Perfect Lighting by Karen Heslop
Melody Chambers stood before the floor length mirror that had been installed in her master bathroom a few days ago. She was carefully inspecting her body for bites. She knew the house had been treated for pests but she wasn’t taking any chances. She and her husband had bought what realtors like to call a ‘fixer upper’ a few months ago and they were finally done with the renovations. The mirror was the last thing to be added before they had moved in. The light flickered above her head and she sighed.
That darn light is always flickering, she thought. During the renovations, Daniel had called in an electrician but he hadn’t been able to find anything wrong with the wiring. Yet whenever the bulb was replaced, the new one would burn out the instant it was put in. Eventually, they just gave in and settled for the original bulb that had come with the house.
“At least the lighting isn’t that bad,” she muttered.
Melody took one last look in the mirror before getting into the tub. Hopefully the hot bath would ease her anxiety and soak away a dreadful day of work.
She ran her hands down her thighs, massaging her aching muscles. As her palm moved down her right leg, she felt a small bump halfway between her upper thigh and knee. Curious, she raised her leg above the water and peered at the small red blemish. She flicked a fingernail lightly back and forth over it, trying to gauge its true size. Hmm, she thought, could be a mosquito bite. Submerging both the leg and her instinctive fear, she finished her bath and got dressed. Her husband was already in bed and appeared to be half asleep but she had to wake him.
“Hmm,” he answered groggily.
“Can you get some mosquito repellent tomorrow?”
“Seriously D,” Melody insisted, “you know how much I hate having little critters around me.”
Daniel sighed, battling exhaustion in order to calm his wife.
“I’ll get it hun. Don’t worry about it.”
Melody bit her lip and nodded. She resisted the urge to make him promise. In her head, she could hear her mother’s snide voice telling her: “Forcing men to make promises make them feel pressured. It’s a childish thing to do. Find another way to do it or don’t do it all”. She sighed. She would just have to trust that he’d get it.
A few days later, reeking of mosquito repellent, Melody was inspecting the same spot on her leg under the bathroom’s constantly flickering light. The bump had continued to itch as she assumed it would. She had also assumed that it would get better but to her dismay it didn’t. What had been a small red spot was now an angry red blister. She could even see the beginning of a pale yellow centre. Melody called to her husband from her position on the side of the tub.
“D? I think the bite is infected. Do we have any antibiotic cream?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Daniel answered from the living room.
While listening to her husband open and shut drawers, Melody rubbed the pad of her thumb repeatedly over the blister as if the action could erase it from her body. Daniel had to touch her shoulder in order to get her attention.
“Found it. A little worse for wear but better than nothing I guess.”
Melody took the half empty, battered tube and asked, “What do you think? Does it look infected?”
Daniel squinted his eyes at his wife’s leg. Given her history, he tried to strike a balance between compassion and rationality.
“Well…I don’t really see much there,” he said with a shrug, “Just where you’ve been scratching at it.”
Melody rolled her eyes and massaged the cream into her leg. She wanted to really get it in there.
“Whatever. It’s my leg. I should know.”
“Sure,” Daniel murmured.
He knew better than to disagree with Melody when she was getting agitated about her bug issues. When she had gone to the Caribbean on a family vacation as a child, she had come back with quite a few itchy bites that her parents had attributed to mosquitoes. A week later, the bites had become swollen and showed signs of infection. When Melody’s parents had carried her to the paediatrician, the doctor had poked tentatively at one of the swollen bites. To her surprise and Melody’s horror, a worm popped out.
She hadn’t been bitten by mosquitoes; she had actually been infested with botfly larvae. Melody endured having 5 of the maggots removed from her body and her mind had never completely gotten over the trauma. Therapy had helped somewhat but Daniel had accepted that it would be an ongoing struggle. He saw no harm in humouring her now.
A week went by during which Daniel watched Melody scratch the general area without saying a word about it. He thought about bringing it up but decided against it. She would either get over it like she had before or tell him if it had gotten worse. He didn’t want to push her in either direction.
As if on cue, Melody called for him from the bathroom. He was starting to hate that room. Why did it have to have the brightest bulb? Melody seemed to always be in there. When he got to her, she was in her usual spot on the edge of the tub. His breath caught in his throat when he saw how pale she was. Her gaze was transfixed on her thigh.
“Is everything alright?” he asked.
Slowly she turned to him, her mouth moving up and down without a sound.
“Are you okay?” he tried again while slowly venturing closer towards her.
“There’s something in my leg,” she whispered.
Daniel closed the gap between himself and his wife quickly. Her hands were on either side of her leg as if she were afraid to touch the actual area. He peered closely at the spot Melody was always complaining about and frowned. All he could see were the ragged scratches made by her fingernails in various stages of healing. He supposed it was possible that those could be infected but…
“Sweetie…I’m not sure we’re seeing the same thing but we can go to the doctor in the morning alright?”
“In the morning? What about now?”
“Uhm…how about we put some more of the cream on it? That should keep things from getting worse during the night, right?”
She frowned uncertainly but nodded slowly after a few moments.
“Alright,” she replied, “but first thing in the morning we’re going to the doctor.”
“Sure hun,” Daniel said, a relieved sigh escaping his lips.
He watched her rub the cream on her thigh with so much pressure he worried she might be bruising herself without being aware of it. Still, he waited patiently for her to finish and led her to bed when she was done. He lay awake in bed until he was sure Melody had fallen asleep. Only then did he allow himself to drift off.
The sensation of insects crawling beneath her skin jolted Melody awake. Alarmed, she slunk out of the bed carefully so as to avoid waking Daniel. She entered the dark bathroom and pushed the door closed slowly. She ran her fingers tentatively along the wall in search of the light switch, silently praying there were no ants out and about. She found the switch and flicked it on.
She sat in her favourite spot and rolled up the right pant leg of her pajamas. The blister had become a sore the size of the base of a cup and she could see two distinct though jagged circles. The outer circle was light pink and shiny. The inner circle was red, warm to the touch and slightly raised towards a centre. At this centre was a bright yellow pus-filled hole.
The very same hole Melody was sure she had seen a maggot-like head pop out of earlier in the evening. The hole had scabbed over and that bothered Melody even more. There was something inside her. It could be burrowing through her body even as she sat there.
“I have to get it out,” she muttered quietly.
She opened the medicine cabinet and took out a pair of tweezers and small trimming scissors her husband used on his beard. Slowly, carefully she used the tweezers to lift the scab off. A viscous pink mixture of pus and blood oozed from the sore. Melody gritted her teeth and pressed the raised sides of the sore with the blades of the scissors causing even more pink liquid to slide unto her thigh.
Finally she had flattened the sore leaving no more room for the creature to hide. She used the tweezers to clear the flesh that might block its path, oblivious to the uneven tears she was rending in her leg. Melody bit her lip and while she waited, a small beige head peeked out of the widened hole, its pitch black antennae waving back and forth testing the air.
Melody yelped and lost her grip on her little scavenging tools. She slapped her hand over her mouth to stop herself from calling out to Daniel. He would only tell her she was giving in to her fear like she had several times before. He would tell her she needed to get some rest. But how could she rest? This…thing was living inside her. As if taking advantage of Melody’s indecision the creature ducked back into her thigh.
“No, no, no…” Melody whimpered.
She quickly retrieved the tweezers and scissors from the floor. She picked frantically at the hole with the tweezers but couldn’t find where the filthy creature had gone. Frustrated, she used the blade of the scissors to cut a line from the hole to her upper thigh. She dug some more with the tweezers. Nothing. Melody’s heart was thudding in her chest. Her breath was coming out in short, raspy gasps. She knew she needed to find the thing before she had a full blown panic attack. If that happened she would lose control of the situation and Daniel would have to get involved. Worse yet, she would still be infested.
Melody pulled her shirt up and stuffed her mouth with the thick cotton material. She closed her eyes and tried to slow her breathing. Still, her harsh exhalations seemed to echo in the pristine bathroom. Determined, she opened her eyes and plunged the scissors into her thigh. Her screams were muffled by the plug of cotton as she continued to quickly cut crude lines into her flesh. The bright red blood blossoming from the gashes only registered on a subconscious level as she concentrated on her search.
Bits of skins and flesh were discarded as she tunneled into her thigh. She wiped tears from her eyes when her vision became blurry, smearing blood across her cheeks. Melody caught sight of a part of the beige body writhing in her thigh and pulled at it with the tweezers. As the tips of the tweezers closed around its wriggling head, the creature latched all its numerous legs into the muscles surrounding it.
Melody cried out from the pain of having needle thin spindles digging into her flesh. Despite the agony, she held on and pulled the creature out. She could now see that it was about the length of an unsharpened pencil with black legs and black antennae at both ends. It was beige with splotches of green all along its body. Melody brought the wriggling creature closer for inspection. She peered at the rhythmically clacking spincers and imagined that it was cursing her tenacity. A broad grin of triumph spread across her face.
“I got it,” she whispered.
“Daniel! I got it!” she yelled.
Daniel was dreaming. Angry swarms of mosquitoes were chasing him along the sea shore. He was trying to outrun them but the sand kept sucking his feet down. Melody was calling out to him from the cement walkway. She was being devoured by cockroaches. Bit by bit, pieces of her fell away as Daniel struggled to reach her. All the while, he wondered why she didn’t just move. She wasn’t being sucked into the sand like he was so why didn’t she just…move?
Melody’s shout dragged him back to reality. He sprung up in the bed, at first disoriented by the sudden change in scenery. He could see a thin line of light glowing under the closed bathroom door. Christ, he thought, not again.
“Melody?” he called through the door.
“I got it! Come look!” she replied.
Daniel rubbed his eyes and opened the door.
“Hun, it’s the middle of the…”
His mouth hung open, the words he planned to say accumulated at the back of his throat threatening to choke him. His wife had a delirious look on her face, her short dark hair plastered on a face slick with sweat. Her blood drenched hand was extended towards him, waving a pair of tweezers back and forth to get his attention. Daniel could only see the damage she had done to herself. Melody’s right pant leg was rolled up to mid-thigh and its lilac hue was drowning in maroon. Everything between that bloody line of clothing and her knee had been ravaged.
Bloody strips of flesh hung from Melody’s leg. Blood was running down the sides of her thigh unto the tiles. The floor and shower curtain both had sprinklings of darkening flesh and blood. Daniel stared at his maniacally laughing wife in horror.
“Hun, what did you…”
“Look!” she interrupted, “I’ve got it! Now do you believe me?”
Daniel tore his gaze away from his wife’s massacred leg and looked at what she was holding. She held the tweezers as if she had unearthed a valuable prize. Daniel wondered what she thought it was. All he could see was a lumpy strip of flesh with red and beige colouring stippled through it. He took a breath and forced himself to calm down. This was more serious than what had happened before but it wasn’t impossible to handle. At least he hoped it wasn’t. He tore a wad of tissue from the toilet paper roll and held it out to her.
“Good job hun. Put it in here and we can show it to the doctor when we get to the hospital. Let me just get something to cover your leg up and we can go.”
Melody’s face lit up. “We’re going now?” she asked.
Daniel collected the strip of flesh, wrapping it up carefully under his wife’s watchful gaze. He kept the urge to cry, scream and run away under control with the breathing techniques Melody’s psychiatrist had taught him. He grabbed a clean sheet from the bedroom and returned to find Melody trying to get up from the side of the tub.
“No!” Daniel cried, concerned about the spastic twitch of muscles he could see through the exposed flesh. How far had she cut? he wondered. He wrapped the sheet quickly around her leg, barely avoiding the growing pool of blood under her foot then called an ambulance. He watched in trepidation as blood started to appear on the outside of the sheet in splotches. As he wrapped another sheet around the wound, the sounds of the ambulance pierced the quiet neighbourhood.
He helped Melody into the ambulance and held her hand as they connected her to a number of machines to monitor her vitals. The paramedic wrapped a thick material firmly around the mangles leg and kept an eye on the blipping lines on the monitors. Daniel watched the paramedic’s every move until Melody’s hand brushed his arm gently.
“Where’s the worm?” she asked.
Daniel showed her the wad of toilet paper in his hand. Melody smiled and slipped into unconsciousness. Above her head, the paramedic met his eyes but said nothing.
Melody’s eyes fluttered open. The glare of the overhead lights burnt into her irises and she lifted her hand to rub her eyes. The hand didn’t move. She tried the other one. Nothing happened. Confused, she tried to get up so she could see what was holding her hands. A thick band tightened against her chest and she could only move about an inch off the bed.
“Hello?” she called.
A nurse pushed her head through the doorway. She smiled at Melody and held up a finger. A few moments later she walked into the room holding a small tray.
“Good morning Mrs. Chambers. Time for some breakfast.”
“But my hands…”
“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” the nurse replied, patting Melody’s hand.
The nurse sat in the lone chair beside Melody’s bed and speared a piece of scrambled egg with the fork. She held it before Melody’s lips and waited.
“I don’t understand…” Melody said.
The nurse rested the fork in the plate with a sigh.
“Mrs. Chambers…you came in with a very serious self-inflicted injury. The doctors patched it up as best as they could. Your leg will be different but it will be fine. What’s important now is helping you get better so it doesn’t happen again.”
“Once you were alright, he went home to…clean things up a bit. He’ll be back soon.”
“And the worm…what was it?”
The nurse shook her head sympathetically.
“Honey, that was no worm. You tore out your own leg.”
“What? That’s not true! I saw it. I’m sure of it. I…”
The energy in Melody’s outburst waned as she struggled to remember what had happened. The memory seemed to change with each flicker of the light.
“I was so sure…” she whispered.
“It’s okay dear,” the nurse replied, looking at Melody sympathetically, “You weren’t yourself. The doctors here will help with that. In fact, you should be meeting with them in a few minutes.”
Melody looked around the sterile room and at her restraints.
“Where am I?” she asked.
“You’re in the psych ward of the hospital dear. Now let’s get your strength up shall we?”
The nurse smiled again and placed the fork before Melody. This time Melody opened her mouth.
SIX MONTHS LATER
Daniel massaged his temples while standing in front of the medicine cabinet in the new bathroom of his brand new house. After Melody’s breakdown, he didn’t think twice about selling the house. Thankfully, they had done such a good job fixing it up he was able to actually make a profit from the sale. This time around he didn’t bother to look for a house they could ‘make their own’. They didn’t need unique. They didn’t need character. They needed a house that didn’t inspire Melody to mutilate herself. He took a bottle of painkillers from the cabinet and twisted the cap off.
He closed the cabinet door and gave a start when a pale face with greasy ringlets of hair cascading around it appeared in the mirror. The bottle fell from his hand and pills clattered into the sink. Melody was doing much better now but she had gotten gaunt since the ordeal. Fixing her mind had done her body no favours and it pained him to remember what she really looked like now. Sometimes, the sight of her still shocked him. If she took pleasure in anything anymore, he would think she was scaring him on purpose.
“Everything okay Melody?”
She held her hand out for inspection.
“Do you see that?”
He looked at the outstretched arm.
“You mean the bite? Yeah.”
She nodded and whispered, “Good,” more to herself than him. Melody limped out of the bathroom while absent mindedly rubbing her arm. Daniel sighed and tried to recover the pills from the sink. It will get better, he thought, it has to.
Melody lowered her body carefully into the soft patio chair. The doctors had done their best work on her leg but the damage had been done. Her leg was now plagued with a weakness that made her limp and chronic pain that kept her awake at night. She ran her finger along the groves and ridges of the mangled flesh. It was a mess that still paled in comparison to what had happened to her brain. Even in her dreams, she played the game of ‘Real/Not Real’ without knowing if she was moving closer to sanity or further away.
A mosquito buzzed around her head and she willed herself to remain still. Encouraged, the insect flitted along Melody’s exposed thigh. It settled unto the edge of the indented thigh and got comfortable. As it bent forward to drink, Melody slapped it with an open palm. She lifted the palm, picked the tiny corpse from it and flicked it away. She ran her finger through the small blood spot and brought the finger to her nose. Inhaling the tangy odour, Melody smiled and whispered, “Real”.
Miles away in her new home, Jessie Munch was frowning at the puffy red nail bed of her index finger illuminated by flickering bathroom lights. She poked it and bit her lip.
“Brian! I think I have another nail infection.”
Brian Jenkins chuckled from the bedroom. Ever since a traumatic toenail infection a few years ago, where she had to have a section of the big toe on her left foor removed, Jessie compulsively checked her nails every night. At least once per month, she thought she saw an infection. She had yet to be right even once.
“You always think that hun. Come to bed. Remember you have that big meeting in the morning.”
Jessie ignored her boyfriend and continued to rub her thumb over the swelling. She popped an Augmentin tablet into her mouth and washed it down with tap water. With one last look at her nail, Jessie muttered,
“Whatever. It’s my body. I should know.”
Karen Heslop writes from Kingston, Jamaica. Her stories can be found in Apparition Lit Mag, 4StarStories and The Wierd and Whatnot among others.