Terry sat at his desk on Monday afternoon, the drab gray felt of the cubicle walls towering around him in a sea of monochromatic drudgery. Files and reports were strewn haphazardly across his desk. It was a scene of chaos, but it was organized chaos. The maelstrom centered on the desktop computer situated in the corner. Terry sat hunched over the keyboard, pecking away with a melancholy that could be born only of the drudgery of repetition.
All around him other drones toiled away in similar fashion, an army of modern-day wage-slaves indentured to the necessities of survival. Not one of them were here to make their mark on the world. Rather, they were laboring in return for the security of knowing the next batch of bills would get paid — if even just barely.
“Want to go out for dinner and drinks after work?” a voice said from nearby.
Terry perked his head up and peered over the top of the cubicle. Janet, the section supervisor, stood in one of the nearby cells. That was Brenda’s desk.
“Really?” Brenda’s muffled voice managed to creep through the sound-resistant barriers.
“Yeah,” Janet said, “I’m taking the whole team out. We’re celebrating the results from last quarter. The boss even gave me some cash from the slush fund for it.”
“Sounds great, count me in!” Brenda said.
Terry looked at the time in the corner of the computer screen. 4:38. Less than half an hour until quitting time. He could hear Janet making the rounds of the section, having similar conversations with the other team members. Well, this ought to be nice for a change, he thought. He hadn’t been out to a restaurant in well over a year, and he couldn’t remember the last time he went out with somebody else. There wasn’t much opportunity to socialize at work, so he hardly even knew the other people in the office.
4:58. Almost time to go. Janet still hadn’t been by yet, and he hadn’t heard her talking to anybody else for a few minutes. He sorted a few documents on the desk, but it didn’t look any less chaotic than it did in the middle of his shift. That was always the way of things. Too much to do, and never enough time. He would come back tomorrow and hack at the pile some more, even though it would just grow as he always received more reports to work on than he would complete during the day. The piles always seemed to grow, and he never felt like he was catching up.
Footsteps padded along the hallway. That must be Janet, finally come to invite me out with the team. Terry looked up from the sea of paperwork as she ducked around the corner, leaning into his cubicle.
“Hi Janet,” he said.
“Hey Terry!” she beamed, a broad smile on her face betraying her excitement about the night out with the crew.
“Big plans tonight, eh?”
“Oh? Oh! You must have overheard. Yeah, big dinner for the team to thank them for the hard work.”
“That’s great, it’s nice to see the brass appreciates what we’re doing,” Terry said as he pushed his chair back to get up. As he turned, Janet held out a drab manila folder towards him.
“I know you’re pretty swamped, but would you mind finishing up these expense reports before you go? I really need to get going to the restaurant, so you’d be a life saver. Don’t want to keep everybody waiting, you know.”
Terry reached out with hesitation and took the folder. He thumbed through the reports inside and knew he would be in the office for at least another two hours to finish them. He sighed and said, “Yeah, sure thing Janet. You guys have fun.”
“Thanks!” she said, then turned and practically ran from the office.
Terry looked around and realized he was the only one left. He glanced at the time on the computer. 5:05. He opened the folder and set it down on the desk, then scratched deeply at the back of his neck. This was a nervous habit he had picked up as a child, and had never seemed to shake it. Stress usually brought it on. He scratched harder, until he felt a warm wetness on his fingertips. He looked at his hand and saw bright red blood under his nails. He wiped his hand across his neck and drew it back with a broad smear of blood on it. Dammit. I really need to stop doing that.
On Tuesday morning Terry’s phone started bleating an urgent cry at precisely 6:00 am. He picked it up from the bedside table, turned off the alarm, and unplugged the charging cable. Throwing the covers into a lump in the corner of the bed, he sat up slowly and headed to the shower. Ten minutes later he toweled off and put on a pair of black slacks, a white shirt, and a broad black tie that was twenty years out-of-fashion; but had only been five dollars at the used clothing warehouse. By 6:20 the toaster sprang up two pieces of wheat bread that Terry ate dry and washed down with a cup of black coffee. By 6:30, he was walking down the street to catch the 7:00 train downtown to the office. After an hour and a half of smelling piss and vomit from the overnight passengers and two transfers, he finally stepped onto the downtown red-line platform at 8:30. Joe the java guy smiled and asked how he was doing when he bought a cup of coffee to go at 8:35, and as always Terry said, “Good, how are you?” Joe had already moved on to the next customer. He walked the remaining mile to the office, rode the crammed elevator to the eighth floor, and walked down the hall in silence. He sat down at his desk at 8:55, logged into the computer, and started working through the pile of reports. At 5:00 he left the office and reversed the process to get home to his overpriced yet cramped apartment, microwaved a frozen dinner at 8:30, and caught up on the prior day’s late shows before going to bed at 9:30.
Wednesday morning, the alarm went off at 6:00. Dry toast and black coffee at 6:20. On the train at 7:00. Ignored by Joe at 8:35. At his desk at 8:55. Left work at 5:00. Frozen dinner at 8:30. Bed at 9:30.
Thursday morning. Alarm, dry toast and coffee, train, ignored by Joe, five minutes early to work, off at five, frozen dinner, and bed.
The alarm on Terry’s phone shrieked, and he reached out a groggy hand to slap it into silent submission. Friday morning, he thought. One more day. He didn’t have big plans for the weekend other than not planning to be at work. That was usually enough to keep his hopes up. The phone was still going off. He grabbed it and tried to open his eyes to turn off the alarm. They refused to comply, feeling as if they were sealed shut with glue. He fumbled with the device until he finally found the battery cover and ripped the heart from the unfeeling machine without remorse.
Heavy legs were thrown over the edge of the bed and Terry sat up. He immediately regretted this as his belly turned sour and a wave of dizziness struck him. His eyes finally peeled open and he stumbled towards the bathroom, barely making it to the toilet before divulging himself of the contents of his stomach.
After flushing the toilet, he stumbled to the sink and splashed water across his face, rubbing his eyes vigorously to clear out whatever sticky substance had been occluding them. He flipped the light on and experienced his second pang of regret that morning as the sudden brightness burned his eyes. After a moment to adjust, he looked at himself in the mirror. His eyes were surrounded by dark rings, his skin was pale and yellow, and his cheeks were sunken in. He ran cold water over his hands and arms, which were tingling; almost burning. He scratched at his forearm and found there to be a strange sore on it. It was swollen, red, and cracked open. Yellow puss of some sort was oozing from the cracks.
Another wave of dizziness almost overcame Terry, and he shambled back out into his bedroom. He clawed across the floor, blind in the sudden darkness, and found the disembodied pieces of his cell phone. Slapping the battery in, he waited for the device to power on before calling the office. It was only 6:30. Nobody would be there, so he would have to leave a message.
“Hey Janet, it’s Terry. I’m feeling really sick today, so I won’t be making it in. I’m really sorry. If you need me to work late next week to make up for it, I can do that.”
He set the phone down on the nightstand and collapsed back into the bed. Darkness overcame him suddenly, and he drifted back into a deep sleep.
Terry woke up with a terrible headache, as if someone were stabbing him in his temples. He was curled into a ball and his hands were clutching his skull. He scratched at his scalp and felt the sticky oozing of blood under his fingers. His eyes once more refused to open, and he clawed at them until they obeyed. Sunlight was streaming through the room’s single window, and it felt like it was burning his skin. He pulled the blanket around himself and rolled off the side of the bed, crawling on hands and knees to the bathroom. Terry knew he was going to vomit again. He crawled up to the toilet and his stomach heaved in response to the sight of the stained porcelain. Acid burned his throat as he retched, and his stomach cramped violently. He looked into the bowl once the expulsion ceased and saw there was bright red blood mixed with the other refuse he had spat up.
He collapsed to the floor and rolled back, resting his back against the cabinet under the sink. The blanket fell away from his shoulders. He looked down to see his arms were now covered in sores similar to the one he had noticed before. It would be hard to call them individual sores, in fact, because almost all his skin was covered in scaly scabs that oozed blood and puss. Feeling a sudden sense of panic, Terry clawed at the flesh on his arms and peeled away long sheets of the diseased-looking flesh. His arms burned as the scabs peeled away, and blood oozed from the raw flesh beneath.
He peered at the new skin left behind where the old had been drawn away. It had a dark green color to it, scaly and coarse. He scratched at it, and his fingernails chipped against the abrasive surface. He couldn’t feel anything, as if the new skin was impervious to sensation.
Terry pulled himself to his feet and looked in the mirror. The scabs were covering his face as well, oozing the same bloody puss that had been on his arms. He looked down at his legs and saw the same surface seemed to be covering his entire body. He stumbled from the bathroom and collapsed on the bed. He picked up his phone and saw that it was 4:00 on Sunday afternoon. I’ve been asleep for two and a half days?
He searched on the Internet for ‘shedding skin.’ Almost every result referred to reptiles or amphibians. He skimmed through articles, encyclopedia entries, and exotic pet-care websites.
His stomach grumbled, and Terry suddenly realized he was ravenous with hunger. Some lizards eat their shed skin, recycling the nutrients held within rather than abandoning them. One of the websites had said that. He scratched at his arm again with jagged nails, pulling off a long strip of scaly flesh. It wiggled as he held it in his trembling hand, the puss still adorning it shining in the afternoon sunlight. He hesitated for a moment, then closed his eyes and shoved the cracked skin into his mouth. He chewed slowly, trying to hold his breath, and swallowed the large lump of flesh. His stomach growled again.
“Why am I doing this?” he whined as he scratched at the back of his neck. The nervous habit. Another long strip of skin came free. He slid the bloody lump into his mouth. He craved more. He peeled skin from his arms, his legs, and even his face; delicately placing each morsel into his mouth and slowly chewing. Blood oozed from all over his body, spreading across the bedsheets while he sat there eating his own flesh as it peeled away under the prying of his fingernails. Eventually, he passed out.
The alarm on Terry’s phone went off at 6:00 on Monday morning. He turned it off and stumbled to the bathroom, stripping his boxers off and turning on the shower. He scrubbed himself, and what was left of the old Terry sloughed off and fell to the bottom of the bathtub. At 6:20 he had his dry toast and coffee, and by 6:30 he was walking out of the apartment and taking the stairs town to the ground floor without the usual exertion. He walked confidently to the station, caught the 7:00 train, and rode in silence to his destination. He kept his eyes up, and even though everybody on each train car was staring at him, he did not feel sheepish like he used to. Rather, he felt more confident than he ever had in his life. He got off the train and walked over to Joe the java guy to order a coffee at 8:35.
“Jesus Christ! What the fuck happened to you?” Joe said.
“What do you mean?” Terry asked, pulling the two dollars from his wallet for the coffee.
“Your skin, it’s all raw like you’ve been scratching yourself bloody.”
“Oh,” Terry said as he slid the money onto the counter, “it’s molting season.”
He took the coffee and walked down the bustling sidewalk. The crowds gave him a wide berth, and he strode on with an air of importance. He still wasn’t sure what had happened to him, but he knew he was now something more than he had been before. He was more now than all these people would ever dream of being.
At 8:55 he sat at his desk and logged into the computer. Confident hands sorted through the stacks, and he began the work of the day with a speed and precision he had never imagined. His coworkers passed by his cubicle, mumbling and whispering to each other as they gazed upon him in astonishment. They are in awe of my new form, he thought. Their amazement as his efficiency was clear.
It wasn’t even 9:30 before Janet came to him. He looked up at her and smiled, knowing she must be there to compliment his transformation. He slid a hand over his bare scalp, devoid of the mammalian flesh and fur that had just been there a few days ago. He was a creature of efficiency, and had no time for such human distractions.
“Terry, you need to come with me. The boss needs to talk to us.”
She looked afraid. He knew it would take time for them all to get used to him in this state. She might even be afraid he would take her job. Most likely Mr. Peterson was going to give him a promotion. He would be kinder to Janet than she was to him. He smiled and said, “Of course. Let’s go.”
They walked down the tight passage through the sea of grey cubicles, and all eyes were upon him. He smiled at them all, reveling in the attention he had been denied for so many years. None of them dared to meet his eyes, and looked away as soon as his gaze fell upon him. Most likely out of respect for the obviously superior being.
“Terry, Janet; take a seat,” Mr. Peterson said as they walked into his office. Janet closed the door behind her before taking the proffered chair. “Listen, Terry, you’ve been a good worker. You’re always on time and do a good job. But this…” he trailed off and gestured at Terry.
Even he is amazed by my new body, Terry thought.
“Listen,” he continued after clearing his throat, “I know you’ve been having some problems. Everybody’s noticed your habit of scratching yourself. We’ve always turned a blind eye, but this is too much. We can’t have you in here if you’re going to scratch yourself raw. It’s distracting and a health hazard. Terry, you need to get some help.”
Terry felt lost. He looked to Janet, who simply stared at him in horror. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“We’re going to have to let you go, Terry. If you can get this…whatever this is figured out, then maybe you can come back. But you need to get yourself sorted out first,” Mr. Peterson said.
“Sorted out?” Terry repeated, shooting to his feet. “I’ve become more than you can understand. You’re just afraid of me because you don’t understand me!”
“Terry…” Janet trailed off.
“No!” he shrieked, striking out at her. The back of his scaled hand collided with her face, sending her tumbling from the chair.
Mr. Peterson hit a button on the desk phone and shouted into it, “Security!”
Terry lept over the desk, grabbing the manager by the collar. “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been! And now I know what I have to do to become even stronger!” He pulled the man close to him and dug his teeth into the flesh of Mr. Peterson’s neck. He clamped his jaw down and drew back a mouthful of skin and muscle. Blood sprayed from the wound, washing over Terry in a crimson shower. The man screamed and fell to the floor. Terry jumped atop him and continued to feed until two security officers burst into the room. He turned on them, but they quickly overpowered him. How?! he thought. Impossible. I’m stronger than any man. The two men beat him until he fell to the floor, and continued until he lost consciousness.
Two pairs of footsteps sounded on the tile floor outside the room, drawing near. Terry shifted on the thin mattress, pushing himself as far into the corner as possible. A small metal square slid aside, and blinding light shone into the darkness within.
“Terry Andrews, 34. Unmarried office worker of little note. No criminal record, and noted by his superiors and co-workers as being ‘aloof, yet productive,’” a woman said.
“What was the inciting incident?” a man asked.
Terry peered through the blinding light, and could barely make out the silhouettes of two figures through the small square in the door.
“Unknown. His former supervisor mentioned a nervous habit of scratching himself, but it was mild and isolated. The self-mutilation turned into active outward aggression when they tried to fire him,” the woman answered.
“Sounds like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder left to spiral out of control.”
“Mmm hmm. Pretty standard case, it seems. Up until recently, fairly mild as well.”
Terry scratched at his neck.
“There it is,” she said as he scratched, then continued, “the usual stress, but nothing seemed to happen to cause such a sudden exasperation of the condition. He just called in sick on a Friday, and the next Monday showed up like this. Said something about being ‘stronger,’ and then he attacked his manager when they met to let him go. Tried to eat the poor man alive.”
“Hmm…” the man murmured. “Seems like a full psychotic break. Let’s give him the usual cocktail, and for God’s sake put some mittens on the poor fool so he’ll stop scratching himself.”
“Yes, doctor,” the woman said. The small window in the door slid shut with a loud metallic clang. The footsteps faded down the hallway, hard-soled shoes tapping on the ceramic floor.
Terry licked his lips in anticipation. They’d be coming back, and there’d be more flesh. He would grow stronger here, and would emerge as something far greater than even he could imagine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
B.K. Bass is an author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror inspired by the pulp fiction magazines of the early 20th century and classic speculative fiction. He is a student of history with a particular focus on the ancient, classical, and medieval eras. He has a lifetime of experience with a specialization in business management and human relations and also served in the U.S. Army.
Find out more about B.K. Bass at BKBASS.COM