Jessica used to have a recurring dream when she was a teenager that she picked at a hangnail and the strip of skin, instead of breaking off, kept peeling back, down her finger, across the back of her hand and up her arm until—as if her body was a box of chocolates wrapped in cellophane that was removed by one smooth strip—all her skin had fallen off her body in a wet, wrinkled pile. She would feel raw, and cold, and new; and when she woke up, she knew that she would be bleeding again.
As an adult Jessica would sometimes remember that year of her life and wonder if it really happened. She would tell herself it hadn’t been real, merely a delusion, or hysteria, or the vivid imagination of a young girl. But more often than not Jessica wouldn’t think of it at all—it was lost, as so many things are, to time.
* * *
It began on her thirteenth birthday. Jessica had felt weird all day, teary and angry for no reason. Her mum brought out a big ice cream cake with thirteen pink candles on the top. Pink wax dripped down onto the surface of the cake as Jessica’s mum and dad sang. Jessica had looked into the middle of each flame to see the dark heart before blowing them out. Three days later her period started. It came during the night; Jessica woke up and knew that something was wrong. She thought, for one horrible moment, that she had wet herself. The top of her thighs were stuck together. There was a smell—both animal and metallic at once—in her room. She groped for her lamp and switched it on, throwing back her sheets. She screamed when she saw the blood. It took her aback completely: She had somehow believed it would never happen to her. Her mother stumbled through to Jessica’s room and rolled her eyes. She pushed Jessica into the bathroom where she showed her how to use pads, what to do with the dirty ones, what temperature to soak her knickers in so that the blood came out. Then she striped the bed, remade it and tucked Jessica in. Jessica felt sore, tired, and dazed. Her fingers tingled, her stomach hurt. She cried a little and slept.
The next day at school Jessica kept running to the bathroom and pressing squares of toilet paper against herself, then removing them and looking at the pattern of blood left behind. It was like a bloody inkblot test. She saw something like a beetle, an egg, a spider, a fir tree. She wondered what it could mean, if it meant anything at all. She flushed them all away and washed her hands.
Jessica went back to Geography and hoped no-one could sense it on her. She peeked at the other girls in her class out of the corner of her eye. Alice had already started her periods, three years before, and was generally seen as the font of all knowledge about that sort of thing. She could be relied upon for information about bras, what boys like in girls, how much hair a girl should have down there, what condoms smelt like, what sex smelt like, how big the average penis was, whether you could get pregnant just lying in bed with a boy, what a blowjob was, what coming meant, and which cubicle was the best one to go to when you had your period. Jessica listened to Alice’s stories along with the rest of the girls in her year, but she wasn’t one hundred percent sure that she believed all of them. If a blowjob really was what Alice said it was, then Jessica was never going to do one. Not for all the love nor money in the world. Jessica’s best friend, Zofia, had started her period a year ago, but she was shy and refused to talk about it. Jessica knew when Zofia was on her period because she would bring a little purse into school, which hung round her neck on a red string all day long and crinkled slightly if pressure was put on it. Zofia’s mum would pack painkillers and a chocolate bar in her lunchbox on those days. Jessica wondered if she would have to start wearing a little purse around her neck too.
* * *
In double English Jessica felt her stomach rolling over and over. Her body felt as if it were in a state of constant flux—every organ, shiny and red, moved about inside her. Jessica had once helped her dad make strawberry jam. The heaving, roiling thick liquid in the pan—that was how her belly felt. She pressed her hands to it, trying to stop the motion. She thought she might be sick. She told the teacher this; her teacher nodded curtly and said she looked pale.
Jessica ran to the bathroom. She wasn’t sick but she cried: hot salty tears that she couldn’t stop. It came out of her in a sudden flood. She doubled over in the small, cramped cubicle. The smell of bleach and, below that, urine, surrounded her. Jessica had never cried like this before. A high pitched wail rose, unbidden, from her throat and she sobbed. “What is happening to me,” she whispered to herself, struggling to catch her breath. “What is happening?”
* * *
The video started with a blood red heart—lopsided and badly drawn. It looked more like someone had tried to paint a V with a very thick paintbrush and accidentally ended up with a heart. Sex Education for Girls appeared in gold letters inside the heart. It had been six weeks since Jessica’s first period and she was hoping, despite knowing better, that it would never come again. A lady started speaking over the footage, which was now of a cartoon boy and girl. They were naked, but the way cherubs in classical paintings are naked; it was like looking at a doll without its clothes on. All the boys had been put into a separate classroom to learn about erections and wet dreams and other things Jessica didn’t want to think about. The video was projected onto the classrooms whiteboard. On the screen the girl’s body became transparent—her uterus, bladder and bowel were on display for all to see. The narrator was calmly telling them how their bodies would change. Zofia leaned across to Jessica and said they were at least two years too late.
A small white circle—an egg, the screen said—travelled through the fallopian tubes. Jessica felt a squeezing down low in her gut. Her stomach quivered as though it had been prodded from the inside. She knew, instinctively, that there was something moving and pressing against her—like a child, perhaps, except of course there couldn’t be. Her palms felt hot and sweaty. Her head felt as though it was in a vice. Something kicked her—definitely kicked!—from within. The narrator continued placidly. Jessica rubbed the back of her neck: Her hands didn’t feel like they belonged to her anymore. As the video started showing the womb lining shedding—oozing out in a long, thick, animated clinical white—Jessica fainted.
* * *
When Jessica woke she told her teachers that there was something inside her. They exchanged looks.
Had she eaten something a bit different at lunch? one of them asked.
“Something is moving inside me!” she said.
The teachers exchanged looks again.
“Overactive imagination,” said one.
“Trapped wind,” said the other.
* * *
Jessica’s mother came and picked her up.
“It isn’t like you to faint,” she said, pulling into their driveway.
“Something is happening to me,” Jessica said, “and I’m afraid.”
“That’s puberty, love,” sighed her mum. “I’ve got to go back to work. No TV until you’ve done your homework, okay?”
Jessica nodded and watched her mum drive away. When she went to the bathroom she saw that her period had started again.
Jessica took advantage of being home alone by taking off all her clothes to inspect her body in the mirror in her bedroom. It wasn’t big enough to see all of herself in all at once, so she had to dip her arm into it, holding herself carefully the way people do when pointing a cautious toe into a body of water. Then she revealed to herself her growing chest, before getting a stool and lowering her hips and legs into it. She bent over and looked at her bottom in the mirror. There was a fuzz of hair peeking out from the front and hair was also beginning to sprout all down her legs and under her arms. Some blood trickled out and dripped down her leg. She felt itchy and achy and wrong. Whilst she stood on the stool she grabbed a handful of her thigh and pulled. Her flesh stretched out like a piece of bubble gum. Jessica felt a trembling low in her stomach. She tugged at it again and her thigh grew huge, until it began to droop. She felt exactly as she did when she dropped and broke her mum’s favourite glass animal: like she’d destroyed something that couldn’t be fixed. She pulled her other thigh. Her chest moved sluggishly outward. Her fingers became long and thin like knitting needles. She manipulated her stomach until she looked big and round and pregnant then started prodding at her face. She made her eyes two deep pools that filled with tears, her mouth wide and gaping. Her nose she manipulated into being large and bulbous, then she squashed it flat with the palm of her hand before pinching the tip out into a small point. She took hold of her cheeks, one in each hand, and puuuullllllllllled. She was ugly. Hideous. Her mother, when she saw her, would never believe that this goblin in the mirror was Jessica.
She heard her mum’s key in the lock. She fell off the stool and scrabbled to pull her clothes back on. Her heart was hammering. She rubbed her hands frantically over her face, feeling her flesh move beneath her fingers, and when she looked in the mirror everything was back to normal.
* * *
A boy named Gary kept hanging around her at break-time and at lunch. Jessica didn’t know how she felt about it. On the one hand, she was quite pleased with the attention, but on the other it made her feel a little uncomfortable. Gary could juggle and spit very far. He asked her lots of questions, like: what was her favourite food (raspberry ripple ice cream), her favourite animal (frogs), her favourite subject (physics), her favourite season (summer). Zofia kept quiet during these conversations and sucked noisily on her juice box. One day, at the end of lunch, Gary darted in and quickly kissed Jessica on the cheek. Her stomach contracted like it had been squeezed with a strong pair of hands. Before she went to her next class she visited the bathroom: In the mirror her face glowed red. She thought she could see the exact spot he had kissed.
* * *
Her period started again, suddenly, in the middle of P.E. She cried in the changing rooms and her friends huddled round her like guards. Zofia solemnly pulled a pad out of her little purse and handed it to her. Then she produced a tissue and passed that over too. There was blood all over Jessica’s shorts, although you couldn’t really see it, all her friends said, because they were so dark already. They felt sticky, though, stiff with blood, and Jessica felt marked. Her stomach was heavy and sore. She imagined blood pouring out of her in a flood, until everything was red.
At home, her mum ran her a bath and stroked her hair. Jessica climbed into the warm water. Currents of red kept swirling up between her legs. Blood clots floated up to the surface and Jessica squeezed them between her finger and thumb. The dark red oozed. Her breasts were getting bigger. Jessica didn’t recognise her body any more. It had changed whilst her back was turned. She stayed in the bath for a long time, until the water grew cold and she started to shiver. It was impossible trying to dry herself without dripping blood everywhere, so she stood in the bath until all the water had run off and then wiped up the blood with her sponge. She climbed into clean clothes and inspected parts of herself in a mirror again. Her throat hurt. She opened her mouth and tilted the little shaving mirror that was in the bathroom to gaze at the back of her throat. In the red dark, two eyes were gazing back. Jessica screamed and clapped her hands over her face. Slowly, she took her hands away and looked again. The two eyes blinked at her. They were brown, like her own. She took up a cotton bud and jabbed at one of the eyes. Her mouth filled with salt water, and she gasped and spat it out into the sink. A thin line of blood stained the cotton. She wrapped her arms about herself and clutched her body. “You’re dreaming,” she whispered, “you’re dreaming.” Then, before she could check her throat again, her mum shouted that tea was ready, and she ran downstairs, pretending she hadn’t seen what she’d just seen.
* * *
Jessica dreamed she was kissing Gary, then she dreamed she was kissing her art teacher Ms Plimms, then she wasn’t kissing anyone at all, but pulling string out of her mouth; endless string that kept coming and coming and coming. Then she dreamed she was a boy and her breasts shrunk in on themselves and her genitals turned themselves out of her body, until they hung between her legs. They were uncomfortable and she kept getting them trapped in things: zips, between her own thighs, in one leg of her trousers, in a drawer. She reached down and began to touch herself. It felt weird and she wasn’t sure if she liked it. She dreamed hair started growing out of her face and itching. She dreamed she was in a big swimming pool and she was bleeding, but she couldn’t tell from where. She dreamed she was a girl again and her eyes started weeping thick blood instead of tears, and instead of period blood she menstruated salt water. She dreamed she became pregnant and gave birth to a huge, thick snake. Just as she was about to start breastfeeding the snake she woke up. It was a Saturday. She had nowhere to be, but she didn’t want to stay in bed any longer, so she got dressed and watched morning cartoons until the rest of her family woke. She checked her throat in a compact mirror. She couldn’t see any eyes but maybe, she thought, they were sleeping. Maybe they were dreaming.
* * *
Jessica Googled: body weird period
Jessica Googled: thick period blood
Jessica Googled: eyes throat
Jessica Googled: back of throat weird???
Jessica Googled: mental breakdown
Jessica Googled: unnatural puberty help
* * *
There was an area round the back of the sixth form centre where no one had bothered to install CCTV. Jessica and Gary bunked off ICT and sat behind the squat building, passing lollipops back and forth. Jessica had a strawberry and cream flavoured one; Gary had Cola flavoured one, which Jessica didn’t really like, but gamely stuck in her mouth anyway.
“Do you ever feel like your body isn’t your own?”
Gary blushed to the tips of his large ears. “What do you mean?”
“Like”—they swapped lollipops—“it does things without you wanting it too. It just exists without your say-so. It… misbehaves.”
Gary laughed nervously. “Er, yeah, well welcome to puberty.” He threw Jessica’s strawberry lollipop in the air and caught it again. They swapped. Jessica eyed him thoughtfully. Gary was all right, really. He had a very endearing way of blushing when she asked him something personal.
“Gary,” she said, “can I kiss you?”
Gary swallowed nervously and then nodded. They moved closer to each other and then Jessica pressed her lips against his. He tasted like cola and strawberry. It wasn’t unpleasant, but neither was it something she would write home about. She felt something tighten horribly in her stomach. Gary peeked his tongue through the seam of his lips and pressed it against hers. She let him in, but his tongue felt big and wet and slimy in her mouth and she pulled away, laughing and embarrassed. “Sorry,” she said, “sorry.”
* * *
The thing inside Jessica writhed. Sometimes it seemed to have hands: It had pushed through her skin and scratched deep pink marks on her hips, on her belly, on her thighs. Sometimes she could feel it tossing and turning in the night. She felt a strange sensation like her body was a glove and a hand was being pulled through her. She bled again: a watery pink, an orangey red that leaked all over the bed covers; then a deep rich red that smelt like hot metal. Jessica placed her hands over her eyes and counted to ten. I’m dying, she thought calmly, soon I will be dead. She fantasied about slicing her body in two and letting the thing inside her slip out onto the floor, and then burying it six feet deep. Girls were born with the amount of eggs inside them that they had their whole life, she had heard once. Even as a baby she’d had a legion of eggs, tiny pinhead sized eggs, tucked up in her miniscule womb. Her body was a doll’s house. Maybe they were hatching out. Maybe they were growing and breaking and living inside her. “I am a vessel,” she said loudly. Her dad popped his head round her bedroom door and asked her if she’d said anything, love?
“No,” she told him. “I was just singing.” He nodded and closed the door.
* * *
Her body grew incredibly heavy. Walking to school took her twice as long, even with Zofia jostling her along, plucking at her blazer, pulling her hand.
“Zofia,” she said, “do you think I’m dying?”
“No,” said Zofia firmly, “I think we’re going to be late for Maths.”
Zofia was wearing her little purse around her neck again. It rustled as it swung back and forth across her chest. Was Zofia’s chest getting bigger? Probably; Jessica had never really thought about it before. Had Zofia stretched her body out like pieces of clay one day? Jessica would never know. She couldn’t think of a way to ask.
“Zofia,” said Jessica, “let’s skive off Maths, yeah?”
Zofia stopped in her tracks and turned to Jessica with both eyebrows raised. She softened. “Okay,” she said.
They cracked open cans of cream soda behind the sixth form and ate strawberry laces. Jessica could still taste mint from when she’d brushed her teeth that morning and it mixed unpleasantly with the sugar and fake strawberry. Two giggling girls from the upper sixth staggered round the back and lit a couple of cigarettes. They paused when they saw Jessica and Zofia sat on the cracked cement.
“Shit,” said one of them, laughing, “we’re rumbled.”
“Strawberry laces!” said the other. “Can I have one?” Jessica handed the pack over, reluctantly. The girl took one, smiling, and gave the pack back. “I’d offer you a smoke,” she said, “but these things stunt your growth.” Beside her, Jessica could feel Zofia rolling her eyes.
After the girls left, Zofia said quietly, “Are you going out with Gary?”
Jessica remembered what kissing him had felt like, and the awkward way she’d avoided him since that afternoon. She shook her head. She looked at Zofia, with her thick rimmed glasses and her dark hair. She had sugar granules on her lips. “Zofia,” she said slowly. “Can I kiss you?”
Zofia tilted her head back against the grimy brick wall. Her eyes were closed. “Why?”
“Oh, well,” Zofia smiled. “If it’s for science.” She lent in and kissed Jessica. Practically speaking, it wasn’t too different to kissing Gary. Sweeter, perhaps, from the sugar that she left on Jessica’s lips. She didn’t try to push her tongue in Jessica’s mouth and Jessica was grateful. The kiss went on for a little while and Jessica felt a warmth running pleasantly through her. Her stomach loosened. Inside her body, something woke up and stretched.
Zofia sat back and drank more cream soda.
“Thank you,” said Jessica, quietly.
“Don’t mention it,” said Zofia, laughing, and they carried on eating.
* * *
Jessica became hungry. Nothing touched her appetite. She ate eggs, porridge, crisps, bananas, apples, tuna paste sandwiches, steak, sausages, angel delight, toast and honey, peanuts, slices of ham. She scurried down to the kitchen in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of cereal, dipped biscuits into glasses of milk, scooped out hummus with her fingers, spooned strawberry jam into her mouth, ate dried figs and carrots. When that didn’t help she started chewing on pencils and swallowed them piece by piece. She cracked plastic jewels off her costume jewellery, swallowed strings of beads. She licked cakes of soap. She fished egg shells out of the bins and ate those too. Jessica watched herself doing these things with a detached horror. It was like seeing someone else finding small stones to eat during lunchtime and stealing pieces of chalk to suck on before bed. The thing growing inside her had an unnatural appetite; it needed nourishment, but she didn’t know what.
She was sure she was becoming a monster. She was convinced that she was dying.
one day, she texted Zofia, i will be mulch that the worms eat and nothing will matter.
that day will be sooner than you think if you don’t stop texting me morbid shit like this, Zofia replied.
* * *
It all came to a head in English. She was thinking about Zofia. She had been thinking about her a lot, recently. She started itching all over. When she scratched her skin parts of it came away under her nails. The pair of hands moved underneath the surface of her body, knocking against her bones like someone checking for a hollow part of a wall. Her heart thudded unevenly and she started to sweat. An overwhelming urge to suddenly use the bathroom came over her. She stood suddenly; the chair scraped loudly against the floor. “I don’t feel well,” she told the teacher and escaped from the class.
Jessica ran to the bathroom. She felt her insides pushing against her outside. She knew, deep down, what she had to do. An animal instinct echoed through her. She locked herself into a cubicle and then Jessica reached and placed her hands inside her mouth, pulling her lips apart as though baring her teeth, like she was readying her mouth to be turned inside out. Then she tugged at her lips until they began to stretch back over her teeth, her jaw, her nose and cheeks. She was peeling away her flesh, removing it like a rubber mask. It resisted, but she kept pulling. She removed the outer layer from her face and head. Jessica paused to undress and continued to pull at her skin. It was akin to removing a wetsuit. After a few minutes struggling she was bare. New. She quickly dressed again. Her fresh skin, her inside self, felt sensitive at first and she could feel every tender point on her body where her clothes brushed against her. The door of the bathroom clanged open. It was Zofia.
“Jessica?” she said. “Are you in here?”
Jessica scooped up her old skin. It felt cool and silky to touch. She dropped it down the toilet; it nearly filled the bowl. She pulled hard on the chain. The toilet shuddered, struggling to flush. She yanked on the chain again. Her new skin felt tight and tough. She touched her face, probing to find out what change had taken place. The toilet fell silent. She unlocked the cubicle and stepped out.
“Jessica?” said Zofia. She looked worried. Her forehead was wrinkled in concern. She slowly approached Jessica, wary, like she was walking up to a wild animal. “Are you okay?”
Jessica reached out and told hold of Zofia’s hand. She was a little afraid, still, of what was happening, had happened; but she felt powerful, for the first time, and strong. “I’m fine,” she said. Her eyes gleamed. “Never better.”
Catherine Mitchell lives in Norfolk. Her work has been published by Catapult, The Rumpus, and Queen Mob’s Tea House, among others. Her story “Our Lady of Perpetuity” was shortlisted for The White Review‘s 2019 Short Story Prize. She is currently working on her first collection of stories.