Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Skitterdead

My short stories often grow from a fixation on a certain animal. I loved the idea of a “ghost” being a hyper-specific emotional state, something petty and small enough to possess a bug. At the same time, I wanted the centipede to show the tantruming ghost something beautiful, an experience that a human body or mind couldn’t offer on its own.

—MK

Skitterdead, ghost-in-the-legs.

I used to be Director of Human Resources at a nonprofit. I remember a particularly difficult Caleb, we went to lunch once and I thought we had connected, had hurdled his problems by proving our humanity to one another, but he continued to steal credit for things his coworkers had done. I was frustrated with him when I died. My heart gave up in my ergonomic chair. I’m still frustrated with him when I shove myself into the house centipede’s body.

My ghost is so small, just a light misting. I’m lucky that there’s a centipede in the office. This is all I can be: skitterdead, bughusk. I think it is because I went feeling petty. There might have been another option, but I was so clenched, angry at this part of my day, at another complaint lodged against Caleb, that I ignored what beckoned and squirted against the wall instead. I drifted, particulate, until the centipede.

She doesn’t fight me. She’s so different from Caleb. She lets me in and I keep our spiracles moist with the dewy substance of myself. Skitterdead, all-feet phantom.

We both have unfinished business: she is close to shedding our skin, and I am still angry. I had projects and emails simmering. The distance to my home, unfathomable.

But being skitterdead equalizes everything. My anger has the same urgency as the worries the centipede once carried alone. Will we eat? Can we withstand the bright? Where is the crack in the plaster, the way back in?

Skitterdead, centispecter, we swell against our armor, and that is scary. Usually we can move in a storm of joints and, fwip, we are no longer there. But when we molt we will have to stay still and stay tense and flower out of the old skin. Something might catch and claim us. Something much more capable than Caleb.

It will be worth it, she tells me. Not in speech but in the reassuring, meticulous way she grooms our legs one at a time with our mouth. We’ve found a dark, wet space. The hump of our back splits the old skin, beautiful and slick as a whale breaching, and we feel air against this virgin part of us, like a mother blowing on a treated wound, and we rise out of the rip, and I realize that I am not whole, I am only the part that hates Caleb, I do not have many memories outside of this, the rest of me did move on, and I was the tiniest pinch, the part that stayed, skitterdead, smallfury.

I do not think it is punishment; I think it is just what happened. But there is a heaven still: two new pairs of legs in addition to the thirteen we already had, cracking like whips, touching the ground, the fruits of our molt. We know that we are all we can be now, at the height of our power, crawlspirit, skitterdead.

Mel Kassel

Mel Kassel is a writer working on her first story collection and novel. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, The Toast, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a Clarion alumna, and a World Fantasy Award winner. Despite being a dog person who loves the ocean, she lives in the Midwest with a big gray cat. Find her on Twitter @MelKassel or online at www.melkassel.com.