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? . . .