This story was orignally written in July 2020 for the KSP Writer’s Centre “Spooky Stories” anthology, the theme for which was was ‘beneath‘. While I was very happy with this story, I eventually submitted something much creepier–which ended up scoring a place in the anthology.
You can find out more about KSP publications, including the abovementioned Beneath anthology, over on their site.
(5 minute read)
We tell ourselves so many little lies.
That cough? It’s your lungs getting ready to give up and suffocate you. That fresh pain in your back? Cancer chewing away at one of those juicy organs. The way you can’t remember the phone number of the house you grew up in any more? Dementia.
Then you have a fit of what we used to call common sense.
You’re coughing because the air is dry. Your back is sore because you haven’t taken a break in three hours and your body isn’t as forgiving as it was twenty years ago. You don’t remember your old phone number because you haven’t needed to remember it in decades.
So many little lies.
You haven’t got the virus. You’re just numb because … because … because—well, you’ll think of something.
Another little lie.
I hold the scalpel in my right hand. I look at the skin of my left arm. I’m sure it won’t hurt. Much.
Nichols begged us to do it, to cut into him. Back when he was still able to talk to us. When his own fingers had stopped working.
My fingers feel like I’ve been punching ice blocks. It’s just the cold, that’s all. We turned the heating off: it stops the spread. Slows everything down.
That’s what we told ourselves.
It didn’t work for the others. We did it too late. They stare at me, their eyes accusing: you waited too long. Look at us. Look at what you did to us. I can’t look at them. I can’t look at those empty eyes knowing they’re somewhere still inside there. Unable to move, unable to speak, unable to do anything. Trapped and terrified. Something has stolen their bodies, but it left their minds alone.
It’s not happening to me, I can’t let it. It’s not happening.
I’m numb because it’s so cold, that’s all. The cold that’s going to save me.
It’s just going to make it take longer …
It was Nichols who worked it out. It gets in under your skin. Down through the pores. If you look hard enough you can see it moving. Twisting and turning under the flesh, trying to work out what it can do with this new meat. I stared at his arm as he screamed at me to take the scalpel to it. His mouth still worked, but the rest of him was already being taken. He couldn’t see what I could see. The writhing and wriggling pushing up from inside his arm. But it wasn’t just one. Once it gets inside you it grows, it multiples, it becomes more. I couldn’t cut it out. I couldn’t. If I let it out, it would get me.
Nichols screamed at me until his mouth stopped working. Then it just hung there, open. Slack and empty. His eyes, staring at me, pinned me with their blankness.
I had to take my glove off to hold the scalpel. I rub my fingers against its surface, feeing the raised indents of the grip. The row of straight lines carved into the surface. The smooth, cold metal. Is it the metal that’s cold, or is it your fingers? Can you still feel it, or are you just remembering what it should feel like?
I stare at my arm. There’s something moving underneath the skin. No, it’s just the light moving, the fan over my head playing tricks. The shadow of my veins sliding to the left, and and back; to the left, and back. An ever repeating pattern, broken only by the soft pulsing of something creeping beneath my skin. Something moving, finding a home.
It’s just the light.
It’s just the blood in your veins.
I put the glove back on, even though the loss of sensation it inflicts upon me is terrifying. I have to see. I have to know. I go back into the infirmary, ignoring the eyes. There’s Fischer, under the sheet, the first to go. We didn’t realise until later that he wasn’t dead, but we left the sheet over him anyway. None of us wanted to look into those eyes. None of us wanted him to see us.
Look at me! This is what’s coming to you. Oh yes, just wait. You can’t escape it. It’s already in the air! It’s already in here, getting under your skin!!
I leave the sheet in place.
I keep my eyes down as I walk past Anderson. She sits in the chair, waiting for the cure that Nichols never found. She looks so calm I almost expect her to start talking to me: How’s it hanging, Jones? Think that southern corridor’s gonna hold up another season? Think your body’s gonna hold up? Can you feel it creeping around under there. I bet you can. Oh, I bet you can. You wanna know what it feels like? Want me to tell you how it fee—
I look away from her.
Nichols still lies on the table, arm outstretched. His mouth hangs open, ready to continue screaming at me. I focus on his arm, the skin rising and falling, something beneath it twisting and turning. I grab the scalpel
—can you feel it? Can you feel—
and I cut into Nichols’ skin. It splits easily for me and I see them: tangled in the red sinew of his flesh. Grey. Almost colourless. Repulsive in their unnaturalness. Weaving in and out. Taking away everything that made Nichols a person, and turning him into an empty vessel.
Are they inside you?
I touched Nichols. I touched his arm. They get in through the pores. Are they in me too?
Can you still feel your hand?
I wriggle my hand inside my gloves, observing with horror the way the surface of the glove pulses and throbs just like Nichols’ skin. I tear the glove away and stare at the skin, prodding at it with my finger. It feels … it feels …
Can you feel it? It’s so cold in here. So numb …
Veins pump. Muscles twitch. It’s all perfectly normal. Am I about to cut my arm open for nothing? I’ll just see flesh, blood and muscle when I do it. Nothing else. Nothing else.
Just little lies.
Just one small cut.
Just enough to see. Enough to know.
I take the scalpel. I can hardly feel it. The distant pressure of something solid against my freezing skin. I grip the handle, curling my hand into a fist so it doesn’t fall from my fingers. I hold the blade against my skin. I breathe, telling myself there’s nothing under there, telling myself it won’t hurt.
You can’t feel anything anyway.
And I start to cut.
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