Skin – Red Durkin
Kate started tearing her skin off when she was thirteen years old. At first, it was just nervous agitation. She’d bite her nails and her cuticles and leave tattered, scabby flesh all over her fingertips. Her mother used to scold her for it, saying it made her look like she couldn’t care for her child. Kate would just stare at her blankly, nibbling her hand until Ms. Martin smacked it away from her mouth.
Kate never really talked. She wasn’t completely mute, she just never seemed to have anything to say. Her voice was a hoarse little whisper, and she rarely it used to utter anything more than a “yes” or “no.” Her eyes—her big, amphibian eyes— communicated more than her tongue ever could, though few ever seemed to know what they were saying.
The small town where Kate grew up was a petri dish of gossip. There weren’t any secrets, just rumors everyone pretended not to know. Like how Mrs. Barrymore’s late husband was some kind of crossdresser. Or how the Martin boy bit his hands and smelled like a dumpster.
By Kate’s tenth birthday, she had started to develop an odor. At first, it was just a thin perfume of acrid pee stink, but over the course of a couple of months, it developed into an overpowering aroma of shit and rotten meat, like bile seeping through her pores.
Her clothes never looked dirty. Neither did she, for that matter. In fact, by sight, she was one of the best groomed kids in her class. She wore crisp new pants and tidy little polo shirts. Her hair was clean, her complexion was clear, and her shoes were spotless. And yet somehow she persistently smelled more and more like cannibal vomit.
Kate has never liked the feeling of water on her skin. It reminds her of the sensation you get in your front teeth if you bite into a stick of unsalted butter, but all over her body. She imagines that if you hung a ghost upside down by its feet and slit its throat, water is what would pool on the floor below it.
Yet despite what was being whispered by everyone out of her mother’s earshot, Kate bathed every day. She could scrub and scrape and disinfect her flesh until it was raw, but her fetid reek was unrelenting. No fragrance could cover it, no regiment could stifle it. Nothing could keep Kate from stinking.
And the people in town talked.
Her mother took her to doctors who sent her to specialists who passed her on to other, better specialists, but none of their interventions could alleviate the smell, and none of their expertise could explain it. Gradually, the murmuring doubts of Ms. Martin’s neighbors crescendoed into outright accusations of neglect. If science couldn’t explain Kate’s condition, then common sense would. She stank because her mother didn’t love her, because Ms. Martin couldn’t take care of her, because Mr. Martin was gone and these things are bound to happen when unlovable women raise children alone.
The smell would change unpredictably and each incarnation was worse than the last. Today, it was gasoline, egg farts, and spoiled milk; tomorrow, fish heads, crushed skunk, and typhoid hospital bedpans. She’d leave the house smelling like old guts piled in the hot sun, and she’d come home reeking of stale sex and mass graves on a cloudy day.
Finally, they’d separated her from the other kids because, although whatever was wrong with her didn’t seem to be contagious, nobody wanted to risk a school full of students that smell like dead animals. Besides, even the faculty had begun calling her “Shit Boy.” Quarantining her would be best for everyone, and the placid, silent Kate didn’t seem to mind.
For a year and a half, they kept her in a trailer out by the parking lot. Her teachers were a rotating cast of substitutes, none of whom were willing to spend more than a week cooped up with her. It wasn’t just the stink. She was weird. Bug-eyed. Creepy.
And then one day the phone rang and Ms. Martin stopped sending Kate to school altogether. Their lives got darker; blinds closed, windows shut. No more sunshine, no more prying eyes. Kate’s mom only went out to get food. Kate never went out at all. She didn’t eat much, either.
After Kate had been out of class for six months, her skin turned gray and started to sag. Pigment drained day-by-day from her body. Even her veins turned ashen. Only those sparkling green eyes kept their color. They stayed just as strange and bright as they’d ever been when all her hair fell out, when her fingernails dropped off.
Ms. Martin left Kate’s schoolwork and her meals on an end table outside her bedroom door every morning. In the evening, she would come to collect the completed work and the untouched food. She didn’t care if her daughter ate. She didn’t care about her at all, really. She was parenting on principle alone. She would only be as good a mother as she needed to be to prove a point. To herself. To the police. To the world. No more.
And so Kate was alone for a year.
One day, not long after her thirteenth birthday, which passed unnoticed and uncelebrated, Kate was chewing on her fingers. She nibbled at the raw bed of flesh where her fingernail used to be, and a small tag began to peel away in her teeth.
She tugged at it, and the seam split, pulling up her finger, around her wrist, and down her arm. A two foot long sheet of her putrid, lifeless skin pulled away, revealing a coppery tan underneath. She scratched along the dead edges and her skin tore back, coming off in broad swaths with a sick sucking sound, like a wet t-shirt. Soon, she’d stripped herself completely bare and stood, naked and new, alone in her room.
She understood, in that moment, that she’d been expecting this, had felt the itch to tear off her skin her entire life. It hadn’t been a conscious desire, not something she’d planned on doing. It was like a salmon returning to its stream or a goose flying south. It felt natural. It felt right.
Relief filled her chest, tinged with something like regret. She wasn’t surprised by what changed; her hair, her nose, the shape of her chin. Her defeat, however, rested in what remained. Her body was different, but she’d hoped for more. The modesty of her transformation left a burgundy stain of disappointment in her heart.
On the floor next to her bed, the wet sheets of her carapace lay, soft and bloodless, lumped in a clumsy pile. As a she gazed at it, a burp of nostalgia squeezed a single tear from her eye. She sniffled, and in doing so, she smelled her skin for the first time. It was strangely, intoxicatingly sweet, and the epiphany of another sensation she’d never truly known settled on her stomach: the pangs of hunger.
She leaned down and grabbed a handful of it, surprised to find that it had somewhat dissolved, becoming sticky and viscous like taffy. She lifted it to her face and inhaled deeply. A giddy thrill raced up her spine. She gingerly touched the tip of her tongue to the rotting clump of lifeless tissue. It tasted a bit like salted caramel and bit like pure pleasure.
There was a faint buzz in her ear as a fly, one of many she hadn’t previously seen, flew in from the window to settle in for a share of her gruesome feast. As she took her first mushy bite into the rank, old casing of her life, as it tore tenderly away in her teeth, she could not have been happier for the company.
Red Durkin is a stand-up comedian, writer, and activist. She was voted the 2013 MOTHA Performer of the Year, has toured extensively as part of the Tranny Roadshow, performed at Camp Trans and the Transgender Leadership Summit, and was a member of the Fully Functional Cabaret. She is the managing editor of PrettyQueer.com. She has written nine zines, was featured in the final issue of Punk Planet magazine, and is a contributor to Topside Press’s The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard. Her work on Youtube has reached over 100,000 views and has been used for education and entertainment in classrooms and boardrooms around the world.