by Scarlett R. Algee
For the first time in weeks, I’m alone in the house. Gran’s out talking over the garden wall with one of the neighbors; Mam’s hanging out the wash. Me, I’m sitting on my bed with our best kitchen knife, running the edge over the hard points sticking out beneath my fingernails. It should hurt, but it doesn’t; the skin parts just a bit, bloodlessly, and there’s the grating sound of metal scraping bone.
I press harder.
It started six weeks ago last Sunday, the day after I turned fifteen. When I went to bed that night, it was insidious, a little niggling almost-itch behind my kneecaps and in my wrists. But my knees swelled under my skirt when I trudged dutifully to school the next morning, and writing notes in my lectures just made fire blaze down my right hand in waves. The next day, it was both hands. Within a week, I was sneaking aspirin from the kitchen cabinet in handfuls, stuffing them in my skirt pockets, biting down on the bitter discs so I wouldn’t sob from the searing ache twisting me inside out. I did that at home, at night, into my pillow.
It took Mam a full ten days to notice: “Ellie, you’ve shot up like a poplar.”
She didn’t smile. She grimaced instead, and backed me up against the edge of the half-wall between the kitchen and dining room, plopping the family Bible against the top of my head and marking the paint with a pencil before fetching the measuring tape. “Five feet and eight,” she pronounced, wide-eyed, when she pulled the tape away. “Are you taller than me?” Mam demanded, and crowded so close my nose touched between her eyes. “Jesus, you’re taller than me. And since the first of the month, too.” She turned to look over her shoulder at Gran. “Is this normal?”
Gran shrugged, mouth tight around her cigarette. “Some girls get their height early, all at once. I did.” She stood five foot four in bare feet.
It was Gran who sat at my bedside that night, patting my aching hands and balancing ice packs on my oversized knees. “Growing pains,” she said, though her gaze narrowed as she eyed the length of my legs. “Best to get it out of the way now. Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.”
But in the night I woke screaming, my nightgown spotted with blood. My ribs had expanded and grown sharp-edged, tearing my skin from the inside. Mam yanked the fabric up and stared at me while Gran sponged me off with stinging alcohol, and this time there wasn’t puzzlement in my mother’s eyes. There was fear.
The doctor they took me to the next morning glanced at my knees and hands and ribs, took some measurements and jotted notes, muttered to himself and gave Mam a prescription for something with codeine in it. He never said a word directly to me. Growth spurt, he called it, and mumbled something about long bones and inflammation of the growth plates. It would pass, he said. That was the end of it.
That afternoon the pain in my knees came back, jabbing and twisting, so bad I could almost see my shins bowing inward. So I begged Mam for one of the pills, but she only said, “Not yet. Let’s see how you are after school tomorrow.”
I woke up next morning with my mouth throbbing. My cheekbones strained the contours of my face; I could see fissures forming in the skin. My teeth had become longer; my lips stretched when I formed a bite. Mam measured me again. I was another three inches taller. Gran looked up at me and whispered, “Swear to God, her bones are growing out of her.”
I could barely get out of bed that day, despite hanging over it. There was no school. There was no school ever again.
The next week kept me changing, growing. My neck stretched with crackling noises. My jaw and elbows locked and loosened at odd times. Going through the doorways in the house meant bending nearly double, sleeping on my bed took folding myself in half, and the biggest shoes Mam could buy only fit on my feet a few hours. Gran crossed herself and swore and fed me aspirin, codeine, whiskey. None of it touched the pain. I lay on the floor and howled till the neighbors’ dogs barked.
This morning, Mam needed a stepladder to measure me, and her tape wouldn’t reach in one stretch. Six feet. Seven inches. I watched tears roll down her face as I tried to steady my too-long, agonized legs, and felt the ceiling against the top of my head.
Now I sit on the end of my bed, legs mostly on the floor, and I draw the knife over my fingertips again. They split entirely, and it’s relief enough to make my eyes water. Tentatively I press the knife point into my thigh, where the outline of my femur is broad and plain, and push in. My skin rips with a noise like tearing tape, and there’s no pain, no blood, only a release of pressure that makes me stuff my bulging knuckles into my too-wide mouth. Only a great glistening white expanse beneath the stretched crepe of my skin.
Gran was right. My bones are growing out of me. I take a few breaths and stick the knife in again.
If they want to escape, I’m setting them free.
Scarlett R. Algee’s fiction has been published by Body Parts Magazine, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Pen of the Damned, and The Wicked Library, among other places. Her short story “Dark Music,” written for the podcast The Lift, was a 2016 Parsec Awards finalist, and she was contributing editor of the bestselling sci-fi anthologies Explorations: War and Explorations: Colony. She lives in rural Tennessee with a beagle and an uncertain number of cats, skulks on Twitter at @scarlettralgee, and blogs occasionally at scarlettralgee.wordpress.com.