It was on his knee, just above his tibia, not there one day but there the next. A patch no bigger than a quarter, maybe a half dollar. Not perfectly round; more like an inkblot. It may have been there for weeks, months, years, but he only noticed it that morning while waking to an undying itch.
“What’s wrong?” his wife asked, lifting her head off the pillow. He’d been sitting on the edge of the bed, scratching for over a minute. “You look like Bitzy in heat.”
He went to the bathroom and attempted to go about his daily routine, but in the shower the patch still itched. He went at it hard, wondering if he’d been bitten or stung.
Out of the shower then and drying off, he searched the medicine cabinet for ointment, for cream, for something to relieve the irritation. He put some Neosporin on the dry patch and covered it with a large Band-Aid.
At work he was bombarded with paperwork and didn’t think about the itch until lunchtime. From out of nowhere he started scratching, the thin fabric of his Dockers between his finger and his knee, then rolling up the cuff of his slacks, exposing his pale leg, and really digging in.
“Hey, you okay?” a coworker asked him, but he just gritted his teeth and continued scratching. “Man,” his coworker said, “you’re just gonna make it worse. Don’t you know anything?”
At home, the spot still itched but he didn’t touch it and would mentally curse himself when he caught his hand reaching toward the knee. For dinner his wife made roasted chicken with scalloped potatoes and green beans, both his girls playing mostly with their food, talking to their mother about their day at school, and Bitzy lying in the corner like she did every night, hoping for some renegade scrap to hit the floor.
Before bed his wife asked, “Are you all right? You look pale,” but he only smiled, kissed her goodnight, and turned off the lamp.
In the morning the wetness woke him. Not the alarm clock, not the perpetual itch, but the cold and sticky wetness by his leg.
“What?” his wife murmured as she stirred beside him.
He first glanced at his hand, at the flesh beneath the fingernails, then threw off the blue sheets already stained red, and stared down at the drying puddle of blood soaking the bed.
His wife waited with him in the emergency room, holding his hand while she paged through a Newsweek lying open on her lap. Finally his name was called and he followed the nurse to another room, answered her questions, waited alone — the fluorescents buzzing above him, the astringent odor of ammonia strong — until the doctor walked in. Carrying a clipboard, he sat on a stool and asked him to show him the patch, then inspected it carefully, putting on bifocals to look closely.
“Hmm,” was all he said for the longest time, and then glanced up, forced a smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll write you out a prescription for some cream. It’ll clear up in no time.”
But the cream didn’t help. After a week he went back in to see a different doctor. That doctor prescribed him another type of cream. It didn’t help either. The itch grew worse. Another doctor asked him to come in for tests. The results came back, all inconclusive, all telling him that basically nobody had any idea what was wrong with him, that the entire scientific community found the dry patch on his knee an anomaly. When a doctor called, requesting an interview so he could write an article, he hung up, just as he threw away the three letters from other doctors requesting the same. The patch never got bigger, it never got smaller, and no matter how much he itched it – because it always itched, day and night, no matter what he put on it or how long he went without giving it a good scratch – the itch never went away.
His daughters started avoiding him at home, leaving the room whenever he walked in, and one night, out of pure desperation, when he tried hugging them goodnight they started crying. His wife was no different, only her avoidance was a bit more furtive. When he hugged her she remembered a load of wash that needed done, or she had to check the oven. At night he found himself alone in the living room, Bitzy having abandoned him too, watching TV with the sound muted, hearing only the rough and dry noise of his fingers grazing the patch of skin on his leg.
The last straw came when, after two months, he and his wife hadn’t made love once. They hadn’t even kissed or held hands and he was sick of it, sick of everyone he knew — his wife, his daughters, his coworkers, the doctors who wouldn’t leave him alone, even the fucking dog — acting like he was diseased, like he was a leper. Come on, he said, nearly begging, grabbing his wife’s breast a little too hard, but she pulled away, nearly cried out, and then he was on top of her, holding her down, one hand working at her zipper. The fear in her eyes stopped him, and he rolled off, began sobbing, murmuring, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” but his wife was already off the bed, her arms folded across her chest, and said in a very hard voice, “Leave this house right now.”
He made it to the kitchen where he grabbed his wallet and keys, and was just about to walk out the door when something stopped him. He turned around and stared at the knife set on the counter, leaning against the wall by the electric can opener they never used.
Selecting the sharpest knife — what looked to be four solid inches of stainless steel — he sat down at the kitchen table, the place he’d shared countless breakfasts with his wife and children, and rolled up his pant leg. And there it was, the dry patch, such an innocuous-looking thing, and without any hesitation he placed the tip of the knife to the edge of the patch and inserted it into his skin.
At some point his wife entered the kitchen. He didn’t know when exactly — time had become irrelevant as he lay on the tiled floor in a growing pool of his own blood — but her sudden scream caused him to open his eyes.
He looked up at her standing in the doorway, dressed in her bathrobe. Her hands were to mouth. Her eyes were wide. He tried sitting up, tried smiling, tried telling her that everything was okay now. That he had gotten rid of the dry patch, which right this moment he was gripping between two fingers, holding it up with a trembling hand. A peace offering, that’s what it was, his only way to make things right, a penitence for whatever sin he’d done to cause such a burden. But his wife just stood there in the doorway, unmoving, her eyes ignoring the piece of flesh and instead watching his other hand, the one holding the knife. No, he wanted to tell her, it’s okay, it’s all right, because I itch everywhere, and it was true, he did itch everywhere, and right now the knife was doing its job perfectly, acting as his fingers, cutting off patches of skin here and there, enough so that he would never have to scratch again.
Robert Swartwood‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Postscripts, Chizine, Space and Time, elimae, Hobart, Pequin, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Hint Fiction, an anthology of stories 25 words or less that will be published by W.W. Norton. To learn more, visit www.robertswartwood.com.