BARBED • by Karl Bell

Jeff first noticed the wire barb protruding from the top of his right shoulder when he was shaving in his bathroom mirror on Monday morning. No pain, just an itch, and at first he assumed it was a stray back hair. Running his fingers over it to pluck it out he winced, found his fingertips sliced and bleeding in the stark fluorescent lighting.

“What the hell…?”

He turned his shoulder into the mirror for a better view, probing the metal point with an exploratory finger. His gut suddenly went queasy when he realised the barb was jutting out rather than into his flesh. Bewildered, he fumbled in the bathroom cabinet, found some nail clippers. After negotiating the right angle he finally managed to snip the nasty little twist of metal from his body. He gave it a cursory inspection and tossed it in the bin.

Jeff’s had long prided himself on his ability to soldier on regardless of the agonies or oddities that life may hurl in his path. Of late, however, that path had become a veritable obstacle course. The divorce had been messy and painful in ways he could never have even anticipated; the relegation of his fatherhood to every other weekend even more so. Moving into this basement flat, with the elephant-footed landlord living above and the patina of mildew creeping up the kitchenette’s wallpaper, had made him feel like he was back at the starting line in his twenties again. He had hated his twenties. The telemarketing job was driving him quietly nuts; tedious days that were faintly distorted facsimiles of every other, the bovine voices at the end of the phone, the stale coffee, the petty office bullying. To cap it all, last week his new girlfriend abruptly pivoted on those magnificent red high-heels and tottered back to her ex. Apparently it wasn’t him, it was her. Something like that.

Jeff left the flat, bracing his umbrella against the chill November rain as he trudged to the station. He joined the slither of commuters as the trains slowly insinuated their way into the heart of the city for another day.

The next morning there was a short line of metal barbs knitted beneath his collar bone. He cut them off. A long moment silently searching the sickening unease in his reflection’s eyes before he went to work. His hands shook uncontrollably on the train.

When he woke on Wednesday he found himself impaled on his bed. Panicking, he struggled and writhed until finally there was a loud ripping sound and he rolled free. The mattress was torn, the sheets tattered. Barbed wire jutted across his shoulders, twisted up his neck to his jaw line, and ran down the ladder of his spine. There were dark, hard points poised beneath the skin of his chest. The steel followed the tracery of his veins like a road map.

Finally, the fear spilled out of him with a wounded gasp.

Stammering, Jeff phoned in sick. Then he just stood for a long, long time before the mirror, struggling to comprehend his strange metamorphosis. He didn’t know who to call, what to do. He spent the morning shuffling around his small flat in an uncomprehending daze, returning repeatedly to that frightful reflection in the mirror. The thing that stared back was both him and not him. It shared his horrified gaze.

Helen rang mid-afternoon. Despite the court arrangements she wanted to take Daryl away at the weekend with her new partner; she hoped he understood. She called him ‘Jeffrey’. He hated that, and she knew it.

Jeff didn’t think to ask for help, didn’t even mention what had happened to him. He just slotted into the argument’s familiar contours of accusation and counteraccusation. As he did so his body began to sing with rage. With sickening fascination he watched as more barbs surfaced through his flesh, coiling around his forearms, binding his chest. He felt them sprout across his cheeks and blossom around his eye sockets. There was pain but it was laced with arousal, a dim sense of becoming something else.

He absently turned off the phone, absorbed by the revelation. Strong emotion stimulated the condition. That realisation gave him a sense of contribution. This was not something simply being done to him, something he had to passively await.

By late evening Jeff was sitting naked on his bed in his dark flat, entertaining possibilities where previously there had only been panic. He had always associated barbed wire with containment and boundaries. Now it offered him unexpected liberation as it unravelled his mundane flesh and the humdrum life bound around it. Into the dead hours of night he indulged his condition, drawing forth pains and frustrations, twisted emotions and sharp memories. He sat entranced by the way they manifested themselves in the unending wire that entwined his entire body, his head wreathed in a crown of steely thorns.

Jeff stoked the furnace of his transformation until morning. When the dishwater daylight began to seep through the curtains and across the grey carpet he stood, pulled on his raincoat, and awkwardly buttoned it, the tented material stretching until vicious wire tips poked through it. He placed a fedora on his head, tugging it low over his gleaming eyes.

Striding through the dismal drizzle this time, never keener to catch that damned train.

The station platform was crowded. Jeff smiled from deep within his metallic coils as commuters pushed against his body and then suddenly leapt back as if stung. Some started to voice complaints but he ignored them, shouldering his way into the carriage when the train arrived. As the doors closed on the packed workers and the train started forward Jeff removed his hat and tore the coat from his back.

He smiled. There were barbs in the pink of his gums.

Someone screamed.

Breaking the commuters’ unspoken taboo, he reached out to embrace his fellow passengers.

Karl Bell lives in Hampshire, England, with his wife and two sons. He has a PhD in History and is a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth. Karl is the author of two non-fiction books, The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, and the award-winning The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack. Work, life, and parenthood have frequently conspired to stamp out his aspirations to write fiction but he continues to scribble stuff down in notebooks.

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