by Jeremy C. Shipp
Through the Colored Dimensions
The world wanted Greg to be a child, so he stacked his liquor bottles into a pyramid, and through the glass he watched his wife approach, in all the different colors, but none of which could hide the pale of her face.
"Come to bed, Greg."
"You can't tell me what to do. You're not my mom."
She grabbed his arm and he pushed her away.
"Fine, Greg. Just fine. You want to stay here and rot away, you go ahead and rot."
Greg watched her leave through his portals of multi-colored dimensions. Even if he wanted to go after her, he wouldn't know which colored Jennys were real, and which were just illusions.
He decided to go for a walk, and for once he actually acted upon this decision. The moment he stepped outside, he felt as if he'd fallen into one of his whiskey bottles. Everything was wet and sticky and gray. Even with the alcohol tickling his brain, every step was still a burst of jagged pain. He took small, precise steps, like he was just learning to walk. A gust of wind grabbed his (favorite) hat from his (favorite) head, and played keep away. But he let it go. He was tired of games.
"For god's sake, I'm a grown man," he grumbled, with the thunder. He shouldn't have to stay at home all day, moping around, drinking - and getting paid for it! He didn't care what state his back was in, he wanted to go back to work. He wanted it to be like the good ol' days, when things weren't so easy.
At that moment of thought, the rain felt different against his skin. Warmer. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine he was at home, in the shower, getting ready for work. But he didn't imagine this because his skin blistered. Little mountains rose on his hands and spread up his arms. He lifted his shirt and was relieved that he didn't see any there. But then he did, and he wanted to run somewhere, but he didn't know which direction to go. So he stood there, breathing hard and fast. The mountains grew hotter.
He realized they weren't mountains at all. They were volcanoes. The rapid pops were so loud - the sound was almost worse than the pain - he covered his ears and closed his eyes, like he used to do at the fireworks show when he was a boy; when he was afraid the sky was going to catch fire.
It felt as if someone was tugging on his clothes, trying to pull them off. He looked down. There was no one there.
His skin looked bad, like he'd popped a million zits. He took a step forward, and the vibrations sent up from his foot to his torso were enough to set the skin of his arms in motion, which slid off him like loose-fitting gloves, and plopped onto the sidewalk. He leaned down to study the crumpled mass of himself, and his face stretched off his head. It drooped down and looked back up at him. He could have sworn it mouthed Goodbye. The shock and pain forced a scream from between his trembling lips. Blood gushed from his new open face, onto the old wrinkled one. He reached down at touched it and he felt the skin of his back rip apart. Flesh slid out from under his shirt. Flaps of skin trickled down his bare legs, blooming at his feet - a fleshy flower.
He tried to reattach a flap onto his leg and for a moment it stuck to the blood, but the constant flow of the liquid forced the skin back down.
A loud hiss, and he turned his head to spot two cats fighting over his old face. "Let it go!" The felines yanked on either side of the skin, playing with his emotions, stretching his face into a smile, then a frown, then -
"Give it back!" He dashed forward.
The cats split the face in two and ran their separate ways.
Greg went after one. One of his slippers stayed behind. He felt his foot breaking apart with every step, but he couldn't stop now.
His meaty foot slipped on its own juices, and half a moment later, he smashed his head on the ground. His body oozed out in all directions, contaminating the puddles with intoxicated blood.
When Greg woke up, he was no longer in any pain. In fact, he couldn't even feel the once constant throbbing of his back. At first he assumed it had all been a dream; that he was at home in bed, draped in skin.
But he opened his eyes.
He stood at the front door for a long while. Perhaps hours, he wasn't sure. The rain had stopped but there was still the pitter-patter of his blood. He knew he looked hideous right now. He knew nobody in their right mind (and even those people in their wrong) wouldn't find his appearance repulsive. Even frightening. He would have to do this very carefully.
He rang the doorbell and gripped the doorknob. When he felt Jenny opening the door, he held the knob with all his might. It was difficult with how slippery his blood made it, but he managed.
"Jenny, it's me. Don't open the door. Just talk to me."
"What the hell are you doing now?" She tried more vigorously.
He lost his grip and leapt into a bush. A thorny bush. He knew his body was being gouged by hundreds of tiny needles, but he didn't feel a thing.
"Greg, get out of there. You're drunk."
"I'm not drunk. I…I have something to tell you. It's important. I want you to know, most importantly, that it doesn't hurt. Not at all."
"God. What did you do?"
"Jenny, don't be scared. It's still me. I'm going to come out now."
He paused, then stepped out into the porch light.
Jenny screamed at first. Then she turned around and vomited onto the already bloody welcome mat.
A Little Thing
The first thing Jenny did when she came to was lock herself in the bathroom. Greg pleaded, begged, he even tried singing to her like he used to do when they were teenagers, but she wouldn't come out. She wouldn't even speak to him.
Unfortunately, due to Greg's new appearance, that left little Franky without a mommy.
Greg had never really paid much attention to the slab of flesh before. He wasn't the one who wanted a child in the first place. In fact, Jenny had gone behind his back and stopped taking the pills without him knowing.
But still, the little thing was his child.
He lifted the crying infant from the crib, and held it out as far as he could, carrying it to Jenny's rocking chair. He set the baby on his lap. It was hard, but he tried not to get too much blood on it.
"I know, I know. I want her too, but she's busy right now being afraid."
The baby kept crying.
"Are you afraid of me?"
The baby kept crying.
"Or are you just scared of the world?"
The baby crawled forward and pressed its head against Greg's chest.
Greg wrapped his arms around Franky and held him close to his heart. "You're not so bad."
His body yearned for food, but when he ate, he couldn't taste anything. The outer layer of his tongue, where his tastebuds bloomed, was shed with the rest of his skin. After feeding Franky and himself, he knocked on the bathroom door.
"You can't stay in there forever, Jenny. You have eat something. And you have to take care of Franky. You think I'll be able to do it on my own? I'm not fit to be a father, let alone a mother."
He stood there, in near-silence, listening to nothing but the crying of his flesh.
The door squeaked. A single, puffy eye peeked through the slice of bathroom. "What did you do to yourself?"
"I didn't do this. I know I can get really drunk sometimes, but not enough to skin myself alive."
"I'm aware of that. Why don't you join us in the kitchen? I made some sandwiches."
There was a bit more door squeaking, and then they all joined in the kitchen, for their first meal together as a family, ever.
Jenny bit into the blood-soaked bread, and Greg had to turn away out of disgust.
He collected himself, then said, "It's not as bad as it looks really. I don't feel a thing."
"What about when the alcohol wears off?"
He had to contemplate that for a moment. "Somehow, I don't think the pain will ever return. But even if it does, I'm never touching alcohol again. I'm finished with that poison."
Tears dripped from Jenny's chin, onto her sandwich, which she took another bite of.
He looked at his baby, then his wife. "I don't know where I've been. It's as if I've been sleeping for this past year, and I've finally woken up at this moment. I promise you, Jenny. I'll never go to sleep again."
It took seven days for Greg to accept Jenny's words as truth: "You're beautiful."
But, finally, he looked deep into her eyes, deeper than he'd ever dared to look, and nodded. "Okay."
She crawled over to the bloody side of the bed and undressed him. She giggled like a schoolgirl, like the first time they did this together. "I love you, Greg."
"I love you."
Everything was going along just fine, when she looked down and noticed the rips. "I'm breaking your scabs."
"Don't stop. It doesn't hurt at all."
"Are you sure?"
He smiled, and they continued.
He loved the way her eyes closed tight, and then opened up wide. He loved her sounds. He loved everything about her at this moment. The only thing he wished, was that he could share in the ecstasy she was feeling. Sure, his body was doing what it was supposed to do. Blood pumped. Muscles flexed. But in terms of physical pleasure, he couldn't feel anything. Of course, he could never tell her that. Her happiness was enough.
Defecating was no longer a satisfying experience.
He sat on the toilet and emptied himself of all the waste that lingered in his body, but he didn't feel any relief. He didn't feel the pressure and then the lack of pressure. It was almost frustrating.
He wiped himself, and collected more dried blood than poo. Then he stood and looked at himself in the mirror. "I stopped bleeding."
A pain was born deep within his body at that instant. A pain he had never known before. He collapsed, weak in the knees, and crawled over to the toilet. His fingertips clawed at the toilet bowl and he pulled himself up. He vomited, quietly at first, but the thrust of his abdomen grew stronger and stronger. A noise pounded at his ears. "Hug! Hug! Hug!" He soon realized it was his own voice begging the universe for an embrace. In the beginning, only liquid spewed forth from his wide O of a mouth. But then came the larger chunks. His liver, a kidney. Was that his heart, still beating, spawning ripples in the crimson pool?
"Hug! Hug! Hug!"
He felt hollow.
Then came the uncontrollable sneezing. Each one was an explosion that sent his head rocking forward and back, over and over and over.
It stopped when a hard substance clogged his nasal passages. This substance slithered from the holes, like two pale snakes. He grabbed their heads and pulled. All he knew was at this very moment was that the serpents didn't belong anymore. He yanked at them with raw, skinless hands. The two white strings curled up in the toilet. His head felt lighter and lighter.
The tails of the snakes finally plopped into the water, among the other organs, some still wriggling and twitching as they drowned.
These two white snakes were not two white snakes at all. Greg realized this at closer inspection. And he wondered how he could make such a realization without his brain.
The rest of Greg's flesh slid away from the bone that night. In the morning he was nothing but a walking, talking skeleton. When Jenny first saw him, she was utterly positive that he was dead. But when he started to move and speak, the joy she felt almost overpowered the look of horror that stretched and contorted her face.
It took some getting used to, of course. For the both of them. Hours of conversation about feelings and fears and all that stuff. Experimentation - could Greg still kiss in this condition? Did he need to eat?
Today, he sat at the table and watched Jenny and Franky devour their meals. Before he was a skeleton, he had his urges. Now, his self didn't yearn for food or drink or sleep or sex. All that existed in his marrow was the want to make his family happy. It was freeing, in a sense. Though slightly scary, in another.
"Do you like the dessert?"
Jenny smiled and nodded. "It's delicious."
"Do you want anything else? I could run to the store if you like."
"No. I couldn't eat another bite."
Greg tapped his teeth together, simply to hear the sound it made. "Do you think we made the right decision about the clothes? I mean, I feel kind of stupid wearing this when I don't even have any…you know. There's nothing left to cover up."
Jenny shrugged. "We can try it without the clothes for a while. If you want."
He stared at the wall then shook his head. "No, you're right. Clothes is the best choice. What would Franky's friends think if he had a father who was a nudist?"
The Voices of Rest
Greg had to face what all unordinarily special people had to face: celebrity.
He gave the press two hours everyday to conduct their interviews and whatnot, after talking it over with Jenny, of course. Her yoga sessions lasted two hours, so it was an equal trade of their time.
Greg sat across from a rather old woman with puffed up purple hair. He hadn't seen many reporters like her before, but he tried not to stare. That would be rude.
"What is it like being the celebrated Skeleton Man?"
"Am I really celebrated?"
"I'd say so. Don't you think?"
Greg shrugged. "There's nothing about me to really celebrate. Perhaps marvel over. Not celebrate."
"I see." She scribbled in her notebook for a while, but stared directly at him the whole time. Quite a strange lady. But at least she didn't seem to be afraid of him, like some of the reporters. "So…what is a day in the life of Skeleton Man like?"
"Just a normal day. I play with my child. I play with my wife." He hoped that would force a chuckle out of the old woman's wrinkled lips, but sadly, nothing. "It's rather boring actually. I don't see why anybody would want to read about it."
"And yet they do."
She kept writing.
Greg didn't move.
This was the first time that Greg realized there was something missing in his existence, that he never thought about before. Indeed, he was sitting here, resting, not moving at all, but usually in this state his body would speak to him. His body would itch so he would scratch. His body would ache, so he would change the positions of his legs and arms. He would swivel his buttocks until they felt comfortable. He would fidget with his hands.
But at this moment, he body peeped not a word. Nothing. He was perfectly still, and he felt no calling to change that stillness at all.
If he wanted, could he just sit here, staring, not moving a millimeter, for the rest of eternity?
"I have one more question."
"Do you know how to bring people back to life?"
Greg stared at the old woman and her quivering lip. He knew now that she wasn't who she said she was. He shook his head. "I never died."
The Child Within
Greg set Franky onto his false lap, a pillow between his bony legs, and rocked forward and back. Franky's eyes fluttered to rest, and Greg wished that his could do the same. He wished that his eyes wanted darkness, but even if he wrapped his skull up in masking tape, all that would happen would be that he'd stare at the back of masking tape, instead of his child.
But this was still enough. For the first time in his life, he felt like a real father. He felt whole.
During the time between a rock forward and the rock back, Greg felt something. It felt like cold hands were grabbing him all over his body, but it didn't even matter what it felt like, because it was something. This was the first feeling he'd felt for months. Tears would have gushed from his eyes, if he'd had any.
He lifted from the chair, but he never told his body to stand up. Higher and higher, he was heading for the ceiling. He managed to turn around, and looked back. His body, his bones, were still sitting there with Franky. The skeleton was limp, leaned forward, mouth open.
Greg forced himself back down, away from the ceiling. He passed right through the skeleton. He tried again, and stopped himself right where the skeleton sat, but it was no use. He could not fill himself into the bones anymore. His self was no longer a self.
He wanted to hear himself breathing, hard and fast. He wanted his heartbeat to pound his ears. He wanted to feel his hands flex into fists and then stretch again. He wanted to sweat.
He tried speaking, but even words were too much for him now. All he had was this thoughts. The terror of freedom. Nothingness, and yet so much that yearned to be something.
Jenny entered the room, covered with yoga sweat. She smiled so high, then frowned so low. "Greg? Greg?" She shook his bones. "Greg! Oh my god! Oh my god!"
She picked Franky up and held him close to her heart. She wept into his hair.
More than anything, Greg wanted to feel what Franky was feeling. He wanted to press his ear against Jenny's chest and listen to her heartbeat. He wanted to smell her perfume. He wanted his flesh pressed against hers. He wanted her tears on his face.
And slowly, Greg drifted toward the boy. He could have stopped himself. He knew he should have. But right now, he didn't care about Franky. He didn't care about all of those things that Franky would never experience in his life. The pain and the happiness and those mixtures between the two.
Greg forced himself into the baby body, and forced Franky out.
Greg felt everything about being at once, and let out tears of utter joy, that drowned any notions of shame that might have been forming. He held Jenny tight, and knew he'd never let her go. Not this time. Maybe one day he'd tell her the truth. But for now, he just wanted to listen to her cry.
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