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You shed your skin for the first time on New Year's Eve. You are ten years old, and you are surprised at how much it doesn't hurt.
Your mother helps you remove it. In the dim light of the fireplace, the dead skin has a wet, silvery sheen to it. You long to touch the limp petals of it as your mother scrapes them away with her pocketknife, but she casts them into the coals before you can reach for them.
When she is finished, your skin is the same as it has always looked, save for a tiny patch of silver scales on your sternum, no bigger than a quarter. When you raise your hand to touch it, your mother swats your hand away.
"Don't pick at it," she says. "It'll get bigger unless you leave it alone."
She pulls up the hem of her shirt. Just above the jut of her hip is a patch of scales, larger and more uneven than your own. The edges have the look of a small cut that has never been allowed to fully mend itself, like the scab on your knee that you pick at in Sunday School whenever the pastor drags his sermon out for too long.
She leads you to the kitchen and pulls a small jar out of the refrigerator. She removes the cap and holds it beneath your nose. The acrid, yellow smell of it makes your eyes water.
"Next time you feel it happening," your mother says, "rub this on your skin. It'll stop the shedding."
You hold the little jar in the palm of your hands, turning it over and over again. You have not said a word since you woke your mother up from her nap earlier that evening, shaking and tear-streaked, the skeins of dead skin hanging from your arms like sheets from a clothesline.
"What are you, Mama?" you whisper.
Another question hangs unspoken in the air: what am I?
Your mind conjures up all shapes of horrible things that might lurk beneath the safe, human shape of your skin. Cold, soulless things with curved fangs and bulging eyes, who crave the dark as much as they crave blood.
For a moment, your mother's face crumples, the corners of her mouth trembling in a way that makes her seem much younger than her years. Then, just as quickly, she smiles and kisses you on the forehead.
"Take a shower and go to bed," she says softly. "We'll talk tomorrow."
You realize it will be pointless to ask again.
You dream of the ocean that night, though you've never seen it. You dream of black skies and churning waters and singing so lonely and piercing that it might very well be screaming.
The second time is the worst. The ointment burns your skin in a way you've never felt before, as if your skin is fighting against it, begging to shake itself loose. It is a living thing, that burning, and for the first time in your life, you wish you were dead. Your mother holds you while you cry, holds your hair back while you vomit into the wastebasket by your bed. You try to dig your fingernails into your skin and tear it off, but your mother holds your wrists in a grip as tight as a fisherman's net, and she does not let go, no matter how much you fight.
When you can think of anything coherent at all, you think of drowning.
When it's over, when you lay belly-down on your sweat-drenched comforter and allow your eyes to close, your mother brushes your hair away from your eyes, and gets from your bed.
"It won't be so bad next time," she whispers. "Eventually, you won't be able to feel it at all."
And she's right.
Every year, the edge of the pain recedes a bit. Each New Year's Eve, you find ways to distract yourself. You go out with friends and dance until your feet ache in their too-tight shoes. You run laps outside until the cold forces any lingering pain to crouch in the corners of your mind, too weak to stand. You beat it back every time, and sometimes you are able to pretend it isn't there at all.
But when you close your eyes at night, your hand drifts to the little patch of scales on your belly, and you wonder, in the soft blue seconds before sleep takes you, what would happen if you let go.
Your mother dies when you are twenty-one, five days before the end of the year. Her last request is to have her ashes scattered into the sea.
It takes five hours to reach the nearest coast, and the moon is high and round by the time you arrive. It is the first time you have seen the ocean with your own eyes, but your heart is too heavy for you to care about its beauty.
You stand ankle-deep in the surf and allow your mother's ashes to spill into the foaming waves. As they settle onto the water, the moonlight sparks off the tiny scales in their midst, like stars in a cold black sky.
Only then do you realize that it is New Year's Eve, and for the first time, you feel no pain at all.
Instead, you feel only a cold, heavy numbness, and it is more horrible than anything you have ever felt.
You reach beneath the heavy wool of your sweater and touch your scales. Despite the freezing weather, they are warm to the touch.
You shut your eyes against the scalding tears that form in their corners.
"I'm sorry, Mama," you whisper.
You dig your nails into the skin at the edge of your scales and begin to tear it away.
You are not human. You are not a monster.
For the first time in your life, you are.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 26th, 2020
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