Gloria L. Huang
It started as an itch; tiny, insignificant, a mosquito on a resting hand, a feather on a wrinkled nose. It was all there, all kinds of discomfort condensed into one simple moment—the crawling of skin, the cells shuddering with their message to the brain. Scratch me.
Claire obeyed. There was no reason not to. There was nothing that flagged that instant as momentous, no reason why she should have been able to foresee what would grow from a simple biological reflex, a nervous tic. It was only when it was too late that she would look back and pinpoint this second as the one in which she started falling apart, peeling away, layer by layer. Like an onion, only more grotesque.
Claire could not have known she would find herself sitting at the back of a bus, stripping skin off her body like skin off a chicken and recalling that first little itch with a kind of parental nostalgic fondness. Claire would remember that the first itch was not born from nothing. That itch, it too had a story.
Back when Claire had been a normal, itchless person—before itch, B.I.—she carried out a fairly uneventful existence. Unremarkable as well, but that was largely in comparison to all that happened after itch, A.I. As a secretary for a small, fledgling financial company in New York City, Claire spent her days typing form letters, formatting pitch books on PowerPoint, and fielding calls from angry-sounding men who simply barked the name of their requested telephonic partner when Claire picked up the phone. Sometimes, when Claire was at her busiest, she would sit perfectly still and imagine herself floating out of her body. Hovering above her cramped cubicle, she would watch her other self silently resume her tasks, pecking at her keyboard, phone cradled between shoulder and ear. A fast-forward time-lapse film called Claire The Secretary At Work.
Every Wednesday after work, Claire stopped at the Trader Joe’s four blocks from her apartment in Brooklyn and purchased the following items: one packet of porcini mushroom ravioli, fresh; one loaf of brown bread, multigrain; one gallon of milk, organic; one carton of liquid egg whites; one bag of pre-sliced, reduced-fat cheddar cheese; one packet of oven-roasted turkey slices. The store was always filled to the brim, the check-out line winding around the aisles like a lazy snake. Claire would get into line as soon as she entered the store, pulling her items off the shelves as she inched past them. The world’s slowest-moving grocery train.
One Wednesday, B.I., Claire squeezed her arm through a wall of shoppers to snag a Clif bar. Balancing her red plastic basket on her thigh, Claire was in the process of tucking the bar between her milk and her ravioli when she felt two taps on her shoulder. She glanced back to see a man with long, curly brown hair and a thick wooly beard. A green baseball cap was pulled low over his hair, the words “Syannan Books, Inc.” embroidered across the front of the cap in raised purple thread.
“It is you, M’Halkana,” he crowed. He inserted a severe glottal stop in the middle of the last word, coughing out the last two syllables. Several nearby shoppers halted and turned toward him.
Claire considered his words, trying to transform them into something intelligible. “I’m sorry?”
“Your Grace,” the man replied. He dropped his chin onto his chest and knelt down on one knee. His other leg slid back into a metallic shopping cart, forcing it into a backward arc. Murmurs erupted around Claire, and her face flamed.
“Oh my God, what are you doing?” she cried, anxiously backing away from the man until she bumped into the shopper in front of her, an elderly woman who proceeded to deliver a gruff retaliatory shove.
The man clambered off the floor and moved toward Claire. He stretched his arm out, the flat of his palm twisting away from her face. He held the back of his hand in front of Claire’s face, as if he were going to slap her. She shrank away, cringing. Disapproving mutters thrummed around her.
The man slowly lowered his hand until his trembling fingertip floated inches from her wrist. He was close enough now that Claire was cocooned in his smell, the musty aroma of sodden wadded towels and untouched closet corners.
“It is there,” the man whispered. “The sign. I spied it when you reached for the Clif bar.”
Claire tightened her left hand around the plastic basket handle and twiste her right wrist toward her face. “This?” she asked incredulously. A deep winecolored stain was splashed across her wrist, bleeding into the palm of her hand. “This is just a birthmark. I’ve had it since I was born.”
“It is The Mark, M’Halkana,” he insisted, excitement creeping back into his voice. “We have been waiting for you to return to us.” He inclined his head as though he might bow again.
A burly man appeared next to them, his telltale Trader Joe’s employee ID clipped to the side of his jeans. “Hey man, we’re getting complaints about you from the other customers. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
The man’s mouth tensed, his beard hairs bristling like ruffled feathers. He glanced briefly at Claire before dropping his basket to the floor with a bang. Before anyone could react, he stormed toward the exit.
“Crazy people,” a grumble rose in front of Claire. She wrenched around, already nodding in agreement. The elderly woman was gazing at Claire with unwavering scorn.
After dinner that night, Claire curled on her sofa in front of her television and propped open her laptop. Speckles, her gray Persian cat, leapt onto the cushion on her right. The purr rumbling from Speckles mingled with the mechanical whirr emanating from the laptop.
Claire flexed her fingers and opened her browser to the Google search page. Hesitantly, she typed, “Mal Cana.” She skimmed the results page with disinterest. Nothing. She tried again. “Mel Gana.” Again, nothing.
Claire leaned her head back against the top of the couch cushion. She laughed, causing Speckles to glance warily in her direction. What was she doing? Googling her spiritual name because some Trader Joe’s lunatic that smelled of dirty hamper had tried to coronate her?
Claire stroked Speckles’ fur absentmindedly with her right hand, her left still resting on the laptop keyboard. Speckles stretched his neck, savoring the attention. Claire’s eyes drifted toward her right hand. The edges of her birthmark flashed with each movement, turning her mind to bruises and blood. With her left hand, Claire pecked out “Malkana.”
Google spat back a response at the top of the results. “Did you mean ‘M’Halkana’?”
Claire jolted forward, startling Speckles into a nimble soar off the couch. She clicked on the first result, a site titled “Church of Syanna.” She scrolled through the page, none of which seemed very interesting, until she reached a blue box around the word “M’Halkana.” She clicked it.
The laptop screen blinked, rapidly unfurling text that had been written in a looping, coiled font. Claire read slowly, her eyebrows furrowed.
“M’Halkana, goddess and creator of the Church of Syanna. She will return to us when we have completed the nine stages of penance for our sins. (Completion of all nine stages will be rewarded with the purest presence of our goddess M’Halkana, along with a commemorative certificate and ribbon.) You will recognize her because she will carry The Mark.”
Claire clicked the flickering words, “The Mark.”
“The Mark is a darkened patch of skin around M’Halkana’s right wrist, where her captors dragged her to her death eighteen centuries ago, a reminder of the sacrifice M’Halkana made for us when she allowed herself to be captured so that the rest of our mothers and fathers could escape the Ghal-Kisen. Do not let her death be in vain. Be ever vigilant in your search for M’Halkana, in all Her Goddessness.”
A flashing star with an exclamation mark encased inside caught Claire’s attention. She clicked it, and the laptop screen filled with her own face. Her features were contorted as if she were expecting a blow.
Claire’s fingers turned to ice. She remembered the man raising the back of his hand to her face in Trader Joe’s, his cheap black wristwatch gleaming under the fluorescent lights. She slammed her laptop shut, prompting another squall from Speckles.
Claire sat silent for an hour, staring at her blank television screen. She felt an itch on her left side, just under her ribcage. Distractedly, Claire began to scratch.
Over the next few weeks, Claire steadily lost control over her life. Doorbell buzzes rained into her apartment every evening and especially during the weekends. She found herself locked in an endless parade of conversations with Syannan Church members, all of whom were convinced that she was their returned spiritual leader.
“No,” Claire would repeat wearily as soon as she walked down the stairs in her robe and opened the door to the apartment building. “I’m not this Milk Cana person. Please leave me alone.”
After one week of constant worship, Claire had had enough. She taped a typewritten note next to the buzzer button for her apartment: “Although I do not deny your right to practice whatever religion you choose, I also do not wish to hear about it. Please don’t knock.”
The members of the Syannan Church began leaving gifts on her doorstep instead. Baskets of fruit and pans with baked goods soon adorned the welcome mat in front of the door. Claire left the gifts on her brownstone stoop until the fruit began to rot and stray animals had eaten every crumb of the baked goods. Her neighbors complained, sliding malevolent notes under Claire’s door in near-illegible scrawl. “Get rid of the nasty food and crazy people, we’re sick of this.”
Reluctantly, Claire amended the note next to her apartment buzzer: “M’Halkana commands that no one shall buzz her, leave gifts for her, or in any way disturb her or her neighbors.” The upside was that the buzzing and gifts ceased immediately. The downside was that her neighbors began to ignore Claire with a fervor that bordered on fear.
The Syannan Church members did not allow Claire’s airtight solution to deter them from discovering a loophole. Within a few days, adoring Syannans began bombarding Claire’s personal email address. The emails begged for an audience for an hour, a minute, a second. They unveiled stories of heartbreak and betrayal, disease and hope. Claire deleted them without reading past what she was forced to see in the preview window. She eventually set an “away” message that read, “M’Halkana also forbids email contact.”
Throughout this time, Claire’s skin became her prison. The initial tiny itch now raged over her skin like wildfire, leaving a red, burning char in its wake. Claire raked her nails over the scaly patches that grew at her touch, islands that expanded over the ocean of flesh until they joined into monstrous territories that claimed nearly all of her. The rashes blazed with a white-hot discomfort, drawing Claire’s fingernails to them even in her sleep. Her skin wept, oozing a clear discharge tinged pink with blood.
Claire began to wear long-sleeved turtlenecks and trousers, even in the moist heat of the New York summer. The rivulets of sweat that dripped over Claire’s encrusted skin were the final insult. She turned her shower spray to a scalding hot, her hairdryer on high, the scorching heat briefly extinguishing the maddening itch. Claire fought her skin with all the elements she could command, to no avail. She avoided looking at her body in the mirror, knowing that her raw misery was etched across her flesh.
One week after Claire barred the Syannan email flood, she wore a full-length trench coat to work. Her boss had tossed several confounded looks in her direction, but she feigned obliviousness. The beige trench coat, adorned with unnecessary flaps and useless zippers, was the lightest loose-fitting item in her closet that covered the majority of her body.
Claire crouched miserably over her computer, both arms folded across her body and tucked into the opposing drooping sleeve. Her nails scraped frantically at her forearms, the pads of her fingertips wet with the liquid seeping from her skin. The phone jangled near her ear, but she ignored it.
“Claire! Oh my God, Claire, come look!”
Claire yanked her hands out of her sleeves. She scrambled to her feet, wiping her fingers surreptitiously on her trench coat. Gwen, the secretary who sat three cubicles down, was standing at the wide picture window in the conference room across the hall.
Gwen waddled to the door of the conference room and gestured urgently. “God’s sakes, Claire, get over here! These people have your face on signs!”
A hollow horror tore through Claire’s stomach. She dashed to the window, disregarding the ringing telephone. She pressed the palms of her fingers against the glass.
A small loop of protesters marched in a lazy circle outside the building. They carried oversized placards, some which bore the same photo of Claire that appeared on the website. The other placards read “Praise Be to M’Halkana” and “Free M’Halkana The Gracious.”
“Oh no,” Claire breathed, leaning her forehead against the soothing cool surface of the glass.
Gwen squinted her eyes. “What’s that there say — Mal Rana?”
“M’Halkana,” Claire supplied in resignation, her eyes closed.
“Well, what’s that mean? Why’s your face on those posters, Claire?” Gwen’s voice was as bewildered as it was inquisitive.
“They want Claire to be freed from the yoke of corporate America.”
Claire and Gwen whirled around simultaneously to face Mr. Wexler, Claire’s boss. He glanced at Claire and pressed his lips together. “I’ve called security, and they agree that this behavior constitutes harassment and stalking of an individual. The police are on their way.”
Claire nodded, her heart throbbing in her throat. She felt heavy, dragged down by an inexplicable guilt. She rubbed the base of her hand against the top of her thigh, pressing down against the irritated, inflamed flesh through the fabric of her clothing.
Her right hand reached under the slippery sleeve covering her left arm. She dug her nails into the deepest part of the itch and pulled. To her horror, a piece of her skin peeled off between her fingertips, as if she were stripping wallpaper.
Her mouth dry, Claire licked her lips. “Don’t worry, sir,” Claire assured him. “I’ll make sure my personal life doesn’t interrupt my work again.”
For the next three months, the Syannans left Claire alone, yet she felt no peace. The constant fear of a buzzer, a phone call, even a digital email chime strained Claire to her breaking point. At work and at Trader Joe’s, she looked over her shoulder compulsively, trapped in the terrified anticipation that a Syannan would bow before her. At home, she cowered under her comforter, naked. Without clothing, she could drag her fingernails up and down each leg, across her torso, over her breasts, down each arm, around her neck. Coated with scaly, moist patchwork, she cried out with perverse pleasure as she flayed herself with her nails. These became the only moments she looked forward to, when she could struggle to free herself from her prison, her armor of infuriating itchiness. When she finally rose from the bed, the sheets would be stained with the imprint of her leaking skin. Claire would stand at the mirror, observing her flaking body, red and raw from the neck down. She felt detached, numb. Speckles had taken to hiding under the bed, frightened by Claire’s transformation.
The silence left by the Syannans carved a hole into Claire’s life that was filled with her anxious conviction that they would return. She knew they were waiting, hiding around the corner, eager for the opportunity to terrorize her with their ridiculous veneration.
“I’m telling you, Mom,” Claire insisted to her mother over the phone, “it’s just a matter of time. They’re out there. These people, they’re not the kind to just leave it alone.”
Her mother paused. Her reactions, which had started out fiercely protective, had since devolved into cautious concern. And the target of her concern had shifted. “Are you sure, honey?” she ventured gently. “It’s been three months now—maybe they’ve realized they were wrong.”
“No, they’ll be back,” Claire persisted.
Her mother paused again. “Claire, I just don’t want you to become obsessed with this. I know it must’ve been a very difficult thing to deal with, but you shouldn’t let it get in your head—”
“Mom, they won’t give up,” Claire whispered, her eyes swelling with tears. “They’re probably tracking this call right this second. I can’t get away from them.” The tears plopped down her face and onto her neck, where they seemed to sizzle against her tender skin.
“Alright, dear, okay. Don’t get upset,” her mother comforted hastily. “I’m sure you’re right. Just be ready to call the police if you ever feel in any danger.”
But Claire knew the police would not be able to stop devotees as insane as the Syannans. She checked their webpage frequently to monitor the situation. Every day, someone updated it with new meeting times, announcements and Syannan aphorisms. Claire eventually gathered the courage to click on the blue box surrounding “M’Halkana.” A black and white message popped up on her laptop screen, “This part of the site is temporarily under construction.” A cheery animated stick figure stooped under the text. He wore a construction hat and wielded a shovel. As Claire watched, the figure bent low and plunged his shovel into the blank white of the screen. He pulled the shovel out and threw a squiggly black line over his shoulder where it disappeared into the nothingness behind him. He crouched low to start the process again.
Claire stared at the figure, content to repeat his Sisyphean task until the end of virtual time. Her skin began to sizzle with discomfort. She knew what she had to do, and she had never felt more terrified.
The next morning, Claire called into work and told them that she wouldn’t be coming in.
The secretarial coordinator inquired, “Sick, are we?”
“In a way,” Claire replied.
Claire packed a duffel bag with several items of clothing, all long sleeves and light-weight pants. She tossed in an apple, a banana, and the Clif bar that she had purchased from Trader Joe’s months ago. She tucked her credit cards, ID card, subway pass and available cash into a secure side pocket. Then she took Speckles, tucked a note under his collar and tied him to the doorknob of a neighboring apartment.
Speckles mewed, contorting his body in an attempt to chew at the collar and leash.
“I’m sorry, Speckles,” Claire whispered. “But I can’t take you where I’m going.” Speckles raised one paw and placed it on Claire’s knee, his claws digging into her flesh through her jeans. She wondered if Speckles could feel her skin pulsing beneath.
By the time Claire had taken the 2 train to the city, her body smoldered with maddening irritation. As she walked into the Port Authority terminal, she scratched her neck with both hands, peeling away pieces of flesh and dropping them onto the ground like bread crumbs to find her way home. Claire purchased her one-way ticket, glancing uneasily over her shoulder for the Syannan pursuers that she was certain were coming.
Finding her way onto the bus, Claire searched for a vacant seat. The bus was half-full, surprising for a weekday morning. She sank into one of the empty seats at the back of the bus next to the sliding bathroom door. She turned her face to the window, scraping her nails along her forearms under her clothing.
The bus belched out a breath of exhaust and lurched forward. Claire watched through the window as the scenery shifted like pictures from a slideshow—Port Authority terminal, the teeming sidewalks along Eighth Avenue, the orange lights lining the Holland Tunnel. By the time the bus reached the interstate, the colors outside the window began to blur together, bleeding and leaching into one another. The sun was high in the sky, gleaming down through the bus windows.
Claire placed the palms of her hands up flat against the cool window. As she pressed her cheek against the glass, light glinted off her right hand. Startled, she turned her hand toward her face, smoothing her sleeve down to her elbow. The agonizing red welts of her body rash blended into the deep red birthmark splashed across her wrist and lower palm. Claire scratched the birthmark idly, nearly nonchalant when another piece of skin tore away in her fingers.
Claire froze, the particle of flesh pinched in the fingertips of her left hand. She tilted her right palm toward the window. Light glinted off the gold surface beneath the skin of her birthmark, revealed by her enthusiastic scratching.
The words of the Syannans flooded into Claire’s mind. Abruptly, she stood up in her seat, head held high, regal as she stared out the window into the sun.
“Hey, you,” the bus driver shouted in a gruff voice. The reflection of his eyes shifted in the wide rearview mirror. “Sit down, you can’t stand up when the bus is moving.”
A few of the passengers turned around to stare at Claire. One elderly woman across the aisle gasped in disgust. “Good Lord, what is wrong with your hand?”
“Did you hear me?” the bus driver yelled, anger creeping into his voice. “Sit down! I said, sit down!”
But Claire did not sit down. She continued to shed her body, the discarded chrysalis of herself slumped at her feet and kicked aside. She stepped down the aisle, a monarch taking her throne. With her new congregation, she hurtled toward the blurry, unfocused horizon, endlessly approaching a sun that seemed to blaze only for her.
GLORIA L. HUANG is a freelance writer. She received her BA with honors and distinction in English literature from Stanford University. Her fiction has been accepted for publication in literary journals including The Threepenny Review, North American Review, Arts & Letters, Gargoyle Magazine, The Antigonish Review, and Skive Magazine.