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Since we met twenty years ago, you have been my most treasured friend. I fell on the nursery playground and skinned my knee, and you came running to help me up. Which is why I address this to you, and you alone. You understand?
One morning, still in primary school (eight years old, Ms Murphy’s class, as I recall) you walked into the classroom with an orange plaster cast on your wrist. Our classmates gave you a hero’s welcome, for you had suffered the unknown horrors of A&E and whatever lay hidden beneath the cast, and lived to tell the tale. We got to sign your arm with a black marker pen that was usually for teachers only. You skipped to the front of the lunch line and didn’t take me with you…since it has been over fifteen years I’d say I’ve forgiven you. But back then I was thinking “why you, of all people? Why does my best friend get to experience this, and all I get is to stand here and watch?”. Yes, I was jealous of the attention. But there was something more than that.
“It’s a broken thumb,” you said to me, “but I also got this bruise—” you pointed to your knee— “and I bit my tongue! There was blood and everything.”
When I got home I wrote it down on a piece of paper: bitten tongue; bruised knee; broken thumb. Staring at this list gave me a weird tingly feeling that I did not understand. All I knew was that I wanted it. Your pain, I mean.
So after sticking that list up on my bedroom wall (with tape that left a stain my mother had to paint over before she sold the house) I marched into the back garden and had a go at bashing my knee against a concrete fencepost. There was that moment before the bruise formed when I wasn’t sure if it had worked. It hurt alright, that I knew. Then it began to swell into a perfect acorn-sized lump on my kneecap where blood was leaking into the soft tissue. I poked at it. If I poked too hard, would it burst? Next, I went to my father’s workshop and seized the heaviest hammer that I could manage to lift, and I brought it down on my thumb. Hard.
It was like something out of a movie. The bones really did go CRACK. My mother even did a double-take as she came rushing from the kitchen: “Phillip? What on earth do you think you’re— oh goodness, what happened!?”
The second time I did it wasn’t so extreme. Janice Jones got to leave our maths lesson cause she started gushing blood from both nostrils. Remember her? She made bluffing sick days into an art form…a hero to me until I perfected an even better skill. Anyway, I scrunched a tissue into a shiv and shoved it up my nose, digging and scraping until I too was bleeding. The third time I did it I had to spend the night in hospital because I got a concussion. I kept doing this. I kept watching people get hurt—as they do every day, in silly ways too—and hurting myself to match their pain.
“Oh Phillip, what are we going to do with you?” my poor mother said every time she was called to the scene.
She had me tested once, to see if there was something wrong with my head, like with my balance and coordination. I was fine, obviously, and she was at a loss.
The problem was, I got too good at it. Eventually, I didn’t even need to hurt myself, my body did it for me. I could simply think really hard about nosebleeds, and it would start to flow. I know how that sounds, and I didn’t believe what was happening at first either. Not until this power came to my aid (and yours) did I consider it anything but coincidence.
In our final year of primary school, our class moved to classroom J13, on the second floor; because it was above the kitchens, the fire exit didn’t go out the main door, but down an external concrete staircase that led to the playground. I daresay you’ve tried your best to forget this. One afternoon we were traipsing back up the stairs after a drill—precious minutes spent fidgeting from one foot to the other while the teacher counted and recounted heads—when you tripped and smashed your face on the sharp edge of the concrete. I had never heard a scream like it! There was blood gushing from the cut on your chin, lush and crimson. I cried too, for although I was already well accustomed to the fragile nature of our corporeal forms, I was frightened by the helpless panic I saw in your eyes. You wanted me to help. I was your best friend. What could I do? But the teachers quickly descended and you were whisked away.
The next day you walked in with a big scab on your face, and people wouldn’t stop staring. Even people who knew what had happened. You were always kind of shy and introspective, so this sort of attention was too much for you. I tried just flat-out telling people to stop pointing, but that was about as effective as a wet paper towel on a burns ward. Adults like to say that kids only know love, but they are so quick to spot anything that makes another kid different. It’s what happened with your plaster cast, except now you were being ridiculed rather than revered. There’s some evolutionary reason why we need to be good at noticing patterns and spotting the odd-one-out; the only way I could help you was to make it so you weren’t the odd-one-out anymore, for instance, if I had a big scab on my face too. I began to imagine all the ways I could go about doing this when I suddenly felt a prickling on my chin (and a throbbing in my knee, but I’ll get to that). I poked at it and felt that my skin was rougher and…and I could pick it…I had manifested my own scab. Well, mission accomplished—I was perplexed but proud. “Look at Phillip,” people began to say, “he’s messed up his face again”. I was “clumsy Phillip” and we were the “chin twins”. It was fine. You were fine. It passed.
On this occasion, and every time after when I willed my own injury, I felt a burning in my left kneecap (the same one I bruised on the fencepost). I touched it and it stung. The blood was hot beneath my skin and I could feel my pulse there. It happened every single time, and I came to the conclusion that my power was inextricably linked to the site of that first bruise. I could control it, as long as I was awake. As a teenager, I had to start taking serious drugs every night to shut my subconscious down, because one lucid dream about a fistfight and I would wake up with broken ribs.
Years later, I performed a dangerous experiment. In GCSE biology our teacher decided to traumatize us with a documentary about human botflies. I know you remember it because we talked about little else for weeks after. You know now why I have always been so fascinated by the human body, and why biology was therefore my favorite class. I took in every detail of the horror show on the screen. A person bitten by a mosquito that is carrying botfly eggs may a few days later discover larvae wriggling beneath their skin. The larvae leave holes in the skin to breathe and eventually crawl out of their own accord (not before feeding on their host’s flesh). I thought there’s no way I could do that, but nonetheless, I found myself fixating on what it would feel like to have tiny insects burrowing through my flesh. Then, sure enough, the next morning I couldn’t stop scratching my arm. “Will you cut it out?” You asked me. I thought this was an amusing choice of words. On closer inspection, I saw the tiny holes that would be a tell-tale sign of infestation. I prodded my skin, willing myself to see something moving beneath. But I couldn’t. I supposed it must be that I could only forge the feeling, not the cause. Still, I had to be sure. So I went back to my father’s workshop, where he kept all kinds of craft knives and chose something with which I could split open my arm. Which I did. And out poured my blood, and riding on that scarlet wave were two dozen maggots. They reared their heads from my wound like the space slug in Star Wars. I couldn’t believe my eyes or my luck. This was more than pain—I had forged life from nothing.
Do you remember the day you came home with that soggy lump of wood in your backpack? It was from the forest, you said, you were going to grow fungi. I was bemused—still am, by your fascination with what is essentially mold and rot—but as you passed me in the front room, I reached out to high-five you as usual. The instant our hands met, I felt pain in my leg. You had tripped in the woods and scraped your shin. I didn’t have to think about it that time. Hell, I didn’t even know the injury existed. That was the first, but not the last time it happened involuntarily.
I learned eventually that the trigger was always contact through my palms. This was revealed to me in a truly bizarre manner, after I went on a date with a girl on her period. We were walking back to her place from the bus stop—I suspected that tonight was the night—but when I reached out to hold her hand, I started to feel a searing pain in an organ I did not even possess. And when I excused myself to her bathroom, I found blood leaking from the tip of my dick. This put an end to the proceedings. I was nineteen at the time, and I haven’t had sex since, haven’t kissed anyone or been on a date. But I haven’t been lonely—I’ve been living with you, after all.
I had to learn the nuance of what is and isn’t an injury. When I met Janice Jones for coffee after so many years, I was deeply curious about her sex change (you probably remember, she wasn’t called Janice back in primary school) but afraid to shake her hand, lest I castrate myself. No such thing happened, though, when she reached across the table to press the last biscuit into my hand. I was contracting people’s pain, and Janice didn’t have any—not anymore.
Now, before I continue much further I must tell you with some sadness that I can no longer create an injury voluntarily. The story of how I lost that power is going to take us back a few years. You’ll remember that I’m an only child, and you’ll also remember that fight we had after I said that Elias Lassiter was the brother I always wished I had. How dare I say that about someone else!? And Elias of all people. You were incensed. Yes, he and I made an unlikely pair—Elias was the athletic, charming extrovert who adopted me when we were sat next to each other in Year 9 Spanish. I really meant it when I said it at the time, but looking back over my life now I can honestly say that no one has been more like family to me than you.
Anyway, I bring Elias up for good reason. He was the star rugby player on our secondary school team, and went on to play at Loughborough. I had him on social media and I saw all of his posts over the years documenting his steady rise to sporting fame. Until one day he just disappeared. I mean, all photos gone, accounts deleted without explanation. I was curious, sure, but it didn’t really warrant further investigation. Year 9 Spanish was a long time ago. Some time passed, and occasionally the strange disappearance of Elias Lassiter entered my mind—for example, late at night when I began to speculate that perhaps he had never existed at all—but for the most part I was preoccupied with my own peculiar affairs.
Until I saw him again (you knew this was where I was headed). I finally learned the reason for his disappearance and I was profoundly changed by it.
“Phillip? Hey man—long time no see!” He said, upon recognizing me outside the department store in town.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, as he closed the gap between us and clapped me on the back. My arms went around him gingerly, but I assumed that my chances of contracting an injury from a physical specimen like Elias were pretty low. I had this assumption temporarily validated because I didn’t feel that anything was different until I walked away some minutes later.
“Ah, yeah, long story.” He looked kind of sheepish.
“Shouldn’t you be playing for England now?”
“Ha…yeah, no, actually. No more rugby for me.”
“I went down in a game, got my knee stomped pretty bad…my own teammate, actually…yeah, uh, so, it’s plastic now.” He pointed to his left kneecap and my stomach sank to the floor.
“God. I’m sorry to hear that.” He would never know how sorry.
“Yeah. Well. Yeah.”
Patellofemoral joint arthroplasty. That’s what got me in the end. And a rugby player’s boot making contact with Elias’ leg, crushing his kneecap like an empty beer can. I wrote that up and taped it to my wall. A pretty unique injury to add to my collection, but the fact is that no kneecap means no more voluntary injuries. Such is my luck.
Then there was what happened last year, when I killed my mother. I arrived right on time for our weekly catch-up and parked my car on the street opposite her block of flats. She had moved out of my childhood home after my father died of prostate cancer (did I hold his hand on his deathbed? What do you think?)
The building was smoking, but not yet ablaze. Still, I could hear screaming. Could it be her? Was she in there? I knew she was, knew with certainty, for I had texted to say I was coming half an hour ago, and she had replied to tell me she had a sponge cake waiting. My mother had always been a pitiful baker, bless her heart, so I figured it was shop-bought, or a present from a neighbor. She loved her neighbors and I still know all their names. I had supposed we might have the cake with strawberries and cream. That’s what I was thinking about right before I pulled up outside her building: strawberries and cream and cake, as I stood watching. As the flames began to spill over from the third-floor windows, and foolish civilians rushed in to help, and the fire engine arrived too late, and they carried her body out in a bag. If I had saved her, like I could have, her burns would have scarred my skin. I just didn’t want that.
Does it make you think differently about your life, to find out that your best friend is a monster? Don’t be afraid. I know how to fix this. I hope that you read this letter out in the hallway, because if you are in the front room, then you will already know that it is too late for me to turn back on my plan. I’m sorry to implicate you in this, but hey, I’ve felt your pain, now you can feel mine.
If I could be absolutely sure I was never going to touch another person with my hands again, then all of this could go away. Except that it’s pretty difficult to cut off your own hands, at least not without some kind of industrial equipment. I’m not convinced that our smoothie maker will do the trick. But I can put this curse of mine to good use, finally, if only I can find someone who has recently been relieved of their hands.
Like, for example, that boy sleeping in our living room. Do me a favour and check he’s not dead. I drugged him using my own sleeping pills, adjusting the dosage of course. I didn’t pick him off the street, if that’s what you’re thinking. No, it’s much more disturbing than that.
I could have just gone looking for someone with no hands, but Christ, that could have taken years. Besides, as I said it’s not always clear what is and isn’t an injury. If someone was born with no hands, or was just particularly well-adjusted, for example, it was a grey area. It seemed to me that the easiest option would be to find someone with two hands, and remove them. I know, this seems sort of a cruel thing to do to an innocent stranger. What if the person I chose turned out to be a pianist, or a surgeon? Fear not. I had a plan that fully eliminated these possibilities. As you look down at his sleeping body I’m sure you’re starting to put the pieces together.
I had created life once before, why couldn’t I do it again? In order to contract an unborn child from someone else, I knew that regular pregnancy wasn’t going to cut it. It wouldn’t count as an injury unless something went wrong. I read half a dozen pregnancy books. I studied anatomy so that when the time came I could at least attempt to avoid my major organs.
It’s quite easy to go unbothered in a hospital if you just walk around like you’re in a rush to get somewhere. I had a fake ID badge (thanks again for helping me with the laminator) and my best white shirt tucked into some formal slacks, and the clincher: a stethoscope around my neck. I marched onto the maternity ward looking like a man about to save some lives.
Obviously, the risk of being caught was still very high, so I had to assume I would only have one chance to get this right. That meant biding my time. I watched from behind the door of a storage room as people were carted in and out of the delivery rooms. Every now and again I heard crying— sometimes joyous newborn crying, and sometimes not. I won’t get carried away describing it to you, you’ve watched TV before, but I did find myself thinking about the new lives that were beginning all around me. What damage would these children grow up to do? How long before every new sensation of flesh became mundane to them?
My moment came when I saw a heavily pregnant woman stagger onto the ward clutching her belly. I rushed out from my hiding place, appearing to her like the stethoscope-wearing savior that I wasn’t.
“Have your waters broken?” I asked her.
“No, I’m bleeding!” She replied.
Jackpot. I put a comforting hand on her shoulder and led her to a cubicle. My heart was pounding in my chest and I had to hide my grin of excitement. It was on now.
She had a placental abruption, as I later learned. Her baby girl was eventually born by C-section, both are fine. Anyway, it only took a second before I too began to feel pain in my abdomen, and I didn’t have to look to know there was once again blood trickling from places it really ought not to.
“I’ll be right back,” I told her, before hobbling away.
I could feel it. God! I could feel the thing moving inside me, and I knew that it had to come out. I almost didn’t make it home.
I’d prepared my instruments earlier that day and they were waiting for me in the bathroom: a bread knife sterilized in vodka and miles of cotton wool. There was an almighty amount of blood. I split my stomach from right to left and I opened it like a pencil case. My intestines spilled readily into my hands. Was I hurting while this happened? I wish I could tell you. The feeling of ecstasy blinded me to it. The fetus was sitting in a membrane sack, which was purple-ish and veiny, like an autumn leaf. I didn’t waste time. I pulled the sack out, placed it in a nearby bowl of water, stuffed my innards back in, and lay down panting.
I stared up at the bathroom ceiling, tears blurring my vision. I made a bloody handprint on my sweat-soaked torso. I would need to sew myself up shortly. For a moment I ran my hand back and forth over the place where life had sprung from, feeling my atrophied stomach muscles. Never had it been more pronounced to me, the extraordinary things our flesh is capable of. This was better than a broken thumb, don’t you think?
My reverie didn’t last too long, because I suddenly remembered the baby was still in its sack. With some difficulty, I sat up. The membrane popped like a balloon, and pink liquid splashed all over the bathroom. There was the abrupted placenta, and there was my son, floating silently in the water. Ah, shit. I picked him up, noting that there was an umbilical cord dangling from his belly button—it hadn’t been attached to anything at the other end, it was like the leash of a dog in a disaster movie. I never gave him a name, by the way, but you can if that helps you. Anyway, I picked him up and rubbed his back until he started crying, then I covered his mouth so the neighbors wouldn’t hear.
I suppose he must be a clone of me, seeing as how there was only one set of DNA to work with. I don’t try to fathom precisely how he came to be—I already knew the why (if you think about it, that makes him more blessed than most). He has been sleeping in the bottom of my wardrobe for the past three months, while I have been working up the nerve to do what must come next. He’s very well-behaved, but I soundproofed my room for the moments when he’s not. I feed him formula, and yes I change his nappies. Worse than maggots, I tell you!
My mother never got to meet her grandson. It is her that I must return to now, because she is the reason why I am purging myself of my gift. With it, I purge my abominable cowardice. She gave me life, and I could not save hers; I gave my son life, and now he will save me.
After fungi, you moved on to taxidermy. I sort of admire your commitment to the morbid. I still needed a saw to get through the bones, but your collection of sharp knives made it a much cleaner job, so thank you for that. I buried his hands in the garden.
All I need to do now is go and touch him, and feel that jagged edge of bone where my saw separated him from his own flesh forever. This will be the last thing I write with my own two hands.