Tales of the Asp: Nails, by Aidan Butler

     Shortly after his fifteenth birthday, Frank Hughston began spending an alarming amount of time alone in his bedroom filing his nails. Occasionally his mother would enter without knocking and find him hunched over his desk scraping away with the file blade of his Swiss Army Knife, his gaze intense, his concentration as refined as that of an ice sculptor.

     His mother was gravely disturbed by seeing him in this strange state. But his Dad argued in his defense. "The boy wants to file his nails, let him file 'em. Hell, my son's got the best looking nails in this whole city. At least for a boy."

     Frank's attention to his nails was indeed impressive. When his habit first began, he would sneak late at night into his parents' bathroom to use his mother's files, for hers were more specialized than his knife's: she had some files that were made of thick double-sided paper with rough grains of reddish sand on one side, and finer particles of grey sand on the other. She had a metal nail file that tapered to a smooth, small curve at one end and had a sharp triangle at the other end for digging dirt out from under nails. She even had two large hardened fish scales that functioned as a sort of natural nail file. He enjoyed these immensely, because it made him feel like he was filing his nails with another creature's equivalent of fingernails; it felt warmly social to him.

     Frank studied the way these different files wore away his nails; some left fine, even scrapes; some left them slightly shiny. Occasionally Frank would file his nails in a sawtooth pattern, or in undulating curves. He spent countless hours trying to decide which he liked best.

     Frank noticed that by filing his nails with short, rapid strokes, he could make his fingertips feel slightly hot. When he filed his nails with long, drawn out pressure, he could feel the strokes all the way up to his elbow. This tickled him, and made him laugh out loud.

     Frank listened intently to the sound that his nail-filing made: sharp, slightly high-pitched scrapes; slower, grinding sounds. Since there was a lot of traffic on the street, he began waiting until very early in the morning to file his nails so that he could focus on the mysterious sounds of nail filing without interruptions. He began filing his nails rhythmically, as if his ten fingernails and ten toenails were keys on a xylophone. Occasionally he would hear the soundtracks of movies and television shows, and imagine how much better they would sound if, instead of using percussion instruments, the musicians had miked their fingernails and played them with an assortment of different files. When he heard violins and cellos, Frank would close his eyes, his mind soaring; the scraping of the bow against the strings resembled his nail-filing nocturnes.

     Frank began stealing nail files from local drugstores and supermarkets. Some had elegant dark plastic handles; some had fancy shapes and unusual colors. Over several months, Frank had amassed over forty different nail files which he stored in various concealed spaces in his room: under his bed, at the back of a clothes drawer, between the pages of books. That way, if his parents or the police ever intruded and stole some of his files, he would have plenty more within reach.

     As soon as his old files started wearing out, Frank would steal new ones. But he saved the old ones. Not only would throwing them out seem dishonorable, he had a vague sense that the more nail files he wore out, the more advanced a being he became.

     As one might assume, Frank's nails were typically quite short. Occasionally his craving for the act of filing was uncontrollable, and he filed his nails until his fingertips and toes bled. One evening he filed the nails on his right foot so passionately that all five toes bled; the pain was excruciating, and for three days he had an obvious limp. He claimed to his mother that he had injured his ankle playing football at school. The shameful truth was that he had quit the football team, since the sight of the other boys' unfiled, dirty nails repulsed him.

     Surprisingly, his relationships with girls were enriched by his strange fascination. He would see girls sitting together in the lunch room filing their nails, and totally unable to restrain himself, he would run over and begin firing off questions about their nails. On one unfortunate occasion, he glimpsed a jade-handled nail file a girl named Sharon had bought as a souvenir in Thailand; for a moment he was transfixed, staring with watery eyes at the green, glistening file. Then, emitting a soft growl, he snatched it from her hand. He refused to give it back until the principal threatened him with suspension. Later, Sharon agreed to sell him her jade-handled file for sixty dollars. Whenever he saw her after that he urged her go back to Thailand and get more, promising her hundreds of dollars -- even sexual favors -- in exchange for more exotic Asian nail files.

     To try to get his nails to grow faster, Frank began devouring huge quantities of calcium. He stole calcium supplements made from oyster shells at a local health food store, and consumed several thousand times the daily recommended allowance of calcium.

     Yet, to his horror, his nails seemed to be growing slower and slower. His appetite for the act of filing them could not be satisfied by any other activity, however, and eventually he developed large, ugly scabs on all his fingertips and toes. He began wearing leather gloves all the time to conceal his self-inflicted deformities. When his mother inquired about this odd fashion, he barked at her, "Duh, Mom, it's the latest thing. All the kids are wearing them."

     The week in which Frank's scabs aged and decayed off his fingertips was a profoundly difficult time for Frank, since he could not file his nails at all. He spent hours every day praying for his fingers and toes to heal quickly and fully. Unable to sleep at all, he meditated throughout the night, trying to send positive growth-vibes into his nails.

     For ten dollars, Sharon allowed him to come to her house while her parents were at work and file her nails. This was a disaster; at one point Sharon announced, "Ow! Okay, you're done. Stop." But Frank seized her wrist and refused to stop filing. A struggle ensued, in which Frank, like a crazed animal being robbed of its food, began slashing at Sharon's hand with the nail file. Desperate and enraged, he plunged the pointy-tipped metal file through her hand. Seeing her blood, hearing her screams, Frank raced out of the house, terrified at his own depravity.

     When Frank was finally able to break away the scabs, he nearly lost his mind: his fingernails and toenails had completely vanished. He had no more nails left at all.

     For several weeks Frank was full of hopeless despair; he walked about in a daze, murmuring to himself incoherently. He spent huge amounts of time huddled in bed, sucking his fingertips, clutching at his toes, and weeping.

     His tears flowed so copiously that his eyelids became intensely sore, and slightly swollen. Staring at them in the mirror, Frank made an astounding discovery: nails were growing out of edges of his eyelids. A confused rush of feelings engulfed him: he felt at once overjoyed, that the gods had granted him an unforeseeably strange gift; and yet he was also horrified, for what if he resumed his filing hobby on these nails, and they, too, disappeared? Where would they reappear? His eyelids were very close to his brain; what if his eyelid-nails vanished then regrew inside his head, tearing apart his brain tissues?

     While Frank struggled with this dilemma, he vigorously resisted the urge to file his amazing new nails. They grew longer and longer, and he had to wear sunglasses to hide them from his family. Finally, he could not see past them at all, and he began bumping into walls and tables.

     Sitting sightlessly at his desk one morning, Frank was unable to see his mother walk up and reach out for his sunglasses. Snatching them off his face, she screamed.

     While his mother guided Frank by the hand through the halls of the city hospital where she hoped a doctor would hack them off, she ran into one of her old sorority sisters from college. Blushing with shame, and with obvious reluctance, she introduced him.

     "This is my son, Frank. He went blind a few days ago from filing his nails too much."

Tales of the Asp
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