1.10.06

Sunday Scribblings: A Story About Skin

And Sunday Scribblings did declare: skin.

We like to imagine that our skin is an impermeable barrier between 'us' and the world outside our bodies, that we are completely self-contained. Which is silly on so many levels.


Under Your Skin

I watch through the spy hole as the soldiers come back down. Pressed up against my door, cold wood against my cheek, for some reason I barely dare to breath. They're still wrapped up completely in black gas-masks and thick gloves, strange canisters strapped to their backs that seem to be part of some sort of spray. Pesticide perhaps. Maybe they've sprayed the flat and wiped out all the parasites. Perhaps there weren't any to start with. All I know is that some guy came running down the stairs this morning screaming that there were parasites in his flat. I grabbed my phone right away and dialled zero, zero, zero. The soldiers turned up, and now they're leaving. The stairs creak under their collective weight. Otherwise, everything is quiet.

I'm tempted to open the door and ask them what's going on. But something holds me back. Anyway, if something important was happening, if the building was being evacuated for example, they'd tell us. Instead they seem to just be leaving. Everything must be okay.

As the last soldier disappears down the stairs, I move to the window and wait. After a while I see them emerge onto the courtyard below, filing out in step, climbing back onto their truck and driving off. I look around to see if anything has changed outside. It hasn't. More accurately, it changes so slowly that I don't notice it. The grey building opposite was once bright white. The gardens flanking the street were once dominated by neat, colourful flowers rather than dull, unruly weeds. They didn't become that way overnight.

I hear something out on the landing and race back to the spy hole. A young woman is creeping up the stairs. She's small and pale, bespectacled and dowdily dressed. Her unwashed black hair is tied back in a loose ponytail. I've seen her around the building before, like a quiet ghost. I remember she smiled at me a few times.

She peers up the stairs cautiously.

After a moment's consideration, I unlock the door. She turns towards it and looks a little embarrassed. I undo the bolts and chain and peel away the duct tape covering the gaps between the door and the frame. As I open it I suddenly wonder what I look like. I try to always look presentable, even though this woman's is the first human face I have seen in weeks.

"They've gone," I say.

"Oh," she says. "Do you know what happened?"

I shake my head. "Some guy thought he had parasites in his flat. The soldiers came and went. Beyond that, I don't know."

She looks a little sheepish. She's extremely pale and she rubs her stomach absently.

"Are you okay?" I ask, wondering if she has parasites.

She nods. I start to close the door.

"I'm really hungry," she blurts out. "I have nothing to eat."

I freeze for a moment. Then I open the door wide again. "Come inside," I say.

She smiles apologetically and walks into my flat. I close the door behind her, lock it, close the bolts and chain and smooth the tape back down over the gaps. When I turn around she's examining my place. I can't even remember the last time someone other than me laid eyes on it.

"It's nothing special, but it's home," I say to her back. "I was still moving in when all this happened."

All I have are a few pieces of furniture, an old TV and a load of books. I've read most of them twice.

She looks at my computer - green screen flickering beneath a hood of shiny white plastic. "You work from home," she says.

"Who doesn't these days?"

"Me," she says quietly.

"No wonder you're hungry. You just have the emergency rations? Well, they always seem to give me too much. I've eaten already, but you can have some of my leftovers. I really wish I had something better to offer you than cold chicken."

She turns to face me. The left lens in her glasses is cracked; it casts rainbow patterns over her cheek. "No," she says, "that sounds lovely."

She eats on her lap in front of the television. I sit next to her, trying to remember how to behave with another person. To start with she's self-conscious. She offers me some, but I remind her that I've already eaten. As she starts to nibble at it, though, her appetite takes hold and she's soon gulping it down. I watch spellbound, barely paying attention to the babbling television. I eat three meals a day, so you'd think I'd be pretty used to it. But somehow, watching another person do it is fascinating.

Eventually the plate is empty. She mops up some butter with her finger and licks it clean. I'll hardly need to wash the plate up. She thanks me in the kindest terms and I leave the plate in the kitchen.

Now we're still sitting side by side on the sofa. We glance at one another awkwardly and then look at the television.

The vertical hold is going. I get to my feet to slap the side of the television and the picture steadies, still flickering at the edges. I sit back down, bouncing the cushion beneath the woman, whose name, I realise, I still do not know. From the television screen, a man is facing us. He must be a scientist, because he's wearing a white coat.

"Sometimes you may find that someone in your life, perhaps even a friend or relative who you care for deeply, is asking you questions that make you feel uncomfortable. These question may ask you to reveal parts of yourself that you would rather not share, or they may make you examine your personal values or certainties. Perhaps it feels somewhat like they are trying to get into your head, or to force a change in your opinions."

He walks over to a whiteboard covered in a dense scrawl of complicated equations. "Perhaps that's not actually far from the truth. Government projections indicate that five percent of the nation's population have been subverted by dangerous Zeta Parasites from the southern continent. If you find that someone can't seem to stop asking questions - perhaps even yourself - remember to report it immediately by dialling zero, zero, zero. Help is only a phone call away."

The man in the white coat is replaced by a woman in a bikini. She mops her brow and turns to the camera as if addressing a friend. "Every parent knows how difficult is it is to get enough vitamin Q into their kids-"

The vertical goes again and no amount of banging will bring it back. I turn the television off instead, a little embarrassed. "It's been on its last legs for a while now," I tell her.

"Well, there's nothing on anymore anyway," she says with a smile that seems forced. "It's all parasites and adverts."

"Oh, um, I'm Ashley, by the way."

"Rhea," she replies.

Somehow we end up shaking hands, rather limply. It's not like we met just this second. We start laughing.

"I can't remember the last time I laughed," Rhea says. "I think all this time alone has made me a little peculiar. It's been months since I last spoke to anyone. I'm surprised that I know how. Well, I suppose I have been speaking to myself. I know that you'd think that everyone does it, but I never used to. When I started I thought that maybe I'd finally gone crazy. But it made me feel a lot better. I try to keep as quiet as I can though. If you make too much noise someone ends up dialling zero, zero, zero. But listen to me, I can't shut up for five seconds, can I? Sorry."

"Keep talking. You're more interesting than the TV."

"Now that you put me on the spot, I don't know what to say."

"Will you stay for dinner?"

"Okay."

*

The vertical has really gone this time. I can't see anything, but I can hear what they're saying.

"So what should you do if a swarm of Zeta Parasites is trying to enter your home?"

"It's important to seal up all the little nooks and crannies that could serve as entry points. It's not enough to just lock your door - you have to block up any gaps around it. Preferably with strong adhesive tape, but failing that with towels or even clothing. That goes for your windows as well.

"If the Zeta Parasites get into your home they'll attempt to force their way into your cranial cavity, where they'll take over your brain and change things to their liking. The people that you love today, you might not love the next day. Your opinions and beliefs would be subverted. You might convert to a different religion. You might even find yourself voting for a different political party.

"If you believe that there are Zeta Parasites in your home it would be best to put an end to your own life, as well as that of anyone else under the same roof, including pets."

"But you do have one last piece of advice for us, don't you?"

"Absolutely. And that is to not be afraid. If we're afraid, then the Zeta Parasites have already won."

"Thank you very much."

"You're welcome."

"I should tell you," Rhea says over the phone, "sometimes I think that I'm a Zeta Parasite."

"How do you mean?" I ask. I can hear that she's watching the same show as me.

"Sometimes… I think that I'm a little worm or bug that burrowed into the real Rhea's ear and took over her brain. Up until that point, I was just a bug, so I didn't really know anything. But once I was in Rhea's head, once I'd destroyed her consciousness and taken on all her memories and personality traits, suddenly I had self-awareness. I looked around and thought: 'What happened? How did I end up here? Why am I trapped in this little flat by myself with nothing to do but read the same books over and over and watch horrible television shows? Why do I feel ill at the prospect of reading my favourite book for the umpteenth time? Why have all my habits and feelings changed? Why am I so frightened of everything?'"

She stops speaking and I gather my thoughts. The television tells me how to eliminate grey hairs, fast. "I think you just don't have anything to think about except things that don't matter. I'll lend you some more books."

"Thank you," she says shyly. "Oh, and, I was wondering if, maybe, you'd like to go on a picnic?"

I don't understand. "What do you mean?"

*

"I like to sneak up here sometimes. It makes me feel a little less crazy. Like I can really relax when I'm up here. But sometimes you see a helicopter and I think it's better to go inside then."

We're on the roof. The whole town is spread out around us: dirty, blocky buildings and empty, rubbish-strewn streets. Everything is silent. We move like we're in a holy place, whispering under our breath. The sky is a wet, light grey colour. We set down a blanket on the damp tarmac and start eating. It's cold. We keep our hands in our sleeves, holding our sandwiches with just the tips of our shivering fingers. We laugh at how silly we look.

"I'm so glad we started to talking to one another," Rhea says.

I nod and take another bite.

"But sometimes you make me feel bad about myself."

I swallow. "I do? I don't mean to."

She looks off into the sky. "No, I don't mean it's something you do, I mean, when I'm with you I think about all my bad habits, all my peculiarities and flaws. I pick my teeth when I eat, I pick my nose when no-one's looking, I shed hairs like a cat - I'll probably be bald in ten years, I'm selfish, I always have to get my own way and I'm a really jealous person."

"I don't think we'll have to worry about that last one."

She attempts a laugh and then shrugs it off. "I just know that, eventually, I'm going to end up getting under your skin. You seem to really like me now. But maybe tomorrow you'll notice what I'm really like, inside, and you'll start to find me annoying."

"I'd rather be annoyed than alone," I say, brushing her greasy hair back from her face.

She flinches as I touch her skin for the first time. Then she shrugs and smiles lopsidedly.

"I think it's starting to rain," I add.

"Let's stay out here a little longer," she says.

I nod, glad.

4 comments:

commongal said...

This is an excellent piece of work and it held me throughout. Beautiful -- especially the part about watching someone else eat.

The description of the environment feels eerily close to home these days. I can see us all working from home, grateful for our food. Pretty much, except for my cats, that's me now. I eat incessantly lately.

Michelle said...

Somehow I think you already know that the US has been invaded by Zeta Parasites...

As always, enjoyed your story.

tinker said...

Pacian, you've made me want to read more about this post-apocalyptic world...oh, wait - the newspaper should be here soon...

You know, you're a darn good writer. Are there any science fiction magazines left anymore? (I never see them on the newstands in my area now and I used to love reading them). But if there are any left in the rest of the English-speaking world, I think you should be submitting some of these scribblings of yours for publication.

Roadchick said...

This was oddly haunting...the fear/loneliness/uncertainty was palpable.

It gave the 'chick the shivers, just to think what the world would be like if it were true.

Great job!