11:50 PM on New Year’s Eve. The raucous beat of the music is echoed by the pulse in my veins. Iridescent lights lance through the air all around me, and the teaming heat of pressed bodies forces me to swallow great lungfuls of heavy air thick with sweat and cheap perfume. I can’t be the only one who isn’t dancing, but anyone who notices me will immediately recognize that I don’t belong here. Smiles and sneers look the same to me, and all laughter is tainted with condescending jokes at my expense.
Living with crippling anxiety is my personal nightmare. Just trying to start a conversation with someone feels like standing on the roof of a tall building. One little push and I’m free, but the clenching knot in my stomach has me frozen in place. I must have started walking toward Chase at the DJ table a dozen times so far this party, but I’ve never gotten within a few feet before I had the irresistible urge to check my phone, go to the bathroom, or disappear off the face of the Earth entirely.
Guys like Chase don’t look twice at girls like me. It doesn’t matter if we like all the same music. It doesn’t matter if there is electricity which ignites the air between us. Maybe things would be different if he was the one to say hi first, but how was that supposed to happen when I couldn’t even get close to him?
“Looks like you could use a drink.”
I don’t understand how I heard the words so clearly over the pounding music, but I didn’t turn to the barman. Maybe if he thought I didn’t hear him he’d give up and leave me alone…
“Maybe two. What’s your poison?” he insisted.
“I don’t drink,” I dismissed him over my shoulder.
“You mean you didn’t used to drink.”
I finally turned to see an elderly man with a closely groomed gray beard and a vest which fit so closely that it might as well have been sewn onto his skin. His dark eyes drilled into me with undisguised fascination.
“You didn’t used to do a lot of things,” he continued. “There was a time when you’d never walked before, but then you started and you haven’t stopped since. Now it would be silly to say you don’t walk, wouldn’t it? You aren’t even the same person who couldn’t walk anymore.”
“What do you mean, ‘not the same person’?”
A sudden lull in the music was punctuated by Chase’s voice on the loudspeaker. “Five minutes to midnight! Who is ready to burn the rest of this year?” He was answered by an overwhelming cheer, but the old man’s words still clearly punctured the chaos.
“I mean you’re remembering someone else’s memories,” he said. “Next year you’ll be new again, and then you’ll remember all the memories you have now and think that they’re yours. You’ll have all the same habits and be afraid of all the same things because you think that’s who you’re supposed to be, but it’s not. The new you will have to decide for herself whether she wants to keep copying a failing strategy or learn from it and try something else.”
“I don’t have a failing strategy. You don’t even know me.”
“How could I?” he replied promptly. “You’re a blank slate tonight. Even you don’t know you yet, so how about that drink?”
I nodded, not fully understanding why. He spoke with such a simple surety that I couldn’t muster anything to refute him. The barman pulled a purple bottle from under the shelf and spun it deftly between his hands. A fountain of thick, rich liquid like cough syrup sprouted into a perfectly placed mug which I hadn’t noticed a moment before.
“What is it?”
“Just what you need. Cheers!” He poured a second glass for himself and toasted me. “May we make room for new growth by pruning the dead branches, and may we leave what’s dead behind.”
I took a long drink, forcing myself not to gag as the thick liquid dribbled down my throat like oil. He finished first, slamming his glass upon the table and wiping his beard with the back of his hand. Before I had a chance to finish mine, the barman added: “Those who die a little each night will never feel the pain of those who go all at once. You’re one of the lucky ones.”
“Huh?” I wiped the last of the thick residue from my mouth.
“It’s almost midnight. Are you ready to let the old you die?”
Almost midnight. I was running out of time. I felt a certain tranquility while walking toward the DJ table. The old me would have turned away by now, but I didn’t slow down even when Chase looked right at me. The electricity wasn’t a barrier anymore. It was charging me, an exhilarating fuel which propelled me through the churning dance floor. I even allowed myself to step in time with the music, bobbing and swaying with the mesmerizing beat. It almost felt like I was flying, until suddenly I was close enough to finally say:
My wildest paranoia couldn’t have prepared me for his reaction. Glancing up from his computer, Chase’s face contorted into a horrified caricature of his usual self-assurance. He lurched out of his chair so fast that it tumbled over backward. I rushed to help him, but that only made him kick the chair in my direction and scramble across the floor. The music was deafening this close to the speakers, but it wasn’t enough to completely drown out the grotesque retching as he vomited onto the floor. Through the beat I could still clearly hear the wailing sob rising in my throat as I sprinted away from him and toward the bathroom.
I couldn’t understand what happened until the burning began. My fingers gingerly grazed the swiftly swelling lumps in my face. I covered myself with my hands as I ran, brutally shoving my way through the crowd and then slamming through the bathroom door. A girl in a black sequin party dress dropped her makeup and screamed. I almost trampled her on my way to the mirror, but she wasted no time in ducking under the sink and crawling toward the door. Looking in the mirror, I honestly couldn’t blame her.
Some of the lumps in my skin were the size of golf-balls, and they were growing by the second. The larger ones were actually wriggling, almost as though there was an insect squirming just beneath the skin. More lumps were appearing on my hands, and the itching burn radiating down my body left no ambiguity about what was happening under my clothes. I would have screamed if my tongue wasn’t swelling too, but it was all I could do to just try to keep my airway clear. Then the first boil popped and I couldn’t contain the howl which ripped from my lungs.
I heard the door open again, but it snapped shut immediately. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the mirror. More boils were rupturing by the second, splattering the glass with thick purple syrup which clung on like long strands of mucous. More of them exploded in my mouth to trickle down my throat with the same oily taste of the drink. My hair was sliding from my scalp in great clumps, matted and greased with the bubbling purple liquid.
The only thing which kept me from completely losing my mind was the sight of fresh pink skin which shone beneath the savage gashes in my face. The burn was growing more intense by the second, but each exploding boil revealed more healthy skin below it. I started ripping at the tattered shreds, peeling them off and dumping them in a soggy pile around my feet.
Beneath all the skin that was sloughing off, I didn’t even recognize myself. My new skin was lighter and clearer, and the new hair which sprouted was a short ruffled blond that was nothing like the long dark hair which lay in clumps around my feet. Nothing was the least recognizable except my eyes which were stretched wide with a familiar anxious terror.
“What the fuck?”
Chase must have followed me into the bathroom. How long had he been watching? Long enough. I stepped away from the wet pile of old flesh that littered the ground. My clothes were still soaked in the liquid though, and more chunks continued to rain out my dress and down my legs. He looked like he was about to vomit again.
“Hey Chase… I want to try something. Come here.”
He didn’t move, but he didn’t have to. I crossed the space between us more quickly than I thought possible. All at once our faces were inches apart, but he didn’t turn away. Outside I could hear the countdown toward midnight.
I pressed my finger to his lips to silence the budding question.
I cupped his head in my hands and drew him toward me.
I felt his hard lips soften against mine.
The taste of his sweat as my mouth made its way down his neck.
The squirt of blood through my teeth as they sank into his flesh. He was thrashing now, but each movement just forced my jaw to tighten until I could feel the first vertebra crunch under the pressure. All the shouts of “Happy New Year!” drowned out his terminal scream which strangled to a whisper when his trachea collapsed.
Part of me died that night alongside Chase, but the old man knew what he was talking about. It’s much easier to leave the dead parts of yourself behind than let them weigh you down forever, and for the first time in my life, I’m not afraid anymore.