By Christina Xiong
I knew something was wrong when my tattoos kept fading. They left little blobs of gray ink in my skin. The artist who did my work was flummoxed.
“These are the highest quality inks on the market. I’ve never seen anything like this before, but I can’t keep doing rework on you. Something is off with your chemistry. Maybe you need to visit a doctor.”
I went to my doctor, and she seemed skeptical.
“I’ll run some labs on you. Maybe I should check for hepatitis, just to be safe. Who knows what kind of ink this is and whether that tattoo shop is clean.”
“It’s a studio not a shop,” I said. “All of the needles are disposable, and it’s clean—”
“Well, we’ll just make sure.”
My mother asked me about why I never wore the pearl earrings she had given me for my birthday. I made a vague excuse, not wanting to explain that my earlobes had closed. I had gotten them pierced when I was nine, but the hole was sealed after three days of not wearing earrings. There wasn’t even a knot or a scar where the piercings had been.
Jae was the first person to witness one of these strange healings. I was heating some garlic bread in the oven when I burned the side of my hand. They rushed over with the bottle of lavender oil they keep in their pocket.
“What’s happening?” Jae asked, their breath in my face.
“Nothing,” I said, watching the blisters vanish from my fingers.
“Nothing? This is some X men level shit happening. Like, what the fuck?”
“I’m fine. I don’t think it really burned me.”
They were not buying my brush-off, but in typical Jae fashion, they commented on my “new healing powers” at every opportunity, and with many layers of sarcasm.
Jae and I decided to go out to the club after a long hiatus. I’d quit drinking some months ago when I realized the alcohol had no discernible effect on me anymore. I suppose my liver was self-healing as well. Why waste money on drinks?
We locked arms and sashayed through the door of the club together, turning heads as we walked to the basement section of the bar. Our friend’s band “Decision” was setting up, and Jae sauntered backstage to help, and probably smoke some weed, which I’d also given up.
A man smiled at me, and I caught myself smiling back. His face was Puckish, wide cheekbones, golden, tanned skin, blond dreadlocks that needed care. He wasn’t my type at all. White guys with dreads screamed appropriation and unkempt white guy dreads possibly contained the new, invasive type of head lice I kept hearing about. I was unsure whether my super healing abilities would repel bugs.
I continued seeing him in my periphery as the band started to play and Jae came back to dance with me. I hadn’t been out in ages. I let my body go. It flowed with the music, and moved to the contagious mood of the night. Jae twirled me around and the lace skirt of my dress brushed the dready guy. He caught my eye again and smiled that same smile.
What was it about this person? He was younger than me by maybe a decade, but there was something wizened about his face. He has a glow, I thought. I felt my face burn in the green and blue lights of the club. I must be getting desperately horny thinking thoughts like that about a guy like him.
Something about being under the attention of that smile had me in its throes, and I danced with abandon in a way I hadn’t in years. I moved fluidly in a dance with a gorgeous afroed woman who was passing by and stopped to gift me with her moves.
Jae made a slight motion with their head, just a nod indicating we should move to the bar. I slid beside them and ordered a bottle of water. They ordered another mojito. Then Jae pulled a cigarette out and gestured to the exit. I followed them out to the patio. The night was unseasonably cool, but it felt wonderful after dancing.
“Oh, look here he is!” Jae said, throwing their arms around Chance, the drummer of “Decision.”
“You all sounded great,” I said after my hug.
“Thanks for coming out. I’ve missed you two,”
“Claud has been uncomfortable. Ever since she found out she has super healing powers,” Jae slurred.
Fuck. They were drunker than I realized. Jae would not intentionally bring this up to Chance. Chance was the ultimate skeptic who didn’t believe in the moon landing.
“Don’t listen to a word they say tonight,” I warned.
I pulled Chance into a conversation about his sister, my housemate, Lou.
Jae scowled and looked put upon. Their finger grazed my forearm where one of the missing tattoos used to be.
I was about to turn on my heel and pretend like I needed the toilet just to get away from them when the smiling guy walked up.
He and Chance embraced. When Chance introduced us, the man said
“You! I know you,”
“You know Claudia?” Chance asks.
“We’ve been vibing all night. Serious vibes, right?”
I smiled awkwardly and nodded almost on accident.
“Yeah. She has this energy about her that’s just…”
I think Chance cut him off with a lecture on the improbability of vibes and energy, but I’m not sure because Jae was right at my elbow with a stage-whispered apology about earlier.
“Frankly, I’m shitfaced. Sorry, babe.”
I leaned against the railing and listened to Jae arguing with Chance about energy. The dready man came over beside me and stretched out his hand.
“I’m Jody Lee,”
“Hey, Jody Lee,” I said moving to shake his hand.
He held my hand and placed his other hand over it, grinning.
I looked at his face, closely, trying to tell if he was just drunk or possibly high.
“You have this light inside of you. This energy of love. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not there. It’s real, and you’re magic.”
His hands were cool and gentle as he rocked my hand up and down ever so slightly.
“It’s just….” he made a groaning sound as if someone had offered him a plate of delicious food.
I felt violated and pulled my hand away from his grasp. What a creep. At the same time, I felt almost miffed that after that exchange he rejoined his debate with Chance about energy. I sat along the brick wall catching up with an old friend. When he walked past, headed to the parking lot, I called out,
“Bye, Jody Lee!”
He looked at me as if he was embarrassed for me, as if he didn’t know me at all.
He must have been high. I thought about his strange proclamation and the equally odd response I’d had. You’re damn right I’m magic, was my first thought. I could probably get run over by a bus and walk away without a scratch. I felt cocky, almost offended, that a stranger would suggest I was not in touch with my own power.
Three days after the bar I woke up at 3:30 am. It was raining, hard. Jae was not in my bed, though they had stayed the night. I went downstairs to pee and saw a light on in Lou’s room. She was not in there. I poked my face between the curtains and saw both Jae and Lou’s vehicles parked outside. The rain was so loud, it was almost painful, battering down on the tin roof and pouring down the edges of the house in cascades. Both of my friends had gone to bed at the same time I did, around eleven. The front and back doors were locked. I looked into every room of the house flipping on lights as I went. My breath was ragged in my throat. I probably sounded like I had emphysema, but the rain was overpowering every noise but the rush of my heartbeat in my ears. This is not happening, I told myself. My knees buckled. I crawled across the bedroom floor having the worst panic attack of my life. A sense of unreality took over. The dissociation was so intense I could almost see myself crawling over the rug like a stunned deer drags itself from the roadside. My throat started to close and my hands reached up, instinctively, scratching my skin. When I could finally take a shuddering breath, I heard a howl. It came from me.
Waking up in my familiar space, without my familiar people, and no explanation, had me reliving that April night seven years ago when I was woken up by my mother’s scream. There was a storm, not unlike this one. I slid from my bed and rushed to my parent’s room. My dad was lying facedown on the floor beside the bed. A stroke had extinguished him in moments. My mother crouched beside him, cell phone to her ear, blubbering to the 911 dispatcher. She was gone too. At least the woman I had known was gone. Replaced by someone distant and skittish.
As I wallowed on the floor of my bedroom, a hundred miles away from my mother, and struggled for oxygen, my dad’s face was burned into my mind. His mouth had been agape, like he had something important to say.
“Claud?” Jae bolted up in the bed.
They’d been there this whole time? I remembered how the sheets were cool to the touch, how I’d touched the pillow Jae was lying their head on and it was cool. Empty of Jae.
They were on their hands and knees on the floor in an instant, gathering my shaking body to theirs. I cried so hard that both of us were rocked back onto the floor.
“What’s happening?” I sobbed.
Jae grabbed my wrist, and their grip was painful.
“Ouch, let go!”
“What is it?”
Jae nudged my arm toward the bedside lamp and yanked the chain to turn it on.
My right arm was covered in muddy black inks, swirls of gray and blue. All of the touch ups I’d had when my tattoo kept fading were superimposed over one another.
“But what the fuck is that?” I whispered.
My hand was blistered with a poorly healing burn, but that wasn’t what had me struggling not to heave. My right hand was splotched an iridescent green. In the shape of a man’s hand.
You’re magic…You’re magic…You’re magic.
“He took something from me,”
Jae tried to comfort me, but I pushed them away, screaming hysterically and clawing at my face. I don’t remember much after that. An ambulance came. When I was sedated and somewhat calm, many vials of blood were drawn for extensive testing. A doctor stood over my bed cradling my chart in her hands and said We believe it’s an autoimmune disorder. Days later, I’m not sure how many, they sent me home with leaflets and five different prescriptions. When Jae helped me hobble across the threshold of the house, nothing seemed familiar. I slept on the pullout couch in the living room. When I slept I dreamt of a green lizard wrapping itself around my wrists. When I woke, I peeled back the fresh gauze around my forearms and took in the sight of my scaly, wounded flesh.
Jae brought my favorite takeout Chinese soup, the one they always brought me when I had a bad cold. When they attempted to feed me, I turned my head away. Their head sunk down, and I noticed a quiver in their shoulders.
“Hey, you know what would make me feel better?” I asked.
“Hmm?” Jae responded with a loud sniffle.
“Can you bring me my pearl earrings? The ones from my mom? I just want to wear them because I can again.”
Jae smiled through teary brown eyes and went to go find the earrings.
The next morning I woke up with three teeth floating loose in my mouth. I spit the teeth and a tablespoon of blood into a wad of tissues. When Lou came to check on me I asked for Chance’s phone number. She dialed it for me, handed me my phone, and went to the kitchen to make coffee.
“Chance, it’s Claudia,” I said into his voicemail, “I need to know everything you know about Jody Lee.”
I lost all of my fingernails the next morning. My toenails quickly followed, along with two more teeth, my top canines. I stopped speaking. I began running out of hiding places for my missing pieces. Jae missed so much work that they got fired. On the fifth day, Jae’s sobs woke me. Jae swept the floor, and when I looked down, I saw the broom push a big pile of my auburn hair into a dustpan.
“It’s okay. I think it’s just these meds. Steroids, you know,”
“Really?” Jae said.
“Have you heard from Chance?”
“He’s coming by tomorrow. Are you up for it?”
The next morning I flushed my left pinky finger down the toilet. There was no blood. There was just a stump, and a withered finger in my bedding. I weakly shoved my sheets into the washing machine and dumped a cup of vinegar into the machine.
Sometimes I forgot my own name. Sometimes the glands in my throat swelled and a fever burned through me like when I was sixteen and had a terrible case of mononucleosis. Sometimes I could feel Jody Lee’s hands on my hand. That touch snuffing something out in me. A rot spreading. The thickness of the mountains in his voice as he said You’re magic!
You’re damn right I am, I whispered to the empty room. Then I coughed, hacking for so long, so deeply, that I was unsurprised when a black and crimson clot came up from my lungs. I placed it into the garbage disposal. I threw in a lemon peel afterward.
The smell in the room was oppressive. The smell in the room was me. I pocketed Jae’s lavender and liberally sprinkled it onto my pillow in preparation for Chance’s visit. I had Jae bring me scarf and wound it around my mostly bald, tufted head. My face in the mirror was surprisingly unmarred by my ordeal. Unless I opened my mouth, revealing missing teeth, like deadened lightbulbs in a chandelier. I kept my hands wrapped in the gauze, my feet enveloped in wool socks.
When Chance came, his face revealed the fear of what he saw. He smiled, but the dimple in his right cheek played a vanishing act. His eyes couldn’t seem to settle on any one object in the room. It was wrong for me to ask him to come, we were never close, but I had to see his face when I asked.
“So how do you know Jody Lee? That total weirdo?” I asked after we’d exchanged some pleasantries about my hell. My health.
“Who’s she?” Chance asked.
“No. A guy. With dreadlocks. Blond dreads?”
“I’m not sure who you mean. It doesn’t sound familiar.”
I looked over at Jae, at their ashen face.
“Don’t you remember, Jody Lee?”
“No. Why is this important?”
“It’s…he took something from me. He took my magic…”
“I think you should leave. Claudia needs some rest,” Jae said as they led Chance to the front door.
The next morning most of my tongue was beside my head on the pillow. Black and desiccated. When I tried to flush it, the toilet backed up and overflowed onto the tiles. Lou found me curled in the tub. She screamed when she shook me and my left foot came loose, detached from my leg. My foot in a gray wool sock. No blood.
They took me somewhere where it’s bright, bright and white. Jae’s yells were one of the last sounds I heard before my ears went. I woke up another endless morning, they kept coming and coming those mornings. Darkness. Dawning. Day. Pools of black fluid dried on my pillow, followed by lobes. Lobes with my mother’s pearl earrings. I thought my mother came, and I drooled through my toothless mouth, trying to explain how I saw the bugs everywhere; brown shiny roaches, enormous furred spiders, Japanese beetles with their gaudy iridescence, the same green of my lizard king’s touch. They spilled from the smallest cracks in the walls, they crawled out of electrical outlets, the blankets moved with them. They came from me. I teemed with crawling insects. My mother screamed but I couldn’t hear it, I just saw her mouth open wide to let it out.
The next morning both of my eyes were in my palm. They had calcified and felt like marbles. I think I have it, I thought. This feels like my magic. I placed them into the gaping nightmare of my mouth and swallowed them whole.