Mira was in a hospital gown looking at her phone. The girl with the bleach-blonde pixie cut had been tantalizing in her OKCupid photo, but when they met last week, she noticed the deep-pitted acne scars peppering her jawline and the glaring red spots on her cheeks and between her thick brows. These imperfections made her no less attractive to Mira, but they proved a distraction in conversation; one that left her questioning whether or not she should block her profile now.
"Mira Shelby?" The door cracked open, warmth from the hallway wafting into the cold room. She'd been sitting on a padded table covered in crinkly white paper, her skin washed out under a fluorescent light. Her hairy legs were bare over thick woolen socks, feet dangling above the floor. She was jolted out of her intense focus on scrolling, and her thumb instinctively struck the BLOCK button on the fake blonde's profile as the rheumatologist entered. Well, that was that. Done and done. Ghosted.
"It's actually Shebly. B-L-Y," Mira said, shifting on the itchy paper that bunched up under the weight of her thighs.
"Ah, I remember you now; I remember your hair. It was a different color last time. Not green..."
"More like teal," Mira said, though her eyes were on the open folder in the doctor's hands.
"Yeah, teal. That's one of my favorite colors. My car's teal, you know."
She hated the small talk, the prelude to bad news, the stalling that showed the doctor had been in a hurry, hadn't read her test results before this very moment. Or, God forbid, he was trying to make a connection; a paltry show of effort in a time when no one had time for anyone anymore.
"So, we did your ANA panel last week, your antinuclear antibodies. We also took urine. We found a few crystals, nothing to worry about. But your ANA was positive; that means there's a presence on the cellular level. It binds to the nucleus, damaging and destroying those cells. We see this in most autoimmune diseases." He let it sink in for a breath. "This doesn't necessarily have to indicate disease, but for you...You came in reporting fatigue, rashes, hair loss, pain. The nurse noted swelling of the fingers and paleness in your extremities. That combined with a positive ANA and no other organ involvement..."
Mira was listening, but her eyes drifted to the anatomical illustration on the wall. It was the outline of a man, skin flayed from muscle. The ribs were skeletal and housed organs, blackened by text: symptomatology, diagnostic criteria, potential treatments and mortality rates. Blown up wide in a corner of the poster was a drawing of a cell. Inside the cell, fluorescent green shapes festered like radioactive fried eggs.
"...Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. The rash on your nose and cheeks is a tell-tale sign. We call it a butterfly rash."
"Am I going to, like, die?" Mira drew her eyes back to the doctor, noticing the mole on his lip for the first time.
"No, no. Not anytime soon. There's no cure, but there are treatments available now that we didn't have 50 or even 10 years ago. With diligence there's nothing stopping you from living a long, relatively healthy life." He closed the file in his lap and began scribbling on his prescription pad, great illegible swoops. "But you really should quit smoking."
Outside, Mira stroked her hair back into a loose bun at the nape of her neck and pulled a baseball cap over her bangs. She lit a cigarette and started walking, her new prescriptions in a white paper bag, twisted up and tucked against her body with the crook of her elbow. She was scrolling her phone again, the buzz of it going off every now and then in her palm: a match on OKCupid, or a call from work asking why she was half an hour late.
User jaymasays caught her eye, a thin social media influencer-type with a caramel balayage, her lashes doll-like and thick with extensions, her lips a permanently plastered pout, puffy as pillows. In her photo she was smiling, the light catching her eyes in dazzling crypts of honey and green. There was an instant attraction coupled with the knowledge that Mira couldn't possibly be this girl's type. A quick search on Instagram confirmed it. There she was, holding a bouquet of flowers against the backdrop of a farmer's market. And again, whimsically grinning under a wide-brimmed sun hat, her eyes closed as a crowd of music festival-goers huddled around the main stage. Despite the forces at work that would keep girls like Mira and Jayma apart, some stronger force was at play; when she swiped right, they were a match.
Mira shot off a quick message:
mira-cle-im-alive: sorry if this is weird, but you are so fucking pretty.
"How was the appointment?"
Harrison was Mira's coworker, a punky high school senior who had scored his first job at Starbright Cafe by being the owner's third cousin twice removed—or something like that. Despite the nepotism, he was a good worker, a hell of a dishwasher, and he didn't know how much they were being underpaid so he was happy all the time. And considerate. And Mira's friend, despite their 12-year age difference.
"Kind of a joke," Mira said, wrapping her apron around her waist while Harrison clocked her in on the iPad Velcroed to the cash register.
"Well, I'm riddled with disease, so there's that. I've got Lupus."
"Like George Costanza from Seinfeld Lupus? Like literally Lupus?"
"Yeah. Like House, 'It's never Lupus' Lupus. Well, this time it's Lupus, motherfucker."
"I never watched House."
"Don't. Seinfeld is better."
"Seinfeld is always better."
The café was empty this time of day. A Tuesday afternoon, after the lunch rush, after all the suited gym rats in the nearby office parks crawled out of their cubicles like ants to sugar, looking for their midday fix. Harrison leaned against the counter, his phone flat on the surface between the blueberry scones and the double-chocolate chip muffins.
"What are you on, Grindr?" Mira had pulled out a saran-wrapped cucumber, waving it at Harrison's nose.
"Nah, I'm seeing how long you have left to live."
"I really am looking up lupus. What'd the doctor tell you?"
"Not much. He gave me a pamphlet to read at home. He was in a rush."
"Sounds about right."
Mira unwrapped the cucumber and began peeling the skin slowly, sloughing it off onto the cutting board in thin ribbons. The water seeped out across the surface of the counter, the ribbons of skin curling into spirals. She had the fleeting inclination to do the same to the raised rash on her wrist, burning with itch from brief exposure to the sun. She pushed the thought away, would not allow herself to be pulled into the sensation of her sickness; not just the pain, but the fear of something uncontrollable at work inside her.
"Did you know they call it lupus because some guy in the 1200s said the rash you get on your face looks like a wolf bite?"
"So you're practically a werewolf."
"I will when you shave your legs."
Mira smiled, first at Harrison and then at the customer darkening the open door. She made a quick motion at Harrison to swap places with her. The man coming in was a regular, an interior designer who liked his latte just so, and preferred when Mira made it.
"Haven't seen you in a while," she said, ringing up his order before he ever opened his mouth. She'd already poured his milk and set the espresso to drip.
"My husband and I just got back from Paris." He was white-haired and short, stocky, wearing a scarf and a coral button-up that brought out the bright splotches of burst capillaries across his nose. Mira forced herself not to stare at the tangle of blood vessels.
"Sounds nice. I've always wanted to go."
"You've never been? Oh, you should really go."
The man took his latte. The man smiled politely. The man did not leave a tip.
"So much for Paris," she said once the man had turned the corner outside the door. They were walled in by towering brownstones, old slums that had been remodeled for the upper class and went for a few million a pop. The man lived in one, while Mira's pain was constant and sharp and not worth the ten dollars an hour.
"Hey." Harrison bumped Mira's shoulder lightly. "Are you okay, for real?"
She didn't let herself cry about her diagnosis until she got home that evening, until she'd showered the day away. Laying on the futon in her studio apartment, she balanced bags of ice on the tops of her swollen feet.
She'd taken great care not to look at herself in the mirror, something she'd stopped doing, for the most part, just after her 30th birthday. Each glance at her reflection made her feel more aged than the last; the circles darkening her eyes hung beneath her bottom lashes like inverted gravestones, and her crow's feet crinkled even when her expression was slack and stoic.
A single wiry gray hair had appeared at her grown-out roots, springing up like a stem from seed and defying her tweezers. She could not twist, could not pull the thorn from follicle, could not destroy the evidence that the sickness raging in her blood had taken a toll in the months leading up to her diagnosis.
All the other post-punk scene girls she knew had already gone on to marry, to wear oversized cardigans and beige skirts and to birth red-headed babies and to bake fresh bread. Somehow their aging had only made them seem more mature, but never old. Mira felt she had been left without youth or maturity and was instead something grotesquely unfeminine. It was only in these quiet moments alone that she let the pain in her bones move her to tears, imagining them bulging—for that's how the pain felt to her. Pulsing, burgeoning.
She lay her head back on the metal bar that served as the arm of the futon, covering her eyes with her arm while the other crossed over her chest. Her fingertips slipped under her shirt collar, smoothing over her skin in search of blemishes like braille. She found a bump in the skin, a pimple the size of a small freckle, and tore it up from under the thin membrane of her epidermis with the blunt half-moon of a fingernail, setting the hole to bleed.
She hadn't slept well in days, if not for worry, then for the twisted ache at every hinge of her body where bone met bone. On the third day, she called in to work; she couldn't walk, she said. She couldn't even make it to the bathroom, she said. She didn't elaborate that she'd been peeing in a takeout container beside her bed and dumping it out the window, squinting her eyes against the garish light of the sun hanging in the pale New England sky.
She was in the midst of a 'flare,' the pamphlet said. She'd been here before—many times, in fact—before she was ever officially diagnosed, wondering if the onslaught of physiological symptoms were just an extension of her fears around sickness, around death. She had rubbed her jaw and throat raw checking for swelling of the lymph nodes, swelling of the thyroid gland, anything that might indicate cancerous growth. Now she knew it wasn't cancer, wasn't some tangible lump, benign or metastasized, but something completely unseeable to the human eye. Blood eating blood, bone eating bone.
The one thing her current state provided was an indefinite pool of time in which to wade through those awkward first conversations with Jayma.
jaymasays: I like your style. What kind of dye do you use?
mira-cle-im-alive: thanks! it's mermaid by manic panic
jaymasays: Nice! Are you vegan?
jaymasays: Manic Panic is a vegan company, isn't it?
mira-cle-im-alive: oh yeah! totally forgot. i'm not vegan though. sorry if that's a dealbreaker!
jaymasays: I'm not vegan either. Manic Panic just paid me once to post about their brand. I put a purple streak in my hair and everything.
mira-cle-im-alive: wow. living the dream. if i got paid every time i dyed my hair... alas, i'm just a lowly coffee slinger
jaymasays: Don't say that. Imagine if you didn't do what you do? The road rage would be insane.
mira-cle-im-alive: honestly in boston i'm not sure the caffeine makes it any better :-P
The conversations went like that, the back and forth of a relationship starting in the shallow end and becoming deeper over time; insecurities revealing themselves, family histories uncovered like the lifting of a veil. Jayma had had a privileged life on the surface, had never wanted for anything—except to be seen. In many ways, she had gotten what she wanted: thousands of Instagram followers and brand endorsements, amateur photoshoots edited to look like every other influencer's Insta-grid. Her brand was a meaningless piece of art in a staged IKEA living room, a picture frame featuring Smiling Generic White Woman With Plant.
The day Mira's fears about Jayma were assuaged, Jayma had sent Mira a photo of herself without makeup, bare-faced and freckled by days spent in the sun. That much was real. There was a birthmark at Jayma's temple; a dark, wine-stained thing that seemed to seep from her skin like blood on cotton, something shameful and covered by her hair. Mira spent her sick days and nights dreaming of kissing it, heartbeat quickening every time she opened the photo on her phone. That much was real. That much was very real.
"Hey. Mira, helloooo?" Harrison plucked the phone out of Mira's hand and ran-skipped to the sink behind the counter, out of view of customers. It was her first day back after her lupus flare, body unsteady from dark and the dead weight of being bed bound, so she didn't give chase, only followed him back and held out her hand with brow lifted.
"Nope. Not until you tell me who you're talking to. Jayma, isn't it?"
Mira smiled, rolling her eyes. She was so tired, but Harrison's youth—for that was the true difference between a healthy 18 and a chronically ill 30—could always make her smile past the bitterness.
"Yes, it's Jayma. We're meeting up after I get off."
"Aren't you supposed to get off after you meet her?"
"Stop!" She pushed his shoulder with a short, almost breathless laugh. He handed over the phone.
"You aren't wearing that, are you? You've got butter on your t-shirt."
Mira looked down. Butter had seeped into the fabric, creating a permanently wet-looking oil stain.
"Don't worry, I have an extra shirt in my bag. It's a button-up. Jayma's high femme and you're more dykey anyway. It will be perfect and less confusing for the straights at whatever 5-star restaurant she's taking you to."
"We're going to Chipotle."
"Tacos." Smirk. "You have a pimple on your forehead, by the way. No worries. I have concealer in my bag, too."
By the time she reached Chipotle, the pimple was an angry bleeding monster with a face of its own. She hadn't meant to pick at it on the bus, peeling away the concealer and the head of it so the gummy pus jammed under her fingernail. She hadn't meant to pick the pus from under her fingernail with her teeth, move the grit around her tongue and over the roof of her mouth before swallowing it. She hadn't meant to, but that is what she did.
The cold of the rainy night had chilled her to the bone, the ache of her disease setting in again. She picked at the pimple as if the act could soothe that pain, distract her from it, swap one for the other, begging and borrowing in a hellish, never-ending, and lacking negotiation between body, blood, and brain. The ache persisted. And now her forehead was bleeding.
Chipotle was packed, bursting at the seams with hot bodies pushed in against each other in a line that wrapped around the perimeter of the room. The tables were mostly full, and the ones that weren't had smears of guac and queso on their shiny silver tops. It wasn't the grandest, but it was what Mira could afford.
She was in line a few minutes before she realized Jayma was already sitting, her face angled down and lit by the ghostly glow of her phone, scrolling and scrolling.
No one ever looked the way they did in their pictures. The caramel in Jayma's hair was dull and brassy, and Mira was surprised to see deep purple circles under her eyes that could rival her own. She had the fleeting thought that most of the men she had gone out with on OKCupid would be disappointed at the sight of Jayma—cheated somehow—as they had been when they met up with Mira in dive bars and bowling alleys. Mira knew this because they had expressed as much. They thought she'd be taller or thinner or less queer, and they had barely veiled contempt for her upon sight. She didn't feel that way about Jayma.
"Jayma?" Mira put her hand lightly on Jayma's shoulder. When she looked up from her phone, her hair fell away from her face, revealing the stain—the size and shape of Mira's thumb.
"I'm sick. I'm in so much pain."
"Shh. It's okay. I don't mind topping. Lay back. Let me take care of you."
"No one's said that to me in a long time. Maybe not ever."
"Well, it's about time, don't you think?"
Jayma lay on her stomach, arms under her pillow, eyes open and staring at Mira with a soft smile. Mira traced the line of Jayma's spine with her middle finger, tickling the peach fuzz of her freckled skin. The act was a thinly veiled search for imperfections, her fingertips feeling for bumps, for clogged follicles or rough edges, for rash or knot. She leaned over Jayma's body, bringing the light of her phone screen to a barely perceptible snag in the otherwise smooth surface.
"You have a blackhead." Mira pulled and pinched the skin to make sure. "Want me to get it?"
"Oh my god. Ew. I mean, yes, but ew." Jayma looked over her shoulder, a mix of amusement and embarrassment on her face. Mira liked the way her mascara clumped after sleeping.
Mira squeezed the spot between her thumbnails until the pore opened and burst with a little snake of impacted oil and hair. Left behind was a hole in the skin the size of the eye of a needle, the tiniest empty mouth. While Jayma had her head turned, Mira put the contents of the blackhead on her tongue and swallowed like a salty little pill.
"Did you get it?" Jayma sat up, her hair falling over her shoulders in an unkempt, wavy mass. "Let me see."
"I dropped it."
"Gross. Now it's in the bed."
"Yeah, with all our other shed skin cells. And pubic hair. And juices."
"Don't say juices!"
"Juices. Juices. Juices!"
Mira had never laughed so full-bellied and unselfconscious with another.
Mira stared at her own hands in the dim light of her bedroom. The shadows played tricks on her now. Her rheumatologist called it brain fog; a strange state in which words could not come easily and thoughts slipped through her grasp like water from a pitcher, poured and up and away in zero gravity. In her mind's eye, her cells were wolf-heads, snarling in her blood, swelling and fighting the vein like a rope round their necks. The wolf-heads gnashed at her kidneys and made her have to pee, over and over throughout the night. They were the source of the crystals in her bladder, and the reason why her stomach burned when she ate, the reason her stool was pale from lack of bile and her skin was red with rash. It wasn't a wild animal inside her, but an entire molecular strain of wild animals, roaming and feeding and shitting in her body, contaminating and eroding it.
She picked at the pimples on her arms. She pried them up, indiscriminate between clogged pore and healthy skin. The spots swelled into bleeding pox speckled so thickly the skin looked ragged in the shadows, and in the morning she cried at what she had done.
Mira wasn't getting any better. The doctor did blood work every two weeks. The medication just wasn't helping. The wolf-heads were still raging in her blood. She began infusion treatments; half a day sitting in a reclining hospital chair sandwiched between cancer patients young and old, a needle in a green vein on top of her hand. No one spoke to one another or smiled or looked up from their phones. The sickest patients dozed wrapped in blankets, their faces swollen or sunken or somehow both. There was no joy in this place.
Her nails scritch-scritched at her arms, now completely raw.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," Jayma said, standing before Mira, angling her phone to capture the light coming from the window behind the recliner. Mira appeared infrequently on Jayma's Instagram in shadows, in saccharine squares holding Jayma's hand, the infusion needle visible by design. Send good vibes to my sweet love. #LupusWarrior.
"It's a nervous habit."
"I know, because it makes me nervous."
Mira's eyes felt strange, vibrating in their sockets as the infusion rushed through her bloodstream flushing out the wolf-heads. She could taste saline in the back of her throat, could feel the tickle of salt in her nose.
"I saw a spot on your shoulder earlier, I want to check when we get back to your place. It could be a mole, but I just want to make sure."
"I don't like it when you pick at me. It reminds me of those videos of monkeys eating lice off each other's backs."
"I just want to make sure it's nothing serious. It could be cancerous for all we know. Or just a blackhead or pimple."
"I know you're trying to take care of me, but I don't like it."
"I don't like it either, but what if it turned into something crazy like a big cyst? Those things make tunnels deep in your skin if you don't catch them early. You could become one big cyst, you know."
Jayma laughed, then Mira laughed. The sound was haunting and hollow in a room so brightly lit against all the pale faces fighting death.
Back at her apartment, Mira popped the pimple on Jayma's shoulder, kissed and sucked the hole until a bruise-colored blemish appeared, a temporary tattoo.
Jayma didn't know that Mira's picking had given her scars. They peppered her back in a constellation of discoloration, a map made flesh that led to nowhere, a map Mira could trace with her middle finger. It was more difficult to find the imperfections then, once so much scarring had been done, each little raised bump now a false alarm. Mira often picked those scars raw over again for nothing, sopped up the blood with a Q-tip. No wolf-heads inside Jayma, none that she could see.
Harrison stood at Mira's apartment door, knocking hard. His dad used to do that, jolt Harrison into overdrive with a potent burst of adrenaline from the sudden sound of a fist slamming on door. Such an unpleasant memory, yet he couldn't stop himself from the same insidious playfulness.
"Hey, bitch!" Harrison called, a term of endearment. "Bitch, at least answer your door if you won't answer your phone. I came all the way here!"
The truth was, Harrison was worried. Mira hadn't shown up for work today or the day before. It wasn't like her not to call. He checked Jayma's Instagram feed. She hadn't posted in three days, not to her grid and not to her stories. He said as much to the building's super before returning with cop and a key to open her door.
They recoiled immediately at the smell, putting their forearms over their noses.
Mira sat on the cold checkered tile of the bathroom floor, hunched over her leg, which bent at an odd angle to gain access to the back of her thigh. Her fingers were dark with blood, some dry as cracked paint, some coagulated, oxygen exposure dulling its shine, gummed up under her fingernails where it had turned black as dirt.
"Mira?" Harrison's voice quaked in his throat as he approached, lowering himself to his knees in front of her. Her fingers still worked at her skin, deep in a burrowed hole in her leg that squelched when she stuck her finger inside to dig ever deeper. She did not look up at him, just worked with a fanatical flare that made it difficult to tell if the sound of his voice was accessing the part of her brain that would recognize it. "Mira. Oh my god."
The cop's radio came static-to-life. He was already back in the living room, muttering to dispatch. "Yeah, suspect's name is Mira Shelby. We're gonna need an ambulance. I'm about to search the apartment..."
"Hey, bitch." Harrison put his hand on Mira's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Where's Jayma?"
The sound of Jayma's name seemed to draw her eyes from her work, finger stopping knuckle-deep in her flesh as she met Harrison's gaze. Her own was wide-eyed, almost startled, a deer in the face of a great and unseen predator.
To answer his question, she stuck out her tongue as far as it could go, wide and flat and curling down her chin. On the center of it, a rubbery piece of wine-colored skin torn in a ragged shape by Mira's own teeth. Then, she drew it back inside her mouth like a lizard, gulping.
"I think I got the fucker," she said, breathless. "The thing inside."
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Mae Murray is a writer and editor hailing from Arkansas, now living in eerie New England. She is the founder and sole proprietor of XOMedia, an independent production company specializing in horror across multiple mediums. Her editing debut THE BOOK OF QUEER SAINTS HORROR ANTHOLOGY was released March 2022, and her debut novel I’M SORRY IF I SCARED YOU is expected Fall 2023. Her work can also be found at Dread Central and Fangoria.com News, updates, and contact for Mae can be found at her website.
Copyright ©2022 by Mae Murray.
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