by Allison Mulder
I noticed the demon living in my right index fingernail because that nail grew ten times faster than any of the others.
It yellowed and curled, and my skin peeled away from it in stringy, ugly shreds—causing all my acquaintances to keep their distance. I had no closer friends to worry about. Hadn’t for a while. But that was no comfort.
I clipped the fingernail. Every day, every hour, pressing the dull edges of my clippers flush against my red, cracked skin. I filed the nail’s edges soft and covered everything with dark, smooth, polish, then rubbed lotion into my stinging cuticles. The nail always grew back, faster and faster, and the people I most wanted to ignore it were always noticing. Avoiding it—me.
No one really knew the demon existed, of course, let alone how deeply it tainted my blood, my thoughts, my every word and action. But they all saw the place where it lived—that ugly finger, diseased and reminiscent of various contagions. It gave everyone an excuse to stay away.
I clipped the demon’s fingernail so often that the edges of my clippers turned black with blood, and black with worse things, and dull with overuse—relegated to pointless nubs.
Dark gloves worked for a time, in winter. But indoors and in warm weather, those steered people away too. People stop trusting a handshake if they never feel the heat of your blood, your heartbeat’s rewards in your hands.
Or maybe my every word and action just showed more of the demon than I’d realized.
I bought new clippers.
Ages after I should have, I finally hooked the edge of the demon’s nail and tore it free, in one sharp, bloody pull.
The raw, exposed nailbed sang with pain as I wrapped it in soft, white gauze, and my head felt freer than it had in a long time. I sighed in relief when the nail began growing back—achingly slow, but clear, and healthy.
I rode the bus. Gloves off, clinging to a strap overhead. I watched people—noticed people—not just how they watched my hands, but how people talk and laugh and be good to each other, in all the ways the demon hid from me before. At work, a new colleague offered me lotion. She dragged her palm across my knuckles, sharing her excess, rubbing in the clean, flowery scent like it was nothing as she chattered about where to get lunch and decent coffee, her family overseas, her sibling’s wedding a few weeks away.
My acquaintanceships strengthened.
Friendships came slower, but then, some ugly things are difficult to forget. I painted my nails in pastels and patterns, and told myself everything would come in time, now that the demon was gone.
But I never did get invited to that wedding, or even to lunch or coffee very often.
The distance between me and others lingered. As did a certain darkness in my home, only observable thanks to my new wakefulness.
The more time passed, the more desperately I searched for a source.
The more I searched, the more I found.
Tiny shreds of clipped-off nail.
Hiding between cracks in my bathroom tiles, clustered at the bottom of my trash where they’d slipped between the bag and the can. They appeared in the most unlikely places, days, weeks, months, years after I thought I’d swept them all up.
I put on rubber gloves and scoured my house daily, never picking them up with bare hands.
But they never stopped appearing, no matter how hard I searched, as if—even then—they were still growing all around me.
While I believe this story can be interpreted in many ways, I originally wrote it thinking specifically about prejudices, and how recognizing and working through our own biases is an ongoing process. Whatever persistent ugliness may keep cropping up in your life, good luck to you.
Allison Mulder writes fantasy, science fiction, and—often by accident—horror. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Escape Pod. With patience, sensitive equipment, and ample provisions, you can sometimes glimpse her at allisonmulder.wordpress.com. Or, track her far more easily on Twitter at @AMulderWrites, where she broadcasts any significant life happenings, gushes over her current fictional obsessions, and uses far too many X-Files gifs