GROWTH

The mass of flesh was first spotted on 18th Street, near a new housing development. It was a sort of pale beige blob, covered in veins and rosy splotches. It couldn’t hold a consistent shape, and whatever fluids and gasses it contained were gurgling loud enough to be heard a couple feet away. Some commuters waiting at a bus stop noticed it, then pedestrians began slowing down to gawk. Even folks who would normally mind their own business felt an obligation to put everything on hold and bear witness to whatever was going on. Before long, authorities were alerted and the block was partially closed off, but people kept showing up to see it for themselves. 

Henry was at the corner store buying cigarettes when he heard about it. The cashier was talking to another customer who mentioned “that thing uptown.” Both were older men, and both spoke with a level of nonchalance that couldn’t have clued Henry into what kind of thing they were talking about. “I never seen nothing like that before,” the cashier said. “But tell you the truth, I ain’t seen much.” 

That was when a young boy ran into the store and announced that he had gotten a video of the blob. “I saw that shit up close,” he bragged, before showing everyone the clip on his phone. It was only a few seconds of footage, but it was clear enough. A big wad of what looked like organic matter was sitting there pulsating in broad daylight. It must have been about six feet high, seven feet wide, and eight feet long. “Probably gonna send the army out here,” the boy said. “Gonna try to kill it.” He giddily ran outside to show more people what he’d recorded.

The cashier shrugged. Henry’s immediate thought was that this was some sort of publicity stunt, or art piece. The thing he saw must have been animatronic, even if it could convincingly move like it was alive. At any rate, he had more important things to worry about. Without a word, he grabbed his cigarettes and left.

The streets were dead. Could life have come to a halt so suddenly because of some public spectacle? Didn’t people have obligations? All Henry could think about were his own. He had a week to vacate his apartment, no job, and less than fifty dollars to his name. And he had no plan for what to do about any of it. Unless the big blob could grant him three wishes, he didn’t want to hear about it.

On arriving back home, Henry sat on his stoop and smoked for twenty minutes. As long as a lit cigarette was in his mouth he could pretend time had stopped. As long as he didn’t go inside he could pretend nothing existed but the sidewalk and the steps and the railing. The little piles of ash at his feet and the sunlight glinting off his lighter were cosmic signifiers too complex for his primitive monkey brain to comprehend. This actually managed to give his mind a moment of respite. It occurred to him that maybe all these people who had suddenly become fixated on the freakshow uptown were looking for the same thing: an excuse to forget the rest of the world existed. Then it occurred to him that it might be a good idea to take a hot shower while he still had the chance.

Henry’s apartment was on the third floor. It was a depressing little studio which in his mind was made even more depressing by his lack of care for it. He slept on a flimsy mattress which lay directly on the floor, and kept a single chair and table for all other activities. He barely made use of the kitchenette save for boiling water and toasting bread. The only amenity he took some pride in was the bathroom, which was surprisingly pristine when he moved in and had remained so all through his occupancy. The landlord paid the water bill, so Henry never became stingy about using the shower. Now that his days in this place were coming to an end, it was all the more reason to savor it. 

He slipped out of his clothes and hopped in while the water was close to scalding. Something about the slight pain of a too-hot shower always felt cleansing to him, especially when the torrent hit at just the right pressure. He squeezed out a glob of generic pink floral-scented body wash and began covering himself in lather. He winced as he felt his neglected body, as his hands ran over his protruding ribs and collarbone, his blemished skin, his calloused feet. Then he felt something he didn’t recognize. At the base of his neck was a sizable nodule, a thick bit of angry flesh jutting out. It had the texture of a well-used sponge. 

The fuck is this now… he thought, as he reflexively pulled his hand away. He didn’t have time for a brand new medical problem, and more to the point, he didn’t deserve one. Sure, he hadn’t taken especially good care of his body. He ate processed food when he ate at all, he’d used almost every drug he could get his hands on, and he’d been smoking since he was basically a child. But he was born sick, missing the mechanism in his head that was supposed to keep him from giving in to those urges. Worse yet, he was born to lose. Hell, it would take a truly strong individual to get through this life without needing to numb it with unhealthy pleasures every now and then. Existing in the world was an uphill battle, and even the most righteous person wasn’t guaranteed to come out on top. How could a random nobody like Henry ever hope to? If fate was going to turn his own body against him, he never had a chance. 

“Touch it,” a voice whispered. “Touch it again.”

Henry’s heart began to race. After a few moments of complete paralysis, he responded aloud, “Who said that?” 

“Please, touch it again.”

Henry peered out of the shower curtain, but there was no one else in the bathroom. At any rate, the voice didn’t sound like it was coming from anywhere in his apartment. It sounded like it was coming from inside his head. “Who are you?” he asked.

“My name is Ceres,” the voice replied. “Now can you please touch it again?”

“Your name is Series?” Naturally, Henry was confused. This time, the voice didn’t talk back. Instead, Henry suddenly felt a sharp jolt of pain in the lump on his neck, which then radiated out to the rest of his body. He placed his hand back on the lump, and the pain stopped.

“Thank you.”

“What is this? What’s happening to me?” Henry asked, as it dawned on him that whatever was going on, it would require his full attention. 

After a few moments of what he could only guess were contemplation, Ceres said, “I need you to listen to me very carefully.”

A torrent of hot water was still shooting down onto Henry’s back, but at this point he could barely feel it. “I’m listening! The fuck else would I be doing?”

“I need you to squeeze as hard as you can.”

“What? Why?”

“So that you can feel what I feel, and see what I see.”

Henry sighed. There was no point in being skeptical. Either he was at the center of the most bizarre phenomenon he’d ever heard of, or he’d lost his mind. Both options were slightly more comforting than any of the directions he thought his life might take only a few minutes prior. He began squeezing the lump. It was firm, but there was a bit of give, and the initial sharp pain gradually subsided and was replaced with an intense, visceral vibration, like a million tiny serrated tongues were licking and scraping at him from inside. He squeezed harder, and harder, until suddenly the sensation spread all through his body, finally entering his brain. 

“There,” said Ceres. “Do you feel it?”

“I feel it,” said Henry, equal parts excited and unsettled. The water pouring on his back had turned cold, but he didn’t notice. 

“Do you see what I see?”

Henry closed his eyes. He tried to concentrate without loosening his grip. His vision slowly returned, though he was somewhere else. At first he could only make out vague shapes and colors, and flashing lights. And it was like he was viewing them through some sort of fleshy curtain. There was a hostility to the environment that was unmistakable, even from behind a veil. It took a moment for his eyes, or whatever he was using to see, to adjust and provide some clarity. In front of him, stretching out to the horizon, was asphalt, dotted with barricades and traffic cones. And bodies. He was in the middle of a busy city street, encircled by throngs of onlookers. 

“Are you…” Henry tried to find the words. “You’re that thing. That blob. What are you?”

Ceres didn’t respond, but Henry’s vision became clearer still. He could see dozens of faces, all at once. They were mostly fearful, but mingling with that fear was desire. He wasn’t sure how he could tell, but he could. The spectators were all joined in their want. They wanted to know, to touch, to possess, to destroy. They were transfixed by it. Every carnal desire had manifested uptown, on a single city block. 

“They want to do things to me,” Ceres finally said. 

“Why are you showing me this?” Henry asked.

“We are connected. It was not my choice.”

“The hell does that mean?”

“I did not choose to appear. I was brought here.”

Henry had too many questions on his mind. Who by? Where from? How? But he managed to utter only one: “Why?”

Ceres hesitated briefly before finally saying: “To love you.”

Henry had had just about enough. All he wanted was some peace of mind. But no, instead he’d been roped into the designs of some incomprehensible higher power yet again. Was he going to have to have sex with an amorphous meat monster? Was that what all this was leading to? Did he want to keep asking questions, or just let whatever was going to happen, happen? He opened his eyes.

“I know this is all very sudden,” Ceres continued. “But trust that I feel the same way. We have been designated as mates, it is beyond our control.”

Henry thought about his life. He thought about all the potential it still held. He imagined that potential as a rotten piece of fruit at the bottom of a garbage can. He could try and salvage it, maybe use it to plant something new. He never did fully understand the idea of compost. It always felt more natural to put decaying things out of sight. He imagined himself stomping on the fruit, watching its fetid juices fly every which way. It made him feel a bit of catharsis.

“So…” he said sheepishly, “What am I supposed to do?”

Ceres replied immediately: “You have to keep squeezing. Squeeze until it pops.”

Squeeze until it pops. The thought excited Henry. Maybe if he squeezed hard enough he would pop. He grabbed the nodule with his right hand and began to squeeze. He wasn’t particularly strong, but if it was meant to be, it would happen. He squeezed harder. He placed his left hand on top of his right and pressed down. 

Ceres spoke to him in a gentle but affirming tone. “Yes. Beautiful. Just keep at it, just like that. You are doing a great job.”

As Henry squeezed, he got a feel for the texture of his skin around the lump. It was almost scaly, or like a sort of soft coral. He ran his thumb along barely-perceptible ridges and bumps. All his sensations had become indistinguishable. The tingling on the inside, the pressure from the outside, the nerve endings on his hands and his neck, the erotic thrill and utter hopelessness of destroying himself. Everything was one. 

“Keep going,” said Ceres. “Harder.”

Henry was using all his strength. He tried to concentrate. He closed his eyes again and saw faces, more faces. He thought about the people the faces belonged to, tried to imagine their lives, but struggled. He pictured them all at a party, an upscale party in some penthouse somewhere, maybe a hotel on the moon where the bathrooms all had bidets with a hundred settings and jets of healing liquid that would transform your anus into god’s perfect hole. He thought about what he would do if he was at that party, surely not invited but having ended up there somehow. He pictured himself on his knees in the center of the room, weeping, begging for forgiveness. Then he pictured himself bashing everyone’s brains in with a hammer.

Henry found a strength within himself he never knew was there. He squeezed harder than anyone had ever squeezed before. He was going to milk that fat little lump until his soul came out. He was going to make sure no one would ever touch him again.

Pop. It burst, coating his back and the wall behind him and the floor at his feet in pus, and blood, and an unidentifiable gray goo. 

Henry felt hollow. Whatever expectations he had, they hadn’t been met. He thought he might have been turned inside out, or scraped clean. Instead, he now had a few pathetic flaps of skin hanging off the base of his skull, surrounding a crater where the lump had emerged. But he knew his ordeal wasn’t over.

“What now?” he asked.

“Peel,” said Ceres. “Tear, and peel.”

“Peel…what, my skin?”

“Begin at the hole. The wound.”

“Begin…?”

“And peel it all away.”

Ceres was asking Henry to skin himself alive. He took a moment to think about it, if for no other reason than it still felt at least one step removed from whatever he’d experienced so far, still held the potential for true agony and finality. Was it even possible? Would he be killing himself? He wasn’t sure what he wanted anymore, or what he believed. Ultimately, though, he bought into the fallacy of sunk costs. 

He grabbed a flap of skin and pulled. The pain made him wince, but it didn’t last. All sensation had become more or less abstract to him, and though there was a certain viscerality to removing one’s own skin that couldn’t be ignored, it also felt inevitable, just another facet of something transcendent that had yet to be fully revealed. He kept pulling, starting at the wound as Ceres had recommended, yanking off strips until his back was raw.

“Yes, keep going.” Ceres spoke more words of affirmation. “This is the only thing that matters. Your action has already been decided, there is no reason to fear it. You are a tool, a fertilizer. This is how you must prepare, like sharpening a blade. You are going to become utterly pure for me. You will enter me as pulp, and mix your essence into mine. This is your destiny.”

Henry dug his nails into what was left of his skin, rending the front of his body. He scratched at his chest until it was gushing blood. He couldn’t be bothered with precision. As long as the outermost layer came off, he was doing his job. He became frenzied. He clawed at his genitals until they were completely mangled. 

“I am so proud of you,” Ceres continued. “You are so good at mutilating yourself, you are making me fall in love with you. Together we will birth a child of unimaginable power which will transform this world. Your realm and mine will join, and be remade into something beautiful. I so badly want to receive your destroyed body. Only through utter abjection can paradise be revealed. I am reaching my first ever sexual climax.”

Henry wanted to rip off his nose and ears, but he couldn’t do it with his own hands. He finally got out of the shower and limped to the apartment proper, tracking a trail of gore behind him. Above his stove was a cabinet where he found a carving knife, and with it he started hacking. He stabbed and slashed and gouged until his face was a bloody porous mass with a mouth. 

Then he used the knife on his legs, his feet, his arms, and finally his hands. In the end, though he had not done the most elegant job, he was absolutely skinless. He sat there for a moment, feeling very little. Then it occurred to him that he should cut out his tongue, so he did.

“You have done it,” said Ceres, their voice exuding both maternal love and an urgent, entitled desire. “It is time. Come to me.”

Now blind and barely mobile, it occurred to Henry that Ceres may not have thought this through. But his concern proved unfounded, as he suddenly felt a jolt of energy emerge from the hole in the back of his neck. It traveled down his spine and into what remained of his various appendages, and in a single motion it picked him up off the ground and began to carry him through the air like he was the most hideous leaf on the wind. 

He was propelled out of his apartment, down a hall and two flights of stairs, and out the front door. When he got outside he heard muffled screams through blood-clogged ear-holes. He sensed he was being pulled higher, up above rooftops, but still forward to his final destination. He was traveling north, uptown, to meet his mate and lift the curse of his existence once and for all.

Ceres kept talking, telling Henry how much they loved and wanted him, but he was barely paying attention. All he could think about was that he would never have to pay rent again, that no one would ever sneer at him and tell him to get a real job and make something of himself, that he would never spend another night alone in his miserable apartment wondering why every decision he ever made had been wrong. He now knew that he had never really made a single decision in his life. 

This is it, Henry thought. Freedom. 

Around the site where Ceres had appeared, the crowds had grown by some magnitude despite the police presence. Onlookers now numbered in the hundreds, and the National Guard had been called in. Ceres was shuffling around at a snail’s pace, not in any particular direction, occasionally extending out a barely-formed limb and swiping at whoever was closest, as if to shoo them away. Understandably, the situation was causing considerable alarm, but since it was unclear exactly what would happen should the entity be destroyed with military arms, the government had not yet made a decision about what to do.

Suddenly, something appeared in the sky. Witnesses described it as looking like the bloody remains of a human body, with few discernible features. It seemed to have been flung, as though from a catapult, though no one could see where it originated. Many tried to flee, but because of the huge number of people who had gathered and the sheer panic and confusion that had overtaken them, they ended up causing a stampede in which several lives were lost. 

The corpse-projectile landed on top of the alien globule and was absorbed into its flesh. The two became one, and their mass began to morph and change color. By that point, many of the onlookers had managed to leave or clear the area by enough distance to no longer have an unobstructed view of what was happening. Only soldiers were left, although some of those had abandoned their posts, as well as a few brazen souls who were too transfixed to worry about self-preservation.

Finally, the thing– it would not be evident until a short while later exactly what it was– landed on a form. It had turned into a giant, white, translucent sphere. Its key attribute, as far as those in charge were concerned, was that it was no longer mobile. A plan then naturally emerged: more barriers would be erected around the transformed mass until it was effectively trapped. The barriers turned into high walls, and eventually it was only possible to monitor from above. As the mass was observed over the course of the following days, it became apparent that it was an egg. 

Through the outer casing, the development of some kind of embryo could be seen. The National Guard stood by. Drone pilots were assigned to keep watch over the scene remotely, and be prepared to destroy whatever emerged when the egg hatched. Interest in the story remained among the general populace, though as there was a live feed being broadcast 24/7 online and on a dedicated cable network, most were content to keep tabs from the comfort of their own homes. 

After a few weeks of anticipation, something happened, but it was not quite what anyone expected. Instead of cracking open and releasing a baby abomination, the egg slowly deflated and dissolved, revealing something that looked like a large grub or larva with a face that was almost human. Its eyes never opened, but it did appear to be breathing, at least at first. Its body didn’t move much, and it never made an attempt to leave its enclosure. After another few weeks, presumably due to neglect and starvation, it died. It was left to rot for a little while, so there could be no doubt that it was actually deceased. There is no official record of what happened to its remains. 

The spot where everything had occurred was eventually paved over, and for a while was simply a vacant lot. There were some prominent individuals, including members of the city council, who argued there should be a memorial erected in its location, but because none of them could agree on what exactly was being memorialized, it never came to fruition. Many years later, the land was auctioned off and bought by a developer who held onto it until there were reasonable signs of a demographic shift in the neighborhood, whereupon luxury apartments were built.

— Arzhang Zafar is a writer based in Philadelphia, PA.