bottom with a shiny silver meat saw, and suddenly she was hesitant as to what would happen next. Would she end up like them, rotting flesh too tough to be consumed, hide too rough to be of any use?
Madeline swallowed down a lump in her throat and froze as she heard the sounds of her mother rummaging around in the linen outside the bathroom. Heart thudding, she felt as though she was a deer trapped in the headlights. As the sounds died away, relief flooded her body and she relaxed, staring at her reflection in the grimy mirror.
Madeline felt as though her churning stomach was about to burst through her skin, blasting out like a cannonball and blowing a hole through the bathroom door. Her legs, usually steadfast in the uneasiness of bad situations, felt like jelly and ice cream mixed together, a trifle of wobbly knees and slippery feet, barely holding up her adolescent frame.
She stood in the middle of her mound of flesh and inspected her body in the mirror. Her mind wandered, and she realised why the human body was not built, neither bred, for its flesh to be consumed. To begin with, the anatomy and skeleton was all wrong. Her fleshy body, while oversized in some areas, did not have nearly as much flesh as a cow or a pig. And her shoulder blades and wide pelvis wouldn't cut as well as a lamb's. She also lived in an uncontrolled environment and ate whatever she fancied without even thinking about how it might affect the chewiness of her flesh. Humans contracted a range of infections, diseases, poisons, all of which multiplied with age. However, animals were slaughtered quite young, without ever obtaining the chance to sit around eating cheeseburgers and watching Cheers reruns.
Piece after piece, her flesh was expunged from her body, and in a matter of minutes Madeline had stripped away the meat from her feet, legs, stomach, arms, and hands. She imagined she was a butcher's subject, which he would later hang, bleed, behead, skin, gut, halve, and quarter. Maybe he would build an old-fashioned smokehouse with a stone fire pit, disposing of her offal and unwanted waste by burial, puree, or pulverisation. But humans weren't made to be eaten. She heard her mother curse and imagined her carefully folded linen tumbling out of the cupboard like a landslide.
Madeline gently palmed her chest, imaging herself on a runway, her voluptuous, yet lithe and attractive body showing off the latest Italian fashion trend. She closed her eyes and caressed her stomach, scrunching up the floppy folds of her tummy between her fingers. Slowly, she pulled away the lumpy flesh like string cheese, bits of blood and muscle cocooning themselves under her nails. Sacks of chubby adolescent fat fell away to join the flesh upon the floor, building up around her ankles. She felt as though she were standing on the hills of Machu Picchu, an ancient metropolis built not of stone but flesh, flesh of its ancestral inhabitants, of its long-lost worshippers singing praise as they cast unwanted souls down into the pits to meet their doom. She was now a proper woman, her body was her temple, and the torn away flesh revealed a most revered, ancient, womanly musculoskeletal structure to be praised by men who would dare to plunge themselves into her warm, meaty pit.
Her hand hovered near her sex, and she hesitated, as though to enter herself was an unspoken challenge. She paused and listened to the curses and insults at washing that refused to stay folded. Her mother had always been anal about things being uncooperative, and uncouth. What would she say about her daughter?
The folds around her entrance were velvety soft, yet feverishly moist, beckoning her fingers to come closer and claim their prize. She had touched herself, of course, as all girls did, starting off as a curious bystander, then became more adventurous, even conjuring up scenes of love and affection in her head. Now, at sixteen, she was ready to propel herself towards a new adventure, plunge herself into the depths of her very self. She slipped her fingers inside, then widened them, allowed room for the rest of her hand. Her teeth clenched, she reached for something to hold onto, and found something akin to a small stone, although fleshy and soft. She began to pull at it, and savagely ripped away, biting down on her tongue to hold back her cries of excruciation. Slumping to the floor in the mound of her own flesh, she held out her palm, and stared at the stone she had so painfully plucked.
"It's not a stone; it's a seed," she whispered in awe.
Hot blood tricked from between her legs and coated the muscle of her inner thighs, sliding down in between each fold of soft tissue and cell. She tossed it back and forth between her hands like a ball and marvelled at how light it was, yet how full and complete it felt as it rested on the ball of her palm. She wondered what the seed was doing inside her body, and how long it had been there for. Had it always been there, even as she was a child, or had it grown when she first began to bleed? What was it made of? It appeared to be some form of menstrual clot, yet harder, firmer, like a rock. What was its purpose? Had she just removed something that should have remained hidden within her body? Had she discovered a secret to womanhood that young women weren't supposed to know? And finally, since she was very sure it was a seed, where on earth was she to plant it?
Adolescence made no sense.
Madeline stared at herself in the mirror. Her reflection showed a beastly creature, a skinless, formless being without flesh. She reached her bony hand up to her head and pulled away her skullcap, then cracked open her skull, as easy as stripping away the fontanel during postnatal development, exposing her brain and the watery fluid it swam in. She had learned about the fontanel after her little sister had been born. It was surprising how calm she was when little Anne was born, and surprising how little tension she felt in her body now. She rolled the seed in her hand round and round, feeling its grainy substance, then she stopped, and moved her hand above her head.
She softly stroked her thoughts, surprised by how calm she was, how little tension she felt in her body.
"Am I seeing my true self? Is this what it means to be a woman? Is this how I learn the secrets of life?"
The seed slipped from her fingers without hesitation and dropped into the watery mess of her skull with a soft plop, minute drops of water flicking out over the sides of her head. She smiled as her head seemed to sew itself back together by mere thought, leaving behind the smallest trace of a line etched across her forehead.
She made quick work of pulling herself back together, rolling up two mounds of flesh to affix to her chest, moulding slabs of skin to add size to her hips, slapping on slivers of muscle to her thighs, sticking on clumps of fat to her buttocks. She scrubbed the blood away from her legs until she was fresh and clean, and admired the perfect juxtaposition of her face, how easy it had pulled together. She felt renewed, revitalised, and utterly beautiful.
She pictured herself walking down the street, head held high, heels clicking on the pavement, and envisioned the heads that would turn as she passed by potential admirers. How many handsome young men would ask her to dance? Would the other girls be jealous of her newfound womanhood? She imagined herself in the future, carrying a child on her womanly hips, smiling down at it fondly as it gurgled and cooed. Had her own mother once seen her in that light? Or had she always been the demanding teen, shouting "I want, I want, I want!"?
Madeline took one last look at the mess on the floor.
"You did it, Madeline," she said, turning to look at herself in the mirror one last time. "You're finally a woman."
She slipped out of the bathroom and walked down the hall, smiling broadly with the confidence of her new self. Her mother was now in the kitchen and Madeline ran to her, wanting that motherly hug, that motherly love.
Instead, her mother screamed.CHAPTER 2
The meat hook was sturdy; the bloated carcass hung like clothes on a rack. Harlan pinched the skin on the man's back, digging the machete in firmly. He made a small incision, plunging his middle and index fingers from both hands into the opening. The skin peeled away easily, the back separating in two thick pieces. Harlan stripped the flesh from the legs and stretched the skin over the neck to the base of the skull. He snapped the ankles at the joints, bones breaking through the muscle and tendons. One foot came loose and broke off, sending sharp pincer-like shivers down Alex's spine. Harlan delivered one final blow, severing the head altogether, sending splatters of blood across his and Alex's faces.
"Is it ... going to come back?"
Harlan said nothing. He lifted the skin away from the intestines, cracking the rib cage, breaking all the way down to the pelvis, the organs and intestines dripping out of the abdominal cavity.
"What if it comes back?"
"It's not coming back."
In the darkness around them, a blood-curdling cacophony reverberated around the building. The creaking of unoiled winches, the rattling of hooks and chains, and worse, the scratches and fists against the door, the groans and gargled screams of the Risen. Harlan looked at the corpse, drowning out the incoherent screams by his concentration on the task at hand.
They had taken shelter in Logonov Street, an old three-story Victorian house, built when the trams were still in use. Gaunt mango trees lined the overgrown garden, the trees unkempt, the mangoes left to rot. The curtains had been drawn, with newspaper plastered on every window. The house had been empty for many months. Ever since They returned. The furniture remained, covered by large plastic sheets. Harlan had left the row of plaster saints on the fireplace mantle.
"You don't want to slice up the colon or the bladder," Harlan muttered. "It's messy."
Alex's brows furrowed and bit down on her lower lip.
"When are we moving on, Harlan? We can't do this forever. The Council has eyes and ears everywhere." She shifted on her feet, nervously patting her brow with a stained handkerchief.
Harlan groaned. "The only way they'll find out is if you tell them, idiot. Now help me!"
Around them, the light jittered and flashed as the bare bulb swung violently, as though propelled by an invisible wind in the stale air. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling. Pieces of skin and sinew littered the ground where Harlan had dumped the unwanted flesh. Some were serrated, others cut off in large chunks, dripping with blood.
Harlan stabbed two wounds into the corpse's chest cavity, piercing through the soft membrane. With one swift move he ruptured the diaphragm, causing his innards to burst out of his abdominal cavity and pool at his feet. He stuck out his index and middle finger, and with one steady motion, pressed them together as the organs and intestines exploded out of the man.
"What if it does come back?"
"It's not coming back!" Harlan snapped. "Listen. The scientists, the physicians ... they're all saying mass hysteria. But these things ... they're the playthings of witch doctors. They're something else."
Alex sighed. They were everywhere: rotting masses of insect-infested flesh, movements slower than the stupor of drunken men. Yet they were persistent, their tenacity and superior strength beyond any human's. Before they'd found the safe house, Alex thought it was comical, in a way. They appeared shrewd, conjuring up mini genocides in small towns, their stuttering footsteps reverberating around the streets as terrifying as loads of gunfire. They just kept coming, and nobody knew how to stop them.
"I'm going to open him up."
Harlan kicked the corpse's head across the room. A shadow passed over the window, obscuring the light from the slowly setting sun. He held up the machete, the blood-coated metal sheen reflecting the sweaty lacquer of the rotting body. A rumble of thunder cascaded across the sky, and a flow of fetid liquids gushed from the deep thoracic chasm as Harlan plunged the machete into the corpse's chest. The scent of rotting flesh filled the room. Alex rubbed her hands together, imagining the grittiness of the corpse's bodily fluids under her fingernails, inhaling the scent of an animal cadaver permeating the air, tasting the saltiness of an open wound on her tongue. Dry-swallowing, she filled her mouth with saliva to wash away the foul taste, but nothing she did could alleviate the sensation; the taste of death remained. Gasping, Alex stepped backwards, poised to pounce. Her breath came out in short, ragged intervals. She could not control her body. It trembled, yet she remained standing, frozen.
"I think we should go ..."
Harlan groaned, rubbing his forehead in exasperation. "You want to eat, don't you?" he snapped, turning to face her. "Or do you want to starve?" He grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her firmly, his eyes wide in a crazed rage. "I don't want this any more than you do, but what are we to do, huh? I'm starving, Alex."
A muffled burst of gunshots echoed outside the house, piercing the cacophony of rallying cries and shrill screams. Harlan was surprised anyone was idiotic enough to leave their safe houses. The air raids usually kept people indoors, yet rations were scarce, and there were only so many days most could remain cooped up in their boarded-up houses before turning the guns on themselves. Alex worried Harlan would view his gun not as a weapon but as an eternal saviour.
"Look. We need a plan. We can't stay here. We can't eat this thing. Who knows what it will do to us? Maybe we'll catch the virus?"
Harlan shook his head erratically. "No! I heard it's fine. If it doesn't bite us, if their saliva doesn't touch our skin, we're okay."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Metamorphosis"
Copyright © 2019 Claire Fitzpatrick.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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