When he was thirteen, Melvin discovered that he turned into a monster whenever no one was looking. His skin turned scaly and rough, his knees bent backwards, his hands became three-pronged claws, and his head sprouted a ridge of spines that went all the way down his back to his tail.
At first, he was terrified that someone would find out. He ducked under the covers each time his mom came into his room to wake him up for school. But he quickly learned that no one would ever see him that way. The instant anyone looked at him, he changed back. He would be alone in the kitchen, pouring himself a glass of water from the refrigerator spout with a clawed hand, and his dad would walk in, and suddenly he’d be a regular teenage boy again. Of course, he wondered for a time if he should talk to someone about it. But who? His parents? A doctor? A priest? Anyone he told would think he was crazy. So he kept it to himself.
It was difficult to get used to. When he got up in the mornings, his reptilian countenance startled him in the bathroom mirror. Grooming rituals had to be completely relearned. Was he supposed to floss his fangs? For the flakiness around his horns, perhaps he should try anti-dandruff shampoo? Serrated spines, he discovered, won’t lie straight with any amount of hair gel. The worst of it was not being able to see how he really looked when picking an outfit—not being able to see himself how others would see him. He saw sticklike limbs with dark pebbled skin, loose and baggy like old-man flesh, poking out of ill-fitting t-shirt sleeves. A cramped tail writhed under the taut, stretched denim of his behind. But there was no way around it. He couldn’t get dressed in public.
Gradually, he grew accustomed to his alternate form, to the point that he could forget about it for hours at a time. As everyone was taking an exam, heads down in concentration, he would absentmindedly pick at a loose scale while trying to solve for x. When the teacher announced the end and heads snapped back up, the scale would become just a bit of dry skin. Sometimes he even used these transformations to entertain himself a little. He would creep up behind one of his friends, hovering his giant claws right above the baseball-capped head as if he were about to dig in. As soon as the friend sensed something and glanced over his shoulder, though, Melvin was just a kid, dangling his pink fleshy human hands in the air.
“What are you doing?” the friend would ask.
“Nothing,” Melvin would say, stifling laughter. It amused him that they would never know.
Other times, however, his scaly self still disconcerted him. He’d be reaching for a bag of Fritos in the back of the 7- Eleven when the sight of his gnarled elbow would remind him that he could easily slip a few candy bars into his pocket before the cashier looked. He occasionally drifted into a daydream about eviscerating squirrels. When his parents weren’t home, he would stalk around the house, restless, his claws flexing open and closed as if with minds of their own. Sometimes he would bring his laptop into the bathroom, put on a low-budget horror flick and make a nightmarish scene—shredded shower curtain, claws scrabbling on tile, scales glistening with Vaseline. The scary thing was that he kind of enjoyed it. He would snarl at his own face in the mirror, thrilled and disgusted by its knobby horns. He couldn’t help but feel jealous of other boys, who had only themselves to contend with. Sometimes he felt terribly alone.
When he was seventeen, Melvin discovered an author named Franz Kafka. Melvin had never felt so excited about anything he had read in his life. He read Kafka during study hall, read Kafka on the walk to and from school, read Kafka shut up in his room, sprawled out on his bed with his tail between his legs. Whenever someone asked what he was reading, he would keep reading until they asked him again, and only then would he lower the book and say “Kafka,” as if it cost him great effort to do so. If they asked him what the book was about, he would describe it blandly, in as few words as possible. He didn’t want to discuss it with anyone; he couldn’t trust them not to sully its magic. If they asked him what he liked so much about Kafka, he would just sigh and look off into the distance. Among his classmates in Honors English, he began to have the reputation of someone who was a little odd but very deep—a reputation he enjoyed almost as much as he pretended not to.
When he was nineteen, Melvin went to college. At college, he discovered that there existed other boys (and even girls) who appeared to like Kafka just as much as he did. They walked around one by one with Kafka’s books tucked under their arms. None of them, though, could explain exactly why they liked Kafka so much or exactly what they thought his books meant. They only thought they understood Kafka, Melvin glowered, or else they were only pretending to understand. Of course, he couldn’t explain to anyone exactly why he liked Kafka so much, either. But that was for reasons of his own.
Still, because so many of the other boys at college seemed just as guarded as himself, Melvin had to wonder. He had never lived with other boys his age before, so he had never much considered how they might appear to themselves when they were alone. One time he burst into his dorm room at an odd hour, and his roommate, who was on his computer, looked startled and somewhat shifty.
Melvin asked casually, “What were you doing?”
To which he received the answer, “Nothing.”
He began to have suspicions. One boy would only shower when no one else was in the stalls. Another seemed all too eager to gorge himself on meat at every possibility. A third disappeared from the dorm every Thursday night and returned a couple hours later with twigs in his hair.
Yet whenever Melvin cautiously attempted to steer conversation in a more intimate direction, a wall would come down. His roommate would cough uncomfortably and look away; another boy would mutter in his buddy’s ear, a hard, malignant gleam in his eye. The ratatat of video game rifle fire split the air. Melvin knew he would never get anywhere with them.
When he was twenty, Melvin met a girl named Angie. He had almost failed to notice her where she sat in the corner of their classroom, until midway through the semester she spoke up in a soft, hesitant voice and gave the most beautiful two-minute disquisition on Elizabeth Browning. So he worked up the courage to ask her out. They started hanging out after classes once a week, which soon turned into several times a week. Eventually they hung out or talked on their phones nearly every night.
Melvin had never talked so much in his life. He told Angie things that he had never told anyone—unflattering thoughts he’d harbored about friends, conflicted emotions regarding his parents. “Am I boring you?” he would ask.
She would shake her head and give a small, close-lipped smile. “No, you’re fine.”
And so he told her more—embarrassing phobias, odd desires, nightmares. He told her everything except for that.
“When I was a little kid, I had an alter-ego named Matthew who knew karate and could read people’s minds, and I played as him every day out in our backyard, doing roundhouse kicks on the trees like this.” Melvin demonstrated. Angie was perched on the edge of her dorm bed, knees pressed together.
“I used to have an imaginary friend,” she said after a moment.
“Yeah? What kind of imaginary friend?” Melvin shadow-boxed with her bedpost.
Angie was about to reply, but at that moment her roommate walked in. Angie closed her mouth. The roommate went straight to her mirror and started dabbing makeup around her eyes.
A minute or two passed in silence before the roommate glanced over at the two of them. “What’re you guys doing?”
“Nothing. Just hanging out.” Angie shifted her thighs uncomfortably on the bed. “Are you going out?”
“Yeah, going to this party at University Plaza.”
“Who all’s going?”
“Me and Jacquelyn and Melissa.” The roommate rubbed a spot on her cheek, then looked over at Angie. “You want to come? We just didn’t invite you because we thought it wasn’t your thing.”
Angie’s hands clasped and unclasped. She reached automatically for a volume of verse that sat on her nightstand. “Ummm, no, I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”
The roommate shrugged. When she was gone, Melvin asked, “You sure you didn’t want to go?”
“No, it’s—fine. I’m not really close with those girls.”
“I’ve got nothing against them. I actually wouldn’t mind hanging out with them more. I just get the sense that they—don’t really like me. I think they think I’m”—her mouth worked for a second—“aloof.”
Melvin nodded. He believed he had an inkling of how Angie felt.
As they spent more time together, Melvin let Angie read his poems about darkness and ugliness and alienation. When she read, she made small sympathetic noises and head shakes, which Melvin liked even if he didn’t think she fully understood. Angie also let Melvin read her own poems, each one of which was like a little locked box made from sticks and crumpled candy wrappers and rusty paper clips. When he read her poems, he often cast long, deeply soulful gazes her way, because they represented exactly how he wished to feel—like detritus turned into something beautiful. In her quiet, quaint contraptions, he sensed a hurt that had settled into stillness. But he feared that he only felt that way because he was superimposing his own reality, reading her as if she, too, turned into a monster when nobody was looking.
And maybe she did! he thought in more exalted moments. Maybe she turned into a monster when no one was looking, and maybe she turned into a unicorn. Maybe she turned into a piece of blueberry pie. He had no way of knowing. He would have liked to ask her about it, but of course he couldn’t. Still, it was nice for both of them to have someone around who cared enough to pretend to understand.
Then there was sex. As in other domains, Angie was slightly timid, but sex for Melvin was terrifying. He would be caressing Angie with his soft, pink, human hand, when suddenly it would become a taloned grapnel encaging her breast. This happened every time she closed her eyes. Of course, she noticed nothing amiss—what went unseen also went unfelt, Melvin had learned over the years—but her skin seemed to shrink away from his fingers. And Melvin could still see himself. It excited him. He dragged the tips of his claws lightly toward her stomach, his heart racing . . . then pulled back, shaking his head. How could he live with himself touching her when he was like that? Knowing what he knew about himself? It felt deceptive, despicable, like a bait-and-switch.
“What, what is it?” Angie whispered the first time, after he had stopped.
“Can you keep your eyes open?” Melvin asked.
“I just want to be able to see you properly.”
Angie agreed without protest. “I just want you to be comfortable,” she said.
Often, though, she forgot about it and had to be reminded. “Look at me, Angie,” Melvin would murmur as he flickered back and forth from form to form. “Look at me. Open your eyes.”
One time, he was kissing her neck, and it suddenly felt like he was about to sink his fangs into her warm throat, where the arteries pulsed just underneath . . . his head pounded, his scales seemed to ripple and shiver, his tail twitched wildly. He stopped. “Angie.” Her eyes blinked open, and he resumed. But a few seconds later, his forked black tongue was sliding down her throat. He stopped again; he couldn’t. “Angie. Open your eyes.” Angie didn’t respond, but kept her eyes closed. She thought she was being embraced by something fathomable and human. The deception was what excited him, yet the excitement at the deception was what horrified him. He wanted to pull himself away from her, fling himself into a corner, and tear off his scabrous skin. “Angie, I need you to look at me,” he nearly yelled. “Look at me!”
She finally opened her eyes. “What? What is wrong with you?”
“Good question,” he mumbled.
She softened. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. Look, it’s okay if you have a hang-up. I’ve got my own hang-ups. Everybody’s a little bit different. I just wish you could try to explain to me what it’s about.”
“I just . . . feel like it’s more romantic looking into each other’s eyes.”
Angie arched her brows.
Melvin looked down at the mattress they were sitting on, toeing his tangled sheets.
“Come on, Melv.” She touched his arm. “You can be honest with me.”
Melvin looked at his hands, his human hands, for a few moments. Could he say it? He desperately wanted to. What he wanted, more than anything in the world, was to be able to be completely, totally honest for once, even if with only one person.
Finally, he spoke. “Okay, I’ll tell you. But you have to promise not to laugh.”
He took a deep breath. “I’m . . . a monster when no one is looking.”
She blinked. “What did you say?”
“I said, I turn into a monster when no one is looking at me.”
She hesitated, bit her lip. “Oh, Melvin, don’t say that about yourself. Everybody has bad thoughts sometimes—”
“That’s not it,” he said. “It’s not a metaphor. I literally—turn—into—a monster. Whenever no one is looking at me. And then I turn back. When somebody looks.”
She stared at him for nearly a minute—the longest seconds Melvin had ever experienced in his life. But where he’d expected to see perplexity and acute alarm, there was only a look of apprehension. Her brow creased, then smoothed. Creased, then smoothed. When she finally opened her eyes again, all expression had slid off of her face. She gazed blankly, with a kind of cool regard, into Melvin’s eyes; he looked back, his heart palpitating, waiting.
Then she took his hand, and pulled him up off the bed. Puzzled, he began to ask what she was doing, but she shook her head and held her finger to her lips. Unhurriedly, she replaced her clothes and gestured for Melvin to do the same. Then she took his hand again and led him slowly out of his dorm room, down the deserted hallway, and into the night.
The air was still and close; most everyone was asleep. She guided him, with only the slightest pull, away from the buildings and toward the campus’s small lake. They saw no one. A shallow embankment rimmed the lake, which was fringed with trees; she led him down to the edge of the water. Damp, yellowed leaves floated on the surface. Tied to the post of a tiny wooden dock was a dinghy, probably used by the groundskeeper, just big enough for two.
Angie stepped toward it, picked up the rope. Melvin got in. He was beginning to see. She threw the rope into the bottom, got in, and shoved off. There were oars in the boat. Angie sat in the bow, facing Melvin; Melvin sat in the stern, facing Angie. As she paddled them, slowly, Melvin felt the dark water all around, lapping against the sides of the boat, and he wondered what lurked down beneath—what ethereal oddities, what prehistoric beasts.
Angie rowed them to the very center of the lake, which was not very broad, but which was reputed to be very, very deep. There, she pulled in the oars, and they both lay down in the bottom of the boat, their heads near to each other but not touching. Melvin felt the horns and serrated spines sprout from his scalp, felt them graze the top of Angie’s. They faced straight up into the cloudy night sky, the depthless roil of unformed matter. And in a minute, Melvin heard the faint scrape of something along the hull of the boat. It tapped his shoulder, cautiously, then coiled around his wrist—soft, slimy, but warm. An invitation. Melvin knew that if he were to turn, right then, and look, what he would see would not be familiar. But he was calm and unafraid. He was ready to meet her.
“His Scaly Self” by Josef Kuhn appeared in Issue 40 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Josef Kuhn’s work has appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Columbia Review, Superstition Review, Shooter, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from George Mason University. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he’s at work on a novel, an existential political drama/love story set in contemporary Washington, D.C.
Julia Jin is an undergraduate student majoring in economics and business at the University of California, Berkeley. When she is not studying, she channels her creative energies into painting and managing a freelance career in digital illustration. To her, there is nothing more magical than the rhyme and rhythm of a good story, especially if it takes place in a realm of dragons and sorcery.