Soft Shell, Aron Brown
CW: body horror
I’m a claims adjuster for Smiley, Gibbons & Rewerts Insurance. I’m pretty pragmatic. I don’t suffer a lot of existential dread. I think it’s kept me sane: if there’s nothing I can do to fix or prevent something, that’s the end of me worrying about it. There will be moments, though—when I’m picking lemons from the tree in the backyard, and the stepladder wobbles underneath me—where I suddenly remember the statistics. Did you know that there are 300 deaths by ladder per year in the US? And that most people die from falls of ten feet or fewer? When you’re at the top of a shaky ladder, it’s all you can think about.
My coworker, Hugo J., never stopped living at the top of the ladder. He was a really good claims adjuster. He spent a lot of time telling you how much he was working, how tired he was, how stressed, but his job was his life. He took the stories and the statistics to heart. He walked everywhere because he didn’t want to have a stroke at fifty. He drank tons of coffee, but was extremely picky about what he ate. Always was worried about toxins from pesticides. Told me that he would never lose weight because he didn’t go to the gym: there were too many stories about equipment injuries. Any time you found him sleeping on his office couch, he’d reiterate that he felt safer there: 450 people die annually from falling out of bed.
He was a bit obnoxious about it all, to be honest. If he was worried about something, he would follow you around unpacking his concerns, laying each incident out before you in graphic detail, as if he needed you to acknowledge it was worthy of anxiety. But he got on well with the clients. He empathized with them absolutely. The way he talked about cases, it always sounded like he blamed some implacable Fate for betraying them.
The only thing Hugo liked talking about more than his fears were lobsters.
The man loved crustaceans. Loved that they were hardy, protected by their thick shells, able to survive in extremely hostile underwater environs. The lobster made one doubt humans were evolution’s last word, he said. We had soft, easily penetrated eye jellies sitting right in front of our central nervous system, for Chrissakes. Plus, lobsters didn’t die of old age. They just became bigger, stronger and more fertile over time. If they got injured, or when other animals might die, they simply left their shell and grew another. And they were the ultimate survivors—they’d even eat other lobsters if they had to.
“Too bad lobsters didn’t evolve to survive being boiled alive,” I said once.
“Did humans?” Hugo retorted.
About six months ago, Hugo came into the office excited. He told me he’d signed up to try some new, experimental skincare products. This was, of course, surprising. The last thing I’d expect from Hugo J., known hypochondriac, was for him to choose to be a guinea pig. I asked whether he considered the chemicals he might be subjected to, the possible carcinogens.
He waved me off. “It’s all natural, all natural,” he assured me. “I know the biochemist who has been developing the product.”
I asked how he met this scientist. Apparently, they knew each other through a forum about lobsters, crabs, and other animals with segmented shells. I asked what the skincare line was meant to do.
Hugo said something about, “The end to senescence.”
I gave up on the conversation, thinking maybe he was operating on one too few hours of sleep, and told him I was very happy for him. Offered to sign him up for another health insurance plan, just in case something went wrong.
Anyway, I forgot about it for a while. There was a lot of work to do that day, and it faded to the back of my mind. Another odd conversation with Hugo J., nothing unusual.
About two weeks later, Hugo called in sick to work. He was absolutely exhausted, he said. Could be that burnout everyone’s writing articles about. Everyone at the office was sympathetic. Hugo worked himself ragged, and it was bound to catch up to him at some point. HR encouraged him to take the week off to recuperate—paid leave, of course.
When he finally came back in, he didn’t look like a man who had been deathly ill. He looked like someone who’d taken a long, restful vacation. The bags under his eyes had shrunk, there was a glow to his skin, and the crows’ feet and wrinkles had faded. His bald spot wasn’t even quite as bald.
Everyone was delighted by the transformation. The rest really seemed to have done him good. I remembered what Hugo told me about the skin cream, but he didn’t bring it up. I figured he was delighting in the attention and didn’t want to reveal that his new look was the result of some cosmetic—not natural charisma.
But Hugo kept improving. He seemed to stand straighter, smile brighter. He told stories about concerts he’d gone to and movies he’d seen, instead of a litany of lobster facts. He bought himself a car! I realize this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the man was terrified of auto accidents. It was a nice car, too. Not a Maserati or a Jaguar, but a BMW sedan.
Then one day he didn’t come to the office.
Hugo was still devoted to the job. The fact that he didn’t call the office manager or HR to ask for PTO was worrying. When he didn’t answer his cell, I volunteered to go to his apartment.
The courtyard in the complex was quiet and bright. There was no one around in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday. Because the neighborhood was nice, I assumed, correctly, that the apartment would be as well. A little outdated; the decor and the style of the stairs showed it was built in the sixties. There were a couple of paper signs taped up about a missing cat or dog, with tear-off numbers at the bottom. The usual things you see in an apartment.
As I was walking down the hallway to his door—apartment number 11A, according to his paycheck—I was hit by a smell. At first, I thought maybe the apartment wasn’t as nice as it seemed. It was the kind of smell you got from backed-up sewage pipes: an acrid stink, with almost a saline tang to it. It got worse as I approached Hugo’s door. I wondered, a little panicked, if there’d been a gas leak, and Hugo died inhaling the fumes.
I knocked, calling Hugo’s name. No one answered. I banged on the door with the flat of my hand. I told Hugo I was going to call an ambulance or the cops. I was digging in my pocket for my phone when the door opened, catching on the chain. The stench rushed out. It was enough to make me gag and cough, covering my nose and mouth. The light coming in through the door caught and reflected off Hugo’s eyes. His skin looked slick and shiny, taut against his cheeks.
“Holy shit,” I managed to gasp, voice muffled by my hand, “is that you that I smell? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Hugo was barely whispering. “Sorry, I have a really awful hangover. Went and grabbed drinks with guys in Management.”
I asked if I could get him anything. He demurred. I asked what the smell was, again. “I’ve been vomiting a lot,” he said. I asked if I should drive him to the hospital. He said he’d take care of himself, really.
Without anything to add, I hovered in front of his door until he closed it.
I stepped away from the threshold, and my foot slipped. I barely caught myself from falling on my back. There was a thin sheet of something membranous under my shoe. Red branching lines spidered across its surface. When I held it up, the light passing through it turned a faint pink. It had a thick, translucent gelatinous coating. Up close, it gave off the same pungent, repulsive smell as the inside of Hugo’s apartment.
I was trying to figure out why the membrane seemed familiar, when I recognized the branching red marks: capillaries breaking across skin, painting it an unhealthy pink. I dropped it, vomit hurking up into my throat, and rushed to my car.
I told the office that Hugo was sick with the flu. He got PTO.
When he came back in a week later, he was driving a Lexus. He joked that he totaled the BMW. No one believed him: he was completely uninjured. I noticed that when we stood next to each other, he was an inch or two taller.
The frame of the short, nebbish balding guy was still there, but it was filled out, stretched out. His hair grew back in. His skin was elastic, with the kind of youthful sheen you see in magazines. I overheard the assistants gossiping about Hugo. He was dating all of them. There were even whispers of a promotion: Hugo had become ruthless. He found loopholes in policies, saving Smiley, Gibbons & Rewerts Insurance tens of thousands in money owed to clients. He expounded that they were idiots who deserved to pay for their mistakes or scam artists trying to defraud the company.
“So, your luck comes naturally?” I finally snapped, interrupting the monologue. The look he shot me was coldly furious.
Five months into this, Hugo and I were in the elevator together. He had his sleeves rolled up—it was the middle of summer, and the AC hadn’t been working in the office. I saw him itching the inside of his arm. There was a cluster of bruised little holes at his elbow. I don’t know much about track marks, except what I’ve seen in movies.
His nails caught on the edges of the little holes, and he kept itching. I didn’t even think he knew he was doing it; his eyes were fixed on the corner of the elevator. His skin looked taut. Shiny. His nails caught the edge again, and he kept scratching, pulling away strips. I opened my mouth to yell, to tell him he was bleeding, but no blood appeared.
His skin peeled away and globules of clear fluid ran from the wounds.
Suddenly, Hugo seemed to realize I was there. He shoved his sleeve down and marched out of the elevator.
Throughout the last month, I told myself that all I’d seen was something… a little disgusting and strange, but not inherently dangerous. Trying to sell my coworkers on the idea that Hugo’s new moisturizer was making his skin peel away—leaving him, what, more handsome and youthful? —sounded insane. Thinking about Hugo J. at all turned my stomach. I didn’t want to know any more. I wished I didn’t know anything at all.
Then one of the assistants, Diane, went missing. She didn’t come into work. She didn’t answer calls. After a few days, her family filed a missing person report.
Her cat was wailing, starving in her house when the police opened the door. A suitcase was missing, as were some of her clothes and her wallet. No one was making charges on her card or calls with her phone. Her last few texts were from someone with a number no one recognized, someone not saved in her contacts.
When Hugo heard that Diane was missing, possibly dead, he excused himself from the office. He did not come back for the rest of the week. Then he didn’t return the next week. We called him, and texted him, and emailed him, but he didn’t respond. Heart sinking, I went to his apartment.
The place was still bright and quiet. There were more flyers up. More missing pets. When I got to the hallway leading to 11A, the smell was much more potent. There was something underneath the sewage stink: something earthier, more fungal. The neighbor in 11B came out when I started knocking. She said the smell had been atrocious, and she tried to get the landlord to talk to Hugo. She watched me hammer at the door, and said she was going to call the police.
I noticed, after she left, that there was a translucent, gelatinous substance pooling from under the door.
The police officer who arrived obliged me by breaking the door down. The carpet in the apartment squished under our feet; it was soaked in noxious fluid, which ran over our shoes and soaked into our socks and the hems of our pants. There were overflowing trash bags stacked in the corners of the rooms.
Laying on the slick tiles of the kitchen was the naked corpse of Hugo J. I thought, for a second, that he had pantyhose on his face, like a robber in a movie. Then my eyes adjusted, and I saw that the “hose” had his features. There was a nose, a deflated set of eyelids, hanging over nothing. The horrible, blurred form of a second face pressed up against the inside of a cheek, deforming it. Its eyes were wide and fixed. Its mouth was open in a scream, its nose flattened against the membrane. He looked like a man suffocated with a plastic bag. I could see rents, small holes where he’d tried to tear his way out. The face under the skin was hairless, the flesh-pink of an embryo. The goo oozed slowly out of a rip in the soft shell.
They found the tags of the missing animals, and Diane’s suitcase, in Hugo’s closet. An empty container of skin cream sat on his bathroom counter. There was no name on the label: just a small drawing of a lobster.
Aron Brown is a non-binary bisexual who learned to read at an early age by holding the book upside down and making up the words. They are a candidate of the UC Riverside MFA Creative Writing program. Aron also spent many years writing fanfiction, but don’t look it up.