“The Molt” by Rex Burrows 

The molt started at William’s lips. He first noticed it during his morning shave, just a few flakes of dry skin at the corners of his mouth. Attempts to pick these away, however, pulled loose long, tattered sheaves of skin that were left dangling from his chin.

This struck William as—at a minimum—strange.

The underlying layers looked perfectly healthy with no apparent irritation or redness, so William continued with the rest of his face. Most of the old skin came away easily enough, the eyelids did require some delicate work with tweezers. Working his way on to his neck, past the shoulders, and down the rest of his body, larger and larger strips sloughed away with minimal effort. Soon, the bathroom floor was littered with piles of discarded skin.

Eventually, he arrived at the bottom of his feet. Frequent jogging had built up thick pads of callus that resisted easy removal. He was forced to sit down on the lid of the toilet, pick at the heel until he’d freed enough to get a firm grip, and then yank the entire sole free in one piece, toes and all. The flesh beneath was pink and pliable, almost like that of a young child.

William inspected his handiwork in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. The shed remnants lying at his feet looked gray and dead, but the skin was nearly perfect, unmarred by blemishes or imperfections. Even the faint crow’s feet that had arrived as if on cue with his recent thirtieth birthday had vanished. This spontaneous and wholesale exfoliation was probably the sort of thing that should be discussed with a doctor, but William found it difficult to drum up much concern given the results. This impression was reinforced during his commute to the downtown DC lobbying firm where he worked; he caught several of his fellow riders on the Metro train stealing admiring glances at him.

For the remainder of the day, William glided through social interactions with unaccustomed ease and confidence. Senior staff at his office were normally testy and aloof in their dealings with junior colleagues, but today William was treated in a much more collegial fashion and even received a few compliments from his supervisor. Even better, Desmond, the handsome paralegal who worked at the law firm two floors down, asked him out on a date. They agreed to meet for drinks the following Saturday.

With the workday concluded on such a positive note, William decided to put off his commute home and indulge a rather touristy impulse. He’d never seen DC’s famous cherry blossoms—last year’s move from Ohio had come too late in the season—but there was still an hour or two of daylight left for a walk down to the tidal basin. When he arrived at the tidal basin though, William discovered that he was once again too late. A few scattered handfuls of blossoms still clung to the branches of the cherry trees, but most had already dropped to the ground. A thick carpet of petals meandered between the trunks, and the cloying scent of rotting flowers hung in the air. William had heard that the blossoms’ peak had been coming earlier and earlier in recent years, apparently a manifestation of the changing global climate. Here was the proof.

William shrugged off this small disappointment, not letting it dampen his spirits. On balance it had been a very nice day, maybe the best since his move. Even the piles of cast-off skin that greeted him at home were a minor nuisance to be swept up and disposed of. The leavings had turned papery and brittle, rustling like dead leaves as he sent them tumbling down the garbage chute.


Over the next three weeks, William grew less and less comfortable in his new skin. The glowing complexion faded to a wan pallor, and a faint tugging sensation began to accompany his movements. Maddening itches plagued him, tracing out complicated migratory routes across his body. Moisturizers and skin creams brought no relief, and the earliest available dermatological appointment was weeks away.

People began shying away from William in elevators and narrow hallways. During one such encounter, Desmond unceremoniously cancelled their planned date, offering up an unconvincing excuse and a vague promise to reschedule. Eventually, William’s supervisor suggested that he might consider working from home until his “unfortunate medical condition” was resolved. The recommendation was delivered via email even though his office was approximately four feet from William’s cubicle. Stranded in his apartment for days and weighing an expensive visit to the ER, William finally noticed a sign of possible relief: the skin at the corners of his mouth was beginning to peel again.

It was only when he arrived at the areas around his eyes, leaning in close to the bathroom mirror, that he noticed something was amiss. Each blink was preceded by a quick flash of motion across the cornea, a twitch distinct from the eyelid itself. William pulled down the skin below his left eye, exposing the fleshy pink conjunctiva and scanning for stray eyelashes or other debris. The movement was more visible when it happened a second time; a clear membrane snapped across the lens of the eye from left to right.

The distance from this observation to panic was a very short one.

William clawed at his face and the skin slipped away readily, much like removing a mask and taking most of his hair with it. Subcutaneous ridges and crenations bulged from his exposed scalp and extended down the back of his neck. Rather than a normal complexion, the newly exposed skin possessed a mottled yellowish-green pattern that covered most of his body.

William walked numbly to his bedroom and sat down on his unmade bed. Medical attention was clearly a matter of some urgency, but at the moment, the light streaming in through the window was of far greater concern. It hurt his eyes, and when drawing the drapes didn’t relieve the discomfort, he pulled the sheets and comforter off the bed and hung them from the curtain rods. Better. A wave of exhaustion washed over him and he laid down on the bare mattress. Just a few minutes of rest, then the hospital. William closed his eyes and sank into deep and dreamless slumber.


William next left his apartment at 4:30 AM on May 8th, three weeks to the day since the second molt. He was dressed in long pants and a sweatshirt, keeping the hood pulled low over his head. Metro wasn’t open yet, but that was perfectly fine. He planned to walk to his destination anyway, although he wasn’t quite sure as to where that might be.

Given the early hour, the streets were nearly deserted, and William was able to avoid the few people who were out and about. He made his way southwards along Connecticut Avenue, stopping briefly in Dupont Circle to admire the fountain at the center of the small park. He’d passed it many times before but never paid much attention to the three statues carved into the base—personifications of the wind, the stars, and the sea. The last was represented as an ethereal woman with long flowing tresses and smooth marble skin. William found this very funny for reasons he couldn’t quite determine, but this didn’t trouble him. There were many, many things that he’d stopped worrying about in recent weeks.

After the second molt, he’d stopped logging in for work. Texts, emails, and voicemails went unanswered. His various devices sat neglected, screens dark and charges slowly dissipating. He did keep his phone working, but only to order delivery from a nearby sushi restaurant. The driver was instructed to knock once and then leave the food at the door, and William was careful to let several minutes pass before retrieving the bag. This was the only time of day that he left the bathroom.

There were several reasons for sequestering himself in the smallest, darkest room of the apartment. First, William’s eyes had become exquisitely sensitive to light. He’d taped up cardboard over all the windows, but even the tiny beams that were able to penetrate those barriers brought on excruciating headaches. The bathroom was windowless and a rolled-up towel at the base of the door insured complete darkness. The second reason, even more important than the first, was that William had taken to spending nearly all his time in the bathtub, soaking in tepid water.

Prolonged isolation in a small, dark room was inadvisable for any number of reasons, psychological damage not least among them, but William felt curiously at ease with the situation. His main entertainment came from humming a simple, repetitive melody over and over again. It was a from a song that William’s grandmother had sung to him when he was small, visiting her cottage just outside of Toledo on the shores of Lake Erie. He couldn’t remember the words, if there had been words to it at all, but it sounded particularly nice when he submerged his head beneath the water.

Now though, instinct tugged at him to resume his walk. He continued across the city, pulled sometimes to the south and sometimes to the east. He passed by the White House and various other large, stately buildings whose significance now eluded him. It was only when he arrived once again at the edge of the tidal basin that he realized this was where he’d been heading all the while.

William sat down at the foot of a cherry tree, now covered in dense green foliage, and stripped off his clothes. He hung each item from a low-hanging branch just in case someone else might make use of them. Once he was fully naked, he began to rub his face back and forth across the rough bark of the tree until the desiccated flesh split, bringing a great spasm of relief. Undulating first his shoulders, then his hips, he wriggled free of the remaining husk of his humanity and hung it from the tree next to his sweatpants. Several formerly important pieces of anatomy were left behind, including his lips, nose, ears, and external genitalia. William didn’t feel any particular way about their loss.

The sun crept over the horizon, and the basin’s glassy waters revealed a profoundly altered reflection. William’s outline remained roughly the same—two arms, two legs, a torso sporting a head mounted on a neck—but the similarities ended there. The face had been simplified to a streamlined plane broken only by prominent black eyes, small nostrils, and a slashed line of a mouth. The features were framed by minute scales giving way to heavier plates covering the rest of his body. Twinned lines of crocodile-like spines extended from the back of his head and down the dorsal length of his torso. His hands and feet had become disproportionately large, the digits now clawed and netted with tough, fibrous webbing. William smiled at the transformation, or at least gave the best approximation of a smile he could manage—his mouth was now filled with row upon row of curved, needle-like teeth.

Satisfied that he was prepared for whatever awaited him, William vaulted over the guardrail into the basin, breaking the surface with barely a splash. The nictitating membranes snapped shut and he eyed after several large catfish scooting away in the murky water. He swam along the bottom until it met the Potomac and he was folded into the river’s churning embrace. From there, he would make his way to Chesapeake Bay and then out into the expanse of the Atlantic. The ocean’s waters were rising and her people were reawakening, calling out to their relations no matter how far they may have drifted from the shoal. Come home.


Rex Burrows (he/him) is a writer primarily working in the weird fiction, horror, and dark fantasy subgenres. He also has a background in biological research and holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. His stories are often informed by his interests in science, nature, and history. Rex’s short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Weird Horror Magazine and Horror Library Volume 7. He lives in Washington DC and can be found online at rexburrows.com


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