by Jens Alfke ⟿ October 9, 2006

I’ve always picked at my nails, bitten them, the cuticles too. A sign of nervousness, I know, and unsightly and unsanitary. Can’t help it, though. The nails, fingertips, are always growing, always in different configurations, and some of those configurations are just wrong, asymmetrical, with sharp bits sticking out. And I can’t leave those alone: I always think in the moment that I can peel off the wrong part and leave the nail smooth and right. But I really know that it almost always makes it worse.

Suggested background music: Frost - Steelwound

I dreamed once, in high school, that my fingernails had turned to bone: spongy like the inside of a broken chicken leg, thick and jagged-edged. I didn’t touch them for a week after that, but the lesson didn’t last. I never learn, a fact that has become only too apparent in college.

I kicked open the door and stumbled into the bathroom; the door shut behind me, bringing relative stillness, and I realized how wasted I was. It always comes on gradually, and I’m at a party and there’s loud music and loud people and everyone’s inhibitions are lowering in synchrony and the drinks are simultaneously cold and burning going down — in the hot living room it’s just natural and normal, the way I feel. But after the sudden transition to the cold and silence and bare walls of the bathroom, I sense this bubble of inebriation that I’ve brought in inside myself. It’s a familiar sensation from parties, part of that life-cycle that begins with the ceremonial first drink and ends God knows where.

I sat there on the toilet, just emptying my bladder of toxins but not trusting my balance or aim enough to stand, and picked idly at the paint on the wall next to me with the hand not occupied with the Corona bottle. Dirty looking yellow paint of Cameron’s crappy apartment bathroom, peeling off of whatever was underneath. This was an old building, periodically spruced up by slapping on another coat of paint, and who knew how far down the layers went? The latest-but-one was evidently green.

I was revealing more of it, picking off the yellow. It actually came off very satisfyingly, not just chipping off in bits but more often peeling in strips that could be coaxed along for a few inches. Amid the thumping of the bass from outside and the thudding of my pulse through my temples, I sat on my little throne and idly transformed this corner of wall. The revealed green was pretty, with a lacquer-like translucent depth to it, and had a pattern of gold lines across it. Fine gold lines, running parallel but then changing direction. Wallpaper? Not making a repeating pattern at all, but something with a strong sense of order. I ran my fingertips across it and felt the texture, the gold lines raised slightly. Smell of ozone.

I hated that smell — it rose in clouds from my best friend Greg’s model train set as the little HO-gauge cars whizzed past the tiny fake trees and bushes made of painted lichen. His little sister Clarisse, whom we alternately played with and tormented, sat with us that afternoon under the particle-board table in the upstairs playroom. I heard the clicking of the trains on tracks above, and the ozone smell drifted down across us, making me feel delirious and sick. I left in the back of my mom’s station wagon with the foreknowledge that something was badly broken, over, gone; I cried all the way home. The next morning at school Greg pointedly switched desks, away from me, next to the cruel boys we hated, and became instantly one of them. A covalent bond. The lens of their attentions focused on me for a long time after that. Next year I came across a diagram of an ozone molecule in a science textbook and instantly vomited across it.

Someone had been banging on the door for some time now. I had yellow paint crud all under my fingernails. Two of them were bleeding. Several square feet of the wall were revealed by my efforts as what suddenly came into focus as printed circuit board: green resin overlaid with thin stamped copper wire traces. Tiny grids of holes marked where IC chips and other components would be inserted. The holes were mostly still clogged with yellow paint, but a few were open and I could discern red lights blinking behind.

The banging continued. I took a deep shuddering breath, pulled up my pants and stepped over and unlocked the door. On the other side Greg lowered his fist and partially relaxed his annoyed expression as he saw me. “Russ, you’ve been in here for like ten minutes, and I gotta take a fucking piss, man, this shithole apt’s only got one toilet, you know?”

I felt a rush of simultaneous terror and relief. Greg and I were, if no longer enemies, hardly close anymore; but there was clearly some bad stuff going down mentally inside me, and Greg could be counted on as an impartial observer, reliable narrator, looking every inch the straight-edge with his buzzcut and Minor Threat t-shirt. “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?” went the old Adam Ant refrain in my head. I believe I started expressing something along the lines of “Greg, fuck, man, there must have been some kind of bad shit in the punch bowl, DMT or angel dust or something, I’m in here seeing stuff and it’s freaking me out…”

Greg’s eyes swiveled past me and widened. “Russ, what the hell did you do to the wall? You’re taking the paint off? Felice is going to kill you for this.” He pushed me aside and ran his fingers over the revealed surface. “Jesus, this is a PC board, like some kind of motherboard. And it’s underneath the paint? You didn’t put this here, it was underneath all along?” He got on his knees and leaned in close. “Smells like something’s shorting out. Holy shit, there’s some kind of lights in there, behind the wall…”

My heart sank, stomach churned. Was this worse or better than a hallucination? I felt dizzier and reached for the wall to steady myself. Greg, analytical EE major, pushed the door shut and pulled the dangling string to turn off the light bulb, the better to apprehend the blinkenlights.

Red lamps burned in the darkness, pixelated through the grids of little holes in the board. Monochrome gallium-arsenide-red lamps that were far away and huge and opened and shut like eyes. Ozone breathed out at us. I screamed, and thrashed my hands through the darkness feeling for the light cord. The beer bottle still in one hand hit something hard and broke with a crack. Greg yelled, I dimly saw his red-outlined silhouette grab its head, slip and fall. There was a second uglier-sounding crack. The cord finally materialized in my hand, I pulled hard till it snapped, and blessed tungsten-gold light flooded down.

Greg lay with his head next to the toilet. He wasn’t moving. His forehead looked dented, and there was blood. I had no idea what to do, besides stupidly watching the blood trickle toward the wall. Music continued to thump outside, and someone shrieked. The blood had reached the green-peeled wall and appeared to be oozing through the holes. I continued staring.

Greg’s body jerked in a sudden spasm that terrified me, and came to rest with one leg sticking through the wall. It did not appear to make a hole; the leg just went straight into the green circuit board and disappeared. My addled, shocked and now guiltily paranoid brain made a snap insight … and I reached down, grabbed Greg’s body around the waist, and started pushing it through the wall. It went in smoothly, without resistance, clothes and all. The red lights were growing brighter: even with the light bulb on I could see them sticking out in little pinpoint beams, out of the holes and through the smoke-laden atmosphere. I left the head for last, for some reason, and had some trouble getting it through — I found out why after I shoved it hard in the face with my boots, and little clinks echoed on the tile floor as Greg finally and blessedly slid out of sight. There were eight gnarled metal bits of fillings left behind on the tile floor.

I put the pointy lumps in my pocket and backed away from the stabbing red beams, which now had the sparkly diffraction patterns of laser light. I could see red dots projected all over the rest of the yellow walls, and the paint began sizzling and peeling away with a nauseating smell of molten solder and ozone, revealing (of course) more circuit board. Abruptly I was back in the living room, the door slamming behind me, navigating my way through the loud wet darkness out of the party. The lights were off, but with the red-lit afterglow in my eyes I could see everything and everyone in translucent skeletal form and pick my way through. There were some half-hearted gropes at my legs from people whom I might otherwise have willingly allowed to pull me down, but I ran out as fast as I could.

I piss in alleys nowadays. I don’t go inside any buildings if I can help it. Winter’s on the horizon but I don’t think that far ahead, to be honest. I’ve been following you for a few days. What has it got in its pocketses? The afterimages are still with me and I can see all the way through you, see through that coat, see the black shadows of the little mercury amalgam pebbles in the pocket that your finger-bones fiddle with idly. You’ve been through this too. I can’t even look at anyone else anymore, but you’ll understand. Let’s talk.