You weren’t yourself, that night.
Usually, when you got back late, you went straight to bed. I’d wait for ten minutes or so, until you’d finished clattering about up there, then creep up the stairs and slip into bed beside you. And then lie awake, staring at the ceiling. Listening to the clock. Tick. Tock. Trying not to wonder where you’d been, and with whom, and what you might’ve got up to.
But that night, you turned up at the kitchen door. The kitchen wasn’t your natural habitat, at any time of the day, and, on top of that, you were staring at me as if you didn’t know me. I scraped chopped parsley into a freezer bag, labelled the bag with the date, and put it into the freezer. Waiting. I rinsed and dried the knife, and slid it into the wooden block on the counter. Waiting.
Silence. Waiting for me to stupidly fill it.
Well, I wouldn’t, I told myself. I’d long ago stopped asking you where you went on nights like that. It would be the start of another pointless row; I just knew it. But I was worried, just a bit, by the odd way you were acting, and fed up, as well, with being stared at.
“Where’ve you been, all this time?”
“Driving.” Your eyes slid away from mine and roved across the room. A flicker of panic crossed your face.
“For five hours?” I shot back. “Since you got out of work?” Propping up some bar with your drunken banker mates, more like. London’s own loudmouthed, stumbling contribution to the cause of global financial instability. Only there was…something. I didn’t know what to make of it.
“I don’t remember,” you said, with a blank look that looked totally real. You took a couple of steps into the room. Your skin looked pale and clammy. “Saffie. I—”
And then your legs crumpled and you hit the floor.
They would keep you in overnight, they told me at the hospital. A near-terminal skinful of liquor, they said. Not in those exact words, of course. A young doctor with an earnest expression started in on a preachy lecture—a bit much, I thought, seeing as I wasn’t the one who was drinking. It wasn’t my fault, either. I just wanted to go home. How many units of alcohol did you consume, typically, in a week? Blah, blah, blah. How exactly would I know? I was never there.
I smiled: “I can pick him up tomorrow, then?”
You hated me driving you, so I got us a cab. We passed the journey back looking out of separate windows, not speaking. When we got home—we didn’t talk about it then, either, but what was there to say? Nothing that wouldn’t have led to an argument, and I was trying to put off the rows for as long as I could. You’d been told to take the next day off work but that day was a Friday. A long weekend. Great. We had enough trouble getting through a regular one.
It went okay at first, though. No rows, at least. But something was bugging you. Something you wanted to tell me. You couldn’t settle. Up and down, to and fro, switching the TV on and off, fixing yourself drinks you for once didn’t want—get it out, I thought. Don’t keep me in suspense. Just get it over with.
But you wouldn’t talk about it, whatever it was. Not until the Sunday afternoon, with work looming the next day, when suddenly, out of the blue—
“Something happened,” you said. “You won’t believe it.”
Most likely not. I waited to hear what you’d come up with. You sat on the sofa, your face turned away, rocking back and forth. You had your arms crossed over your stomach, as if it hurt. And then you began your story.
A blinding light on the road, you said. A car, you’d thought. You’d swerved to avoid the oncoming car. You’d thought you were going to die. But there was no car, only the light. A brilliant white light. The light was all around you. You hadn’t known where you were. You’d thought you might be dead—
Bitch, I’m a bitch—I was mortified, because it seemed you’d really had an accident out there on the road. It was the catch in your voice as you told your story, and your face, bleached out as if you were still pinned in a blaze of headlights.
And then: “They came out of the light.”
They? Who? Paramedics? Angels? Given the look on your face, I was prepared for anything. Anything except for what you actually said, because these-they, your particular they, had been stick-thin bundles of spidery limbs. Their spindly fingers had cut you open. You’d looked down at your own organs, painlessly steaming red, into the raw hollow they’d cut into your belly, made ready for something—
You won’t believe it.
I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t believe I’d heard you say it, even. For one thing, this was Chalfont St Giles. Situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty, yet within convenient commuting distance of London. Or so the estate agent had banged on at us. Seven-figure price tags, and even though our house was down a digit, I was still lucky to be living there, in the Chalfonts, wasn’t I? Bloody boring as it was all day, it wasn’t Arizona, somewhere people lived in trailer parks in the middle of nowhere, and where unbelievable things like that could maybe happen.
“Here, right here.” You uncrossed your arms, sucked in your tummy, and pointed in the vague direction of your midriff. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
Who would? I waited for you to laugh. You didn’t. Your glare had dissolved into a watery-eyed confusion that looked real. Too real. I took a deep breath. What the hell, I figured. Down the rabbit hole. And you know what? It was a wonderful feeling of freedom. It was lovely. Crazy together.
I sat down beside you on the sofa and squeezed your hand.
It was the first time I’d believed you in years.
So, there I was, in a house in the Chalfonts. Six figures only, but aspirational, with a bespoke designer kitchen. And a husband who had been abducted by aliens. Who had most likely also been the recipient of an alien something.
Ha. Who would believe it? I did, it seemed.
They had come out of the light. Because oh, yes, there was a they. They were watching me. From time to time, your eyes would get a half-silvered glaze, as if I were being viewed through a camera. Click. Click. Click. They were in your head and in your dreams, too. At night, you thrashed about, and I had to take a pill to get to sleep. I wondered if it was the thing, the something inside you. Maybe you could feel it, squirming about. I wondered when you would change, and what you would do with me when you became one of them. It was exciting. But frightening, too.
Show me what you are, I willed at you. I’m not afraid, I promised. Even though I was: I thought I might drop dead on the spot if you began to peel off your skin, or if something all of a sudden upped and busted out of you.
Well, it wasn’t quite that dramatic. And I didn’t drop dead, obviously, though it gave me a heart-stopping jolt. No-one expects their world to be turned upside down while mopping up a bathroom. You’d just had a shower and had left the room in its usual steamy mess. I squinted into the mirror: water droplets had cut thin lines into the condensation, and in one of those cracks, an angular shape was unfolding. Coming out of the light. Coming up fast, close behind me—
It was you. Only you. Nothing about you had changed, yet. Or so I thought. You were wrapped in a bathrobe, a jar of hair gel in your hand. “I’m going out,” you said, as you pushed past me to get at the mirror.
“Going out?” It would be the first time you’d gone out after dark since the night you’d been taken. “Are you sure you should be driving?”
“I haven’t had a drink for a week,” you said. “As you bloody well know because you’ve been watching me like a hawk.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but instead I burst out laughing. You stared at me. But I couldn’t help it. In that moment, I loved you the way you’d always been. The way you still were. You were you, only you, and I was light-headed with relief. On impulse, on tiptoe, I stretched up and brushed my lips against yours.
“What’s the matter now?”
I’d jumped back like a startled cat. But who would blame me? Below your ribs, another pair of hands had reached out for me, straining against the underside of your skin, long-fingered hands that were all knucklebones, squeezing their way up between nameless, slippery organs.
You glared at me. I lowered my eyes. I’d let you down, flinching away like that, I knew. But it wasn’t that I’d been repelled by you. It was just the shock of it, coming out of nowhere like that. I ‘d been scared, confused—
“I’m going out,” you repeated.
And you did, taking the car and arriving back well after midnight. I was wide awake, but pretended to be asleep. I didn’t want to know where you’d been.
Tick. Tock. I listened to the clock until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I went to the bathroom, swallowed one of my pills, and finally fell asleep for real.
I was woken up later by a light. A stripe of moonlight cut across the pillow, through a gap between the curtains. It was strange it had woken me; the pills made me sleep like the dead. My skin tingled, and I think I knew, then, what was outside. The light gave your skin a grey, metallic sheen. I imagined your new limbs twitching under your ribcage, straining to get free. So strange. So beautiful.
I rolled out of bed and pulled back the curtains. I was right: it wasn’t the moon that had woken me; the light that streamed into the room was cold and white but brighter than the sun. They had come for me, too. I wasn’t scared. Not at all. I was ready. I wanted it to happen; I wanted to change, like you. I ran downstairs but by the time I got out into the garden there was only a pale disk in the sky.
They didn’t want me. Only you.
Days went by. They didn’t come back. And you were going away. Every day you became more distant. I thought about what had happened in the bathroom. If it had been a test, I had failed it. But next time, I wouldn’t. I just needed to know a bit more about what to expect. And so—aliens, alien abduction…I used the computer upstairs. Your home office, so-called. You didn’t do much actual work up there, but you had a desktop with a big screen, and I wanted a good look at whatever the internet had to offer. Which was crap, basically. Pie-plate spaceships from some decades-old movie. Plastic aliens with rubbery innards. No help there, at all.
All the time I was searching I kept an ear open for a sound on the stairs. You’d never actually forbidden me to use the room, but it was still kind of a no-no. Your man cave. But you were downstairs watching a movie. It was okay, I told myself.
Of course, it wasn’t.
The next day, I’d got back from shopping and was hanging up my coat in the hall when I heard your voice upstairs.
You were laughing.
I felt sick. I began to climb.
I crossed the landing, my heart banging against my ribs. The door of your office was part-open. You were still laughing and it was that full-throated laugh you reserved for the guys from work. I made myself take a step closer. So, you were laughing. So what? You could be laughing about anything.
“I was hammered,” you said. “Well out of it. The next day—nothing. Blanko. Well, a couple of flashes. I think I might’ve had an accident driving back—a near miss, anyhow. It was a scare, I’ll admit. Put me off the sauce for a while. Hadn’t been that ratted since—well, you remember.”
You. I knew who. Harry Kennedy. King Harry. A braying ass with a red carpet welcome at every watering hole from Fenchurch Street to Broadgate. One more step and now I could see you at your desk. Over your shoulder, I could see a portion of the screen. Blue sky. A shiny, pie-plate saucer against a cloudless blue sky. You and that bastard Harry Kennedy. Laughing at me.
Or maybe it wasn’t Harry Kennedy. Maybe it was a girl. Some business-bitch from the office, wagging her tight little arse in her tight little suit, or maybe something cheaper and trashier you’d picked up in a bar somewhere.
“Woke up in the hospital,” you said. “Got a bollocking over my drinking. I knew I’d get the same, later, from Saffie. Only I didn’t. I waited. And waited. I was fed up. So…it was the accident I’d had—nearly had—that gave me the idea. It was a joke, a wind-up. But now…now…”
I leaned against the door frame. I felt dizzy.
“Now, Saffie thinks I was taken away by aliens. Yes.” You gave a great snort of laughter. “No, really. She’s collected all of this crap—” You clicked from tab to tab. “I’ll mail you the links. It’ll kill you. And then, a couple of nights ago—”
I couldn’t listen. I couldn’t not.
“I woke up and she was wasn’t there. But I thought I could hear something, outside. I got up and looked down into the garden and there she was on the lawn, flapping her arms about and shouting at the moon. I think she thought there were spacemen up there. I saw a light go on, next door—”
I couldn’t bear it.
As quietly as I could, I retreated down the stairs, picked up my bag and fled the house, not really caring where I went, as long as it was away from you.
I ended up at the Costa on Up Corner. Through the café window, I watched the people go by. A grey-haired man with a tartan scarf and a dog in a matching tartan coat. He didn’t know. Two ponytailed girls, shoulder to shoulder, staring down at their phones, ignoring each other. Nor they. Nor that little bitch you’d been banging and had been talking to on the phone. Nor any of the people in any of the cars that passed me by, nor anywhere in the world beyond us.
We had a secret, you and I. Only, you’d managed, somehow, to run away from it. To turn the truth into a lie. I swallowed down the remains of my cappuccino and got up to go. You’d been lying to me for years and now you were lying to yourself, as well. But I could help you with that, for sure.
I needed something to grind up my sleeping pills. I used the electric mill your mother had given us. It took me a while to find it, but it did a good job—two whole tablespoons, I got out of that box of pills. I dipped in a fingertip: no strong taste. Maybe a bit sour? Rhubarb crumble, then, I thought. Rhubarb crumble and custard. School dinner fodder you wouldn’t be surprised to see me pass on.
I passed. You dug in. You also opened a bottle of Rioja and went at it with a vengeance. I told myself it would help with the pills—it wasn’t as if I could stop you, and anyhow, I was right, because your voice began to slur before you were halfway down the bottle. Not like you, at all. I took a small glass for myself before you finished the lot, to blunt the edge of what would come later.
Here, right here.
Down there, on the kitchen floor.
You hit the floor like a log. Bang. I didn’t expect you to go that suddenly or that fast. And since then, not a squeak. I’ve got everything laid out. Not only knives. Anything sharp—even an apple corer because, well, who knows? I’m going to have to improvise.
I pick up a skewer, first. I slide it in, just below your rib cage, lifting and stretching the skin. I pick up my sharpest scissors. Snip. It’s not so bad. There’s not that much blood, really. I’m glad. I don’t want to hurt you—the other you, I mean. I just want to see inside.
Only, I don’t see you, yet. You’re hiding from me.
A knife, then, next. Now, it’s got messy, but that’s your fault for hiding. The knife goes up, down, left, right. My hands slip into a hot, loose wetness and fumble about. It’s your fault. I know you’re in there.
And then I see you.
Your new hands reach out for me, white as bone, many-fingered like the legs of a spider crab.
Don’t hide from me.
You are beautiful.
You are mine.
Image – Pixabay.com
10 thoughts on “Beneath Your Skin by Rose Banks”
I found this captivating and was drawn into the world of madness, where a ridiculous lie warps the mind. The turning point, the discovery that he is laughing at her, (she knew about his affair – that she tolerates), but it is the metaphor that somewhere inside of him was once the man she loved. Horror at its best.
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Excellent. Truly eerie, kept me reading, and the twist was fabulous. Great story.
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I thought I had this thing knocked three times during reading. Yet every time you found a way out of the seeming dead end pleasantly surprised me.
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Creepy! Made me look around the room, see if anybody was behind me, or peering through the window. Then down at my stomach as it rumbled……
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Creepy story! Well written, I like the theme of the husband’s deception leading to the protagonist’s madness…. a madness I think lurked all the time just under the surface, waiting for a trigger. I also found the piece rather funny in a black humour way. I’ve always liked Rhubarb crumble.
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I do like a deranged protagonist! This story skilfully builds to an exquisitely disturbing climax, enhanced by the effective use of the second person. An assured piece of writing. Well done!
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Thank you, Rose, for a lovely, creepy journey. Well done!
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Thank you, everyone, for your comments. Having a deranged and delusional protagonist made it a fun story to write, also. And yes, there was indeed some intentional humour in there – it’s rare for me to write anything without a bit of (most often dark) humour creeping in.
This follows itself beautifully. We have manipulation going to ridicule and ending with revenge. But there is more depth as there are questions on his overall treatment of her fuelling her behaviour.
This was dark, clever and the two characters were brilliantly drawn and entertaining to read.
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Late to the party but I just read this story today–it’s brilliant. Great job on developing the sense of dread and keeping the reader wondering about the reality of the situation.