This may be the shortest piece I have ever written. And oddly, one of the most satisfactory.
I envy writers who can create flash fiction on a regular basis. There’s just something amazing about an idea so neatly encapsulated, and getting the reader in and out.
The comic book mentioned in this flash piece was real, part of a collection that traumatized me. I wasn’t really allowed comics as a kid—not because the stories were objectionable, but because I read them too quickly and I think my parents were frightened of giving me an appetite for comics. They thought they’d be better off giving me an appetite for actual books. (Ha! Scholastic book club taught them the error of their ways… Man, I miss Scholastic Book Club.)
But I ended up with a friend’s collection of comics. Well, hers weren’t Archie, or Spider-Man, or detective stories. They were horror comics.
There was a story about a devil-possessed girl who was terrifyingly fuchsia-colored beneath her blond pigtails as she tortured things with knives. There were ghouls creeping out of the graveyard, eating people. There was the inevitable story about an actor playing a vampire who ran into a real vampire. With PICTURES. (That was what really tipped me into nightmare land. Art is scary, y’all!)
Then there was the story referenced in Things Underneath—a tale that encompassed body horror, identity horror, zeitgeist horror, and conspiracy horror in a few short pages.
Thanks, Tracy! Thanks a lot!
I never forgot the meat of that comic, and my narrator hasn’t either.
There was a comic I read once, a long time ago on the sly. It was a story about a boy who thought he knew what life looked like, what his family looked like, what the world itself looked like. Of course, he was wrong. There was something in the water, something that kept the hideous truth from them all, kept them content. He found this out, had his face rubbed in it by purists, and after he realized it was true, he ran home and gulped down the treated water. Illusion was preferable. Oblivion was better and he forgot.
I think it happened.
We forgot. Not that we fought a war, were bent by a radioactive battle we lost before we can remember, but that illusion can become de facto reality if enough of us believe it.
I’m pink and soft with the requisite bones and blood, but sometimes, when I lie still in the dark, before sleep blankets me, sometimes then I can feel it under my skin, the motion of ropy muscle that moves differently. And I remember, or imagine, my skin stretched open, beyond the flesh and sometimes there is something else. Grey and lumpy, oiled and wrinkly, with sparse hair thrusting out of the skin like cilia. That’s what I look like. Underneath.
A creature of something, hiding for some reason that eludes me now, caught up in the illusion of flesh and humanity, of working and dating, of eating and dancing. It tickles my skin in shivery reminders, in dreams.
I’ve been thinking about it and I have an idea. Suppose we were here first, more of us, and they came, the humans and almost erased us like a text gone wrong. Suppose we hid from them, first in the borrowed skins of our enemies, and then learned to build our own.
Sometimes, I see the alien thing in someone else, and I think, “Ah, there we are, here we are, we are everywhere.”
Suppose that’s true. Suppose that was our plan, told to our parents parents parents beyond memory. Hide and be like them. Control them. Seize them. Suppose the final command got lost along the way. Or we did. And we’re waiting for someone to let us know that we’re ready for whatever comes next.
But I don’t know and I can’t be sure. Maybe we practiced our illusion too well. The people I’ve taken to the bone, none of them were grey underneath. Or at least, not when I was looking.
Maybe there aren’t many of us at all. Maybe we’ve been abandoned and lost, and there are only a few of us hiding here. But maybe we won. We became every living thing and we just can’t see past our own illusion.
I don’t know. I only think that maybe someday, maybe soon, we’ll just unzip our skins and there will be rejoicing.