It begins in the middle of her back — an itch in the space between her shoulders, something alive.
She shifts against the worn-smooth cotton until she slips onto the cool space where her ex-husband used to sleep. He was neat and orderly, the sort of person who didn’t like to talk in hypotheticals. If she told her ex-husband this itch feels like a sharp point rising up within her, threatening to break the skin, he would tell her not to over-dramatize. But he’s not here, and she wouldn’t tell him anyway.
The itch grows in intensity. In the dark, it expands. She imagines insects: ants and millipedes and fleas. She imagines hundreds of microscopic needles controlled by an invisible hand.
Throwing off the covers, she climbs out of bed to rub the valley of her back against the exposed particle board edge of a prefabricated bookshelf her ex-husband put together not long after they were married. She remembers the confident twist of his wrist as he slit open the cardboard flat-pack box. Now, she scrapes her skin so hard against that unfinished spot that some of the books fall down.
Nevertheless, the itch is spreading. It doesn’t expand like water soaking a cloth, extending its borders evenly ever outward. It leaps from her back to her elbow to the inside of her knee, from her back to her nose to the bottoms of her feet. It migrates, multiplies. The surface of her skin has never felt so broad, every distance magnified, turned unfamiliar by this insistent itch. Soon, every inch of her is begging to be rubbed raw: her scalp, her shoulders, the little nascent hairs on the backs of her arms. Even her eyelashes itch.
In the bathroom, she snaps the backscratcher in half. She scrubs herself all over with a long-handled brush under the cold spray of the shower. She thinks, Let me be held down and raked with steel wool. Let someone scour me.
She scratches and scratches, her nails blunt, but every touch, every drift of air, only inflames the vicious crawl redoubling under her skin. She begins to fear that nothing she can do will stop this itch.
Her ex-husband was the sort of man who believed in willpower. He never got sick, refused to take aspirin. Whenever he felt a migraine coming on, he would visualize the pain as a hamburger and take bites out of it until the headache went away. She asked him once if this method could be used to ease her menstrual cramps, and he said he doubted she could manage it. Now, she tries to imagine the itch shrinking down, down, down, but it refuses to disappear.
Out in the cool air of the backyard, she cuts across the lawn to where the garden hose lays coiled in the grass. In the soft dark, she douses herself in its fresh nickel-smelling water. Still the itch rises, and rises, all over her and within her and entirely out of her control. Despairing, she drops onto the ground to bathe herself in the dirt like a bird.
What would her ex-husband think — her naked body in plain view of the neighbor’s television-blue windows, the sky open above. With an absent sort of clarity, she imagines his disdain. How immodest, the frenzy of her hips heaving against the bare earth. How undisciplined, the involuntary arch of her back. But the part of her that can recall his voice is receding. She can think of nothing now except the voracious itch.
She claws at herself and scrapes against rocks until her skin begins to peel away, first in scraps, then in long, sticky strips. She scratches until she’s scratched off all her skin — until, at last, she can feel herself becoming something else.