Fiction · 03/27/2019

Afflicted

Not all girls leave a slime trail wherever they go; but the ones who do, Martine’s aunt says, are uniquely beautiful. This is so different from what her mother says as to be almost meaningless, and besides that her aunt hasn’t been to visit since Martine’s skin became glossy as a snail’s. Her mother follows her around the house with a rag, wiping the floors and the walls where she’s trailed her fingers. She no longer asks Martine to help in the kitchen because the viscous slime she leaves on knives and pans is impossible to clean. Plus, there’s the thought of eating any vegetable that’s been touched by her cursed hand.

The worst of it, Martine thinks, is how she can’t go anywhere without everyone knowing where she is. Boys follow her trail to the gifted and talented room where they find her curled in a beanbag chair behind the sofa. They lean above her and hold inquiring fingers over her skin. Touch her, touch her, they tell each other. One day Peter Hedricks holds his arm in front of her and says, Now you touch me, while she pretends to be reading The Golden Compass and not noticing him. Sometimes when she walks through the halls Martine wants to curl inside herself even though she’s not the worst afflicted, because the signs of her are all around. Encircling her locker is an opalescent puddle which the custodians can’t scrape clean; in each of her classes is a desk in one of the back corners layered with her ooze, slime swinging from narrow armrests.

Her mother takes her to the doctor for drying creams and pills that turn her skin to a barren, cracked wasteland but allow the ooze to continue unabated. Other girls have it worse, Martine tells the doctor as she watches him write new prescriptions, measure the viscosity of her production. There’s the girl a grade above her who carries the sick sweet stink of a thousand dead mice wherever she goes; there’s the girl in her gym class whose whole body has gone to scales that can’t be exfoliated away; there’s a rumor that one girl in her grade has vagina dentata, an affliction Martine is at once jealous and contemptuous of. Every night before bed she rubs four ounces of medicated cream into her whole body: through the roots of her hair to the gaps between toes. She sleeps in hooded footie pajamas lined with waterproof canvas and in the mornings wakes in a slick of sweat, slime, and medicine which she scrubs away with a bristled brush intended for cleaning bathroom floors.

Girls grow out of these things, her mother tells her, packing a fistful of washcloths in Martine’s bookbag. She sends her to school with three changes of clothes so she can switch outfits when one becomes saturated. Even her best friend Amy Roberts won’t have anything to do with her; after lunch she grabs the washcloth Martine has been using to wipe her face and swings it above the crowded hallway until Peter Hedricks catches it and folds it into his bookbag. After school he walks with Martine, gives her back her washcloth. You’re not contagious, are you? he asks, wiping his fingers on his jeans. He walks home with her three times before her mother sees him and invites him in to eat Martine’s snack of carrot and celery sticks. They work on their algebra homework and Martine finds it hard to square this boy with the one who leers over her while she reads her books; but the next day in school he acts like he doesn’t know her, and she finds it easier.

For a whole week Peter Hedricks appears at her house to do homework, to sit in her bedroom playing video games. He sits so close she could reach over and leave his body pebbled with her damp fingerprints. One afternoon he leaves while Martine is in the bathroom, and the next morning he walks into homeroom wearing one of her special-made pajamas. Sweat glistens on his forehead while everyone, even the teacher, laughs. Bad news, she tells Peter Hedricks, I am contagious. She touches her shining hands to his face, smears herself across his skin, before going to sit in the handicapped bathroom stall and wipe her hands until they’re red with irritation. She emerges at lunchtime to throw a fistful of soaked washcloths on Peter’s lunch tray. She looks in the faces of all the girls laughing and hiding their eyes from her, she tries to find the one who looks normal but is hiding her monstrosity beneath her clothes, folded inside her flesh. That’s the girl Martine wants to find. That’s the girl she wants to know.

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Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in cream city review, The Adroit Journal, Nimrod, Monkeybicycle, and SmokeLong Quarterly. You can find her at her at ellenrhudy.com or on twitter @EllenRhudy.