It all started on a solo camping trip in Virginia. I left my wife and my family . . . no wait, that’s a Paul Simon song . . . and I was not “no more than a boy,” I was a middle-aged woman. Well not quite middle-aged, but old enough to know better, if you know what I mean.
I had intended to be camping with Max, but Max hadn’t worked out. And I already had the reservations, and I already owned the camping gear, and I needed the break from work I had scheduled. So, I packed up my truck with food and Taffy cookies, propane and firewood, some other stuff, and headed out to Westmoreland State Park in Virginia. I think the only thing I missed about Max was his help with “tick watch,” which is the nightly ritual of closely examining every square inch of another person’s body. Upon finding a tick, one uses the “tick tweezers” to capture and then a Wet Ones to hold and destroy. A clean edge of the sanitizer sheet can be used to create the illusion of cleansing the wound. So out on my own, I did my best check myself for ticks. I rarely found one. I used a mirror to check my back side, but I guess I missed one at the base of my neck, because a few days into the two-week camping trip, I felt pain there and upon investigation found a red infected spot and the black remains of what was probably a tick. I washed it off and put Neosporin on it and hoped for the best.
When I checked the wound the next day, it was less infected, but the black stuff was back and was hardened into a ring that could not be removed without pain. It seemed to be bonded with my skin. It didn’t seem like Lyme disease symptoms; those involve a ring around the wound that is red or white or something. This was black and crusty but shiny. Kinda weird, actually, but I figured a shower and a good scrub with my loofa on a stick would clear up whatever mischief I had done to myself.
While I was in the shower, I kept feeling this pain in my chest, like my heart and lungs were burning. Or something. Could it be COVID? I had two Pfizer shots last spring, plus I still wore a mask and socially distanced, just out of habit and to be polite. Maybe Max had brought me the deadly virus and my lungs were going to fill up and . . . well probably not. He was a hypochondriac germaphobe, now wasn’t he? Probably I just breathed in too much sooty smoke from the fire last night. Dirty lungs. Sigh. But it hurt.
I took it easy that night. A can of soup and some Taffy cookies for dinner and an early bed. My lungs and heart (can I even feel my heart?) were aching and I fell asleep quickly and slept soundly through the night. When I woke, the sun was barely up and it was too cold to rise. A powerful urge to pee got me motivated and as I walked to the bathroom, I realized that my lungs no longer hurt, in fact they felt great. They seemed bigger and strong, like I was breathing more air in and doin’ my body good. I nodded my head with approval.
As I washed my hands after using the toilet, I noticed that my hands hurt. Well really, specifically, the skin around my fingernails was sore. Torn and cracked from washing dishes without gloves, every hang nail seemed to be large, sore, and red. It hurt to put soap on them. Oh my gawd, what next? Note to self: wear the gloves every time. Put the special cream on every time. After a simple breakfast of black coffee, sliced orange, and pan-fried toast, I got out my manicure set and cleaned up all my hangnails and trimmed my fingernails. My fingertips seemed swollen and were still sore. I breathed some healing proctea into the painful areas.
As the day progressed, my hands hurt more and more. Now the whole hand hurt, not just the fingertips. They seemed swollen and I had become clumsy with them. As I lay in my chaise lounge, I could barely turn the pages of my book (Shooter, if you want to know). I fell asleep.
When the I awoke, the sun was low in the sky. I was going to lose the light and if I didn’t move quickly, I would be cooking in the dark, something I dislike. I positioned my hands on either side of the chaise lounge, to push off and stand, and a chunk of skin from my hand fell off. Shocked, I lurched forward and ground my hands into the metal and fabric of the lounge. I pushed back hard against the device and was somehow able to stand up. I stared at my hands, amazed.
My hands no longer hurt, but they looked terrible. Little chunks of flesh had fallen off in various places, particularly around the fingertips. Beneath, where I expected to see raw red under-layers of skin, was a scaley green sheen. I reflexively felt the spot at the base of my neck. That hardened black ring was thicker and stronger. I was filled with fear, immobilized.
My breathing had become hysterically fast so I attempted to slow down my breathing, to calm myself. I guessed that I had picked up some kind of parasite infection and my body was falling apart, somehow. Some kind of weird skin infection like I’d never heard of before.
While I Rolodexed through this and other possible explanations, I was idly picking at my wounded hands, picking off the flesh chunks closest to the edge, kind of like peeling off sunburn only a little thicker. I looked down. I had picked the skin off the pointer finger of my right hand. It looked about the same size and shape as it used to look, only it was reptilian green with a kind of hexagonal pattern. I tapped it on my other hand. It felt sturdy – as though my skin was now leather-like. I brushed my pointer finger up and down against the back of my left hand, gently removing the dead old skin. I could feel much more texture and sensation with this new skin. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing after all. But what was it?
After the incident with my hands, the next days are something of a blur. The skin disease progressed through my body, attacking first the skin of my hand, and then the internal structures. I could feel the bones of my hands ache and burn, and then, when the pain stopped, my hands were stronger and more nimble. So, it was up my arms, followed by my feet, my legs, and my torso, each in turn. First the terrible pain and swelling, then the shuffling off of the old dead flesh to reveal new stronger green skin beneath. Then the internal structures, bones, muscle, sinew . . . each replaced with something just like me only stronger.
Why did I not seek medical care? Rather than reach out for help, I covered my skin with long sleeves and pants. Perhaps my thinking was clouded by the disease ravaging and changing my body, but I thrilled at the improvement in my physical abilities. When I woke up in the morning, I wasn’t sluggish, desperate for coffee. Instead, I bounded out of my sleeping bag, dressed dexterously, and easily jogged to the bathroom and back. I didn’t mind that my pee was no longer yellow. It was green. I found that I no longer desired coffee or Taffy cookies. My favorite things to eat were the fruit and vegetables I had brought. I liked them all raw and ate the skins of all of it. It didn’t seem to hurt my digestion. I ate bread I had brought, just for the calories. No butter. No toasted.
I had to resupply my food; I put on my thin flexible work gloves (Dex Fit Nitrile) and drove over to the little store just outside the camp entrance. I bought all the fruit in the place and a bunch of loaves of bread. Driving back to camp, my eyes started to burn. I knew what was next. By the time I got back to camp, my whole face was on fire with pain. I lay down on my pink chaise lounge to wait out the next phase of my changing body. I lay still for several hours of excruciating pain, trying to slow my breathing and breath healing into the affected areas. Finally, the burning started to subside somewhat, and I was able to sleep.
When I woke, it was the middle of the night. My face no longer hurt. I decided not to look in the mirror. Instead, I got out my laptop and wrote up my experiences so far. The top of my head is starting to burn. My ears hurt. Now the back of my head itches and aches. All the rest of the unaffected skin in my body has become enflamed, descending back to that point of entry at the base of my neck. I will try to write more tomorrow.
. . . I am pain free again. I refuse to look in the mirror. I don’t want to know. I can feel a headache coming on. Well more like hell-fire in my brain than a headache, but whatever. I can feel every dendrite . . . on fire . . .
. . . So this is what it is like to be human. I think we can share this vessel just fine. Let’s pack up this camp and drive back to town. We need more food and we can’t exactly stroll into the nearest Safeway. We’ll have go back to your apartment and do Instacart and Door Dash delivery, I reckon. Good thing you work remotely. We can still go out . . . wearing a mask and a hoodie and some make-up, don’t you think? Does my voice sound raspy? . . .
The Red Dress by Shelley Pineo-Jensen, Ph.D.
Once upon a time, back when people lived in villages under the protection of noble persons, there lived a young lass named Glenda. Glenda lived with her mother, who was well respected in the region as a seamstress able to create the finest of gowns and hats. Glenda had blond hair, blue eyes, a lovely figure, and a good character. Glenda’s best friend was a girl named Doreen. Doreen had black hair, dark eyes, a lithe figure, and was vivacious. Whenever the lord of neighborhood held a party, Glenda’s mother was always invited, due to her important role making the dresses of the important women in the area. Glenda always went and she always brought Doreen with her. When they danced, Glenda was more sedate; Doreen was more lively, and if she did not favor her partner, Doreen would sometimes trip him up a bit (on accident of course) and make him look a bit clumsy. Sometimes Doreen and Glenda would dance with each other, and that is when they looked the very best.
When they attended the balls held by Duke Joseph, Glenda and Doreen were always dressed in lovely, if simple, dresses created by Glenda’s mother. Glenda’s mother was always careful not to show up the gowns of the important women – there was a hierarchy of costume and the woman with the most power always got the dress with the most finery – more lace, more beads, more sequins, more feathers, more of all the best elements available that season.
But . . . one time Glenda’s mother made her the red dress. The red dress was very simple and yet it was somehow the loveliest gown of all, due to its amazing color and its amazing fit. It had just the perfect amount of décolleté to feature Glenda’s lovely figure without being carnal. It had just enough fabric to twirl out beautifully when Glenda spun as she danced. Doreen’s gown was also gorgeous – made of Cinderella blue fabric with a bit of lace here and there – and it served to show off the red dress even more, if such a thing is possible.
Near the end of the ball, Duke Joseph, or Uncle Joe as he preferred to be called, called the two young women to him. He said, “There is a reason I’m known as ‘Uncle Joe’ – it is because I am the uncle of the crown prince. This you knew, but what you did not know is that in a few months I will be throwing a very special ball in honor of Crown Prince Henry. And I want you” (and here he stopped and pointed to Doreen) “to be wearing that red dress.”
Both girls were stunned into silence. Doreen wondered what it all meant, but Glenda, who knew what it all meant was excruciatingly disappointed. Uncle Joe wanted her dress, but not her! How insulting. But being a polite and wise young woman, she composed her face into a blank mist and looked at Uncle Joe, waiting for him to finish. “So do you agree to do this thing? There is no telling what will happen, but you will owe me your life, dark haired lass, if all goes well . . . “ Both girls nodded their assent. They were unable to do more. Much power swirled about them, and they were out of their depth. They knew no more than to agree.
- - -
The next morning, Doreen came early to Glenda’s house to get the dress. Glenda refused to come downstairs and see Doreen, and Glenda’s mother pursed her lips and said little beyond, “Here you go. Hope things turn out for the best.” Doreen left slowly, sadly, knowing she was losing the friendship of her childhood companion, but underneath her sorrow, a fever bubbled inside her. She was going to wear the red dress to a ball and meet a prince. Uncle Joe thought she would win the prince’s heart. She wished it would be so.
- - - The next day, Doreen was back at Glenda’s door early and agitated. The dress didn’t fit her right. Glenda’s mother sniffed. Doreen begged for a fitting but all she got was, “It’s fine. It was good enough for Glenda; it’s good enough for you.” Doreen had no recourse, no court of appeal.
- - - The day after that, Doreen was back again. This time she didn’t come to the door – she stood just outside the gate into the front yard and waited, hoping that Glenda would come out so she could make her appeal directly to her (former) friend. Glenda looked out at Doreen from her second floor bedroom window and wished that a hole in the ground would open up beneath Doreen causing her to vanish away.
But no hole in the ground opened up and Doreen stayed all morning. She left around lunch time but then came back to wait all afternoon. Glenda grew tired of being restricted to her house and perhaps felt some empathy for Doreen, but however it happened, Glenda finally went out to talk to Doreen, while Glenda’s mother glared from the open front door at the pair of them.
Doreen pulled Glenda away from the gate and down the street and eventually cajoled Glenda to come into her house and look at her wearing the red dress. Glenda could see at once what the problem was. The dress fit well enough all over Doreen’s body except in the bosom. She had never really that about it before, but now it was obvious – Doreen’s breasts were smaller than hers and the dress kind of caved in around them. No charming décolleté here. Glenda took pity on her friend.
She had an idea and acted on it. She tried various materials, setting on some soft wool, and filled up the bottom sections of the front panel of the dress, boosting Doreen’s bosom up into an attractive shape. She sewed the padding into place as best she could and was proud of the results. Doreen looked beautiful.
Glenda was drawn into the project and eventually helped Doreen prepare for the ball, decorating her hair and calming her nerves, reminding her of her assets of wit and charm.
Doreen went off to the ball, and as Uncle Joe predicted, captured the heart of the crown prince. She married him in a very fancy ceremony in the castle many miles away. Glenda and her mother were invited but did not attend.
Glenda went on with her life, married the town barber and learned apothecary arts to support his healing business. They had four children and had a modest and enjoyable life together. When her mother became old and frail, Glenda and her husband took her in and the old woman helped care for her grandchildren and then her great-grandchildren.
Doreen went on to have a very fancy life. She had ladies in waiting, attended countless balls, and had the finest clothing of any woman in the kingdom. She bore her husband three sons and eventually became the queen of the land. She became political and manipulative, advocating fiercely for the advancement of her first-born child. Nothing was good enough for him – all others must step aside to make way for her ambitions for her son, the new crown prince. Her machinations drew the hostility of the court, the enmity of the king’s foremost advisors, and eventually the disdain of her husband, the king. On final intrigue brought her into direct conflict with the king – some business about the disposal of some prime real estate that the king had appropriated and planned to give to a favored noble. Doreen plotted and schemed and wound up locked up in the tower. Even her bonny boy could not save her. Whether by pining away or by poison, no one ever revealed, but after several years, Doreen died up there.
Chamber maids eventually packed up all the fine clothing from Queen Doreen’s closet, and in the back, on the floor behind some hat boxes, they found a piece of red fabric. Unfolding it, they discovered that it was a dress, a red dress. “Much too plain for a queen,” cried one of the girls.
“Why do you suppose she kept that?” another pondered. Then they tossed the red dress onto the rag pile, to be made into cleaning cloths, and went back to their work.
Moral: Be careful what you wish for and/or don’t take your friend’s red dress.