Final Friday Fiction – Things Underneath

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.

 

Things Underneath

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.

Final Friday Fiction – Things Underneath

The Book Resists Reading

The Book Resists Reading

You’re left the book in your uncle’s will, not singularly, but part of his collection. Not so many books really, a single car load, hatchback crammed full, axles protesting. A lot all at once, but it’s not like you could start a store with them.

The executor—your oldest cousin—blushes, embarrassed that this is your share, but you don’t mind. You like books, and though money is always nice, there wasn’t much of that. The dirty books leave itching streaks on your forearms and sandpaper your fingerprints.

At home, it takes you a dozen slow trips to unload your car, walking while scanning titles beneath the dust. You wanted an itemized list, but your cousin never made one.

You pass a pleasant afternoon, dusting and slotting your uncle’s collection into your own shelves of unread books. His books are things you’d never have selected on your own—obscure philosophers, questionable autobiographies, religious tracts bound in cheap leatherette warning about witchcraft, pamphlets about mysterious artifacts with even more mysterious powers.

One particular book draws you. It’s faded and dusty, bound in green leather, its title indecipherable, stamped letters blurred by time and pressure. Your hand lingers on its spine.

You read alphabetically. This book, with its unreadable title that might begin with an ornate S, is for later. The book reminds you of a journal.

You love old journals, that slow creep into someone else’s thoughts. The pages cling together, reluctant to part. You set the book down to mix up a mister of alcohol and water to clean the pages. When you come back, the cats have avalanched all your piles of books into one heap. By the time you think about the book again, you’ve mislaid it somewhere in the mess.

Your uncle died with a book in his hands.

You wonder, which book was he reading? Not the kind of question you can ask. Even if your cousins knew, asking would be insensitive. His death was sudden and surprising.

When you move apartments, you lose the book. You find it again when you clear a room preparing to paint. You set the book beside your bed, and it’s gone in the morning. You find it dead center beneath your bed a week later when you sweep. It’s in your hand. The phone rings.

You carry the book and race to the phone, and sometime during the long call, you mislay it. When you retrace your steps, the book is nowhere to be found.

You notice, of course you notice. There are only so many times you can lose something. And you wonder, every time you pick up a different book, a consolation prize, what’s in the book.

You lose the book when you set it down to answer the door.

You lose the book when you need to answer a few emails.

You lose the book while doing laundry.

You lose the book.

In the midst of a search, you try to tally the losses, but they rapidly reach triple digits. You start tallying possibilities instead.

The book might be attractive to your cats. Though you smell only dust and paper, a faint hint of smoke, who knows what your cats smell. Maybe they’re the ones moving the book, driving a maddening taste before them.

The book could be moving itself; stranger things happen. Rocks sail across Death Valley. Surely a book slicked with dust could sail itself around a small house.

The book could be full of information so dense and so powerful that the book might work like some kind of magnet, propulsive, repulsive in equal measures.

The book could be waiting for the right reader. And you’re not it. You try not to think about that too much. There’s a rejection you’d never get over.

The book could be the journal you think it is, but its pages might still be writing itself. Maybe it’s your journal, and the end page will end you. All biographies end with a death. And your uncle is dead.

The book could be magic. Not that you believe in magic; you’re too old, too tired to believe. Except if anything could be magic, it would be a book, wouldn’t it?

Embarrassed, you think the book could just be a book. It’s not like you’ve never mislaid a book before. Two just this past month, one fatally lost, left on the bus. One, you left in the freezer. But you found that one, minutes later, backtracking.

You find the book behind the shelves.

You find the book atop the refrigerator, blood warm with reflected heat.

You find the book beneath the stairs, shrouded in cobwebs.

You find the book in the piano bench, amongst the pages of Pavane for a Dead Princess.

You find the book in the patch of rue in your garden.

If you’ve had it in your hands so often, why haven’t you been able to read it? Books are created to be read. Cat and mouse for months now.

You find the book.

You find the book.

You find the book.

The book flexes in your hands, the pages fluttering against your fingers like frantic moths, a panicked heart-beat. By now, you’d expect nothing less. Yours is beating just as fast. You part the spine, press the page flat, and begin to read.

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The Book Resists Reading