Tag Archives: Body

I got this one just by being naked. It got me thinking about skin, and how weird it is. It clings to you, so soft and fragile, but crucial for your survival. A very useful organ, skin is, and none of you should ever take that for granted. Why, what would happen if the only way you could have skin was if you had to borrow it from other people? Actually, you don’t have to think about that, I already did. Enjoy!


Ben Pienaar


He didn’t remember being born. At least, not in any kind of visual way. He knew there was pain, though, lots and lots of pain. Sometimes he wasn’t even sure if he could still feel it, reverberating through his nerves like an echo, and he’d just grown numb to it.

Many other things were lost to him. His name, everything from the life he must have had before his birth. Truth told, he wasn’t particularly curious. Asking questions about the past was useless – after all, it couldn’t be changed. You just got on with it, lived by your instincts. He was what he was, and he was alive. That was the important thing. He was alive, and hungry to keep living.

Ray Barron was paranoid, but he’d never been diagnosed as schizophrenic. He liked to point that out to people, because there was an important distinction: he didn’t see things that weren’t there. ‘The things I see,’ he was telling the fat guy, Ernest Wells from next door, ‘The things I see, they exist. You understand? I was never diagnosed skitzo because they see pink elephants and shit, you know? Whereas the stuff I see, I mean regardless of what conclusions I drawn about it,’ he chuckled, ‘whatever I see is real. It was really there. Even my shrink admitted it.’

‘Uh, okay.’ Ernie was glancing up and down the hall in the let me out of here way that Ray was very accustomed to. Not that he cared – he thought it was funny. As long as the guy got the message he was sending to him, that was the important thing.

‘Point I’m trying to make here, Ernie. The guy moved in down the hall? Skinner or whatever he says his name is? He’s a shape shifter.’

He nodded and gave a knowing half smile and Ernie gave him an uncertain smile. ‘I see.’

Ray raised his eyebrows, a little annoyed. He was going out of his way to give this guy a pointer and he was just brushing it off like Ray was some retard. ‘Thing I’m trying to warn you about, and I told this to Angeline and Gary as well, he’s dangerous. See, he kills people, too.’

‘Oh, he does?’ Ernie made a show of checking his watch.

Ray decided to do his good deed for the day and try one more time to get through to the guy. ‘Listen,’ he said, leaning in closer to Ernie and eyeing the door to 126 at the same time. ‘I see that guy leave in the morning, sometimes afternoon, carrying a big briefcase really light, you know. I keep an eye out ‘till he gets back. Still the same guy, now the briefcase is heavy. With me so far?’

‘You think he has a body in the briefcase.’

‘I didn’t say that. I’m just telling you what I see, okay? You draw your own conclusions. Anyway, he goes into his room. I keep watching, because I’m a suspicious guy like that, right? He stays in there the whole time, then the next day I see a different guy leave the house. Sometimes a woman, with the same briefcase. Sometimes they don’t have a briefcase at all, and sometimes two people come back to the room, but not usually.’

‘I, uh, I’m not one hundred percent following.’

‘Let me finish, okay, here’s the weird part. I mean, we could be looking at just a social guy, right, brings home people now and again. So I’ll tell you the weird part. Sometimes, one of the people he’s brought back, I see leaving the next day with the briefcase. Now why would they do that? Why would his friends be doing his job for him, or whatever he does?’

‘Look, I don’t know Mr. ah, Barone? But I really gotta go. I have lunch with family and…’

‘You not listening? I’ll spell it out, buddy, and this is the only warning you get. The guy’s a shapeshifter, and he steals people’s bodies, maybe learns how to imitate them like in that movie The Thing. I’m on top of it, but I’m warning you to stay the hell out of this building for the next week. Or at least stay in your room and don’t answer the door to people you don’t know, I mean intimately, you get me?’

‘Uh, thank you Mr. Barone, I will definitely keep that in mind.’ He looked at his watch again and pushed awkwardly past Ray and into the hallway. ‘If you don’t mind, I’m getting late already now, so I’ll see you around okay, thank you for the, ah, the warning.’

And he was gone into the lift, giving an obviously fake wave and a smile before the doors closed in front of him. Ray stared back, deadpan. Just because he came off a little weird people assumed he had two and a half brain cells. They heard paranoid and added the rest in their minds. They didn’t think about what paranoia really was: awareness. He was aware, and they were not.

‘Yeah, late,’ He muttered to the empty hall. ‘Late to stuff your face with fifty fuckin burgers. Asshole.’

He called himself Skinner, when people asked. It was accurate, after all, and he found he smiled whenever he said the name – he had a sense of humour, it seemed. It was the kind of last name no one ever asked for a first – they just called you Skinner.

His instincts were basic, his directives straightforward, his whole life spread out plain before him, the way he imagined it was for an animal: survive, procreate, thrive, spread, and enjoy yourself along the way. Such simple needs, and so joyful to fulfil. It fascinated him how other people had invented so many other needs and desires and then depended on those inventions for their happiness.

Survival was sometimes hard, though. At the moment, he was looking out through the peephole in his doorway, and he could see the crazy guy from down the hall talking to the fat one, glancing his way often. He’d been onto Skinner’s case since day one, watching him at all hours, pretending to be crossing the hall to visit people whenever Skinner came and went, asking all his different skins about their lives, even watching him walk past through his own peephole. Despite the perfection of this residence, Skinner had already decided that he had to either get rid of him or move somewhere across town. There would be other places.

Skinner moved away from the door and into his apartment, his good mood ruined. Who knew what the creepy bastard was telling the others? Who knew what he was capable of? He shook the thoughts away as he passed through his bedroom and slid open the door to his bath. The mere sight of it, filled with blood (and a little hot water) sent chills up his body. He was far too dry already, some of his meat blackening and flaking on the surface.

He slid into the bath, letting out a hiss of relief through gritted teeth as the lukewarm blood engulfed him. It felt like heaven, an all-encompassing thirst quenched in full. Coming out of a bloodbath was like having a ten hour sleep, drinking three cups of coffee and taking a cold shower on a hot day all in one. All he needed was one a day, provided he could slip into a skin between baths.

When he did get out, dripping blood all over the tiles and not caring, the tub was only about a quarter full. He’d be able to use it one more time before he needed a refill, but that was fine. He hadn’t had trouble acquiring blood lately. He could take it from one of his procreation experiments. Offspring was easy to replace. Blinking in the dimness with lashless lids of pale flesh, he headed back out into the sitting room and checked the time on an old wall clock: six. The light against the window panes was dark blue, and the glint of moonlight on the glass gave him a jolt of excitement. It was time to get moving.

He went to his walk in wardrobe and pulled open the doors. It was chilled inside. In this apartment block that had been a hard thing to hook up discreetly, but he’d accumulated wealth very quickly over the years. The only reason he stayed in places like these at all was for the anonymity. This way he could live in places with high crime rates and low class citizens, people easy to snatch from the streets without having anyone come looking. One of the reasons the crazy guy pissed him off so much: a setup like this wasn’t easy to establish.

The robe was lined on all walls with meat hooks dangling from metal bars. On each hook hung a different skin, naked, the clothes for each person folded neatly and kept in a pigeonhole in the wall behind them. It would have been hard to make out the differences between the drapes of shapeless flesh, but Skinner had the memories to go along with each one. This one had a tattoo on the arm of a dragonfly, a young waitress he’d seduced wearing the skin of the young lawyer which hung opposite her. That one had a scar on the right leg, so he knew it had to be the scrawny teenager who was home alone. That one hung almost to the floor, so it was the fat guy, the one who’d taken so long to die.

In the end he chose a chef, the freshest skin and the only one he hadn’t used yet. He didn’t’ like to overuse any of the skins, in case police were watching him – though he was already working on that problem with his children. Still, it paid to be careful.

He lifted the skin from the hook and found the hole in the back, stepping into each leg and shivering with the cold of it. Once he got moving the skin would insulate him but he always shivered badly for the first ten minutes or so. He put each arm through the shoulders one at a time, his fingers wiggling at the ends, like putting on a long, wet glove. Finally, he pulled the face and hair over his head, massaging it into place and making sure his teeth were just behind the lips before he put his hands behind his back and began sealing closed the opening behind him, pressing the sides together and feeling them fuse closed with the aid of his natural excretions.

He checked himself in the mirror before he put on the clothes, turning slowly around and making sure the skin was on. There was a large Y shaped scar on his back where the opening was, but no one would see that. Besides that, the only signs that he was anything other than human were the way his eyes and mouth didn’t quite fit with the skin. The eyes were too small and narrow, so his pupils and irises looked too large, and his mouth looked too full of teeth. He smiled as wide as he could, showing too much gum, and judged that it wasn’t noticeable.

It was time to go.

Ray saw a chubby Asian man in a chef’s outfit leave room 126 carrying the large briefcase. Ray was watching through the tiniest crack in his door, so as soon as the Asian passed him he couldn’t see anything. He waited a few moments and then closed his door quietly.

Now why, why the fuck would a chef need that briefcase for anything? Ridiculous. Am I the only guy in the building with eyes, with brains? Shit. He slid into a sitting position, back against the door, and thought. There were three things he knew. One. The guy was a shape shifter. Two, he killed people. Three, he had to be stopped.

It was difficult to explain to a guy like Ernie, because he hadn’t seen what Ray had. He hadn’t seen how the party girl had gone into 126 the other night, drunk and falling all over the place, chewing gum, laughing too loud and talking incessantly, and he hadn’t seen her leave: cold eyes, smiling slightly, walking purposefully. She’d abandoned the high heels in favour of male shoes, and walked like a man. She hadn’t been herself, just like every other person that had left 126. How could you explain such a subtle but significant difference to a numbnuts like Ernie?

Ray closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose, in and out. His room smelled like mould and dust, an old smell but one he suddenly savoured.

What would the police say? He was a paranoid, but even if they didn’t know that, even if none of them knew who he was from the other half a dozen times he’d called them for shit that didn’t pan out… A shape shifter? Don’t say that. Say serial killer, or something. No. He knew it was useless without proof. And besides, there was a part of him that was curious to know whether it was all real or not. He saw what he saw, yeah, but… maybe this was just like all those other times? Maybe he was getting crazier. He had to know. If he could just know, then he’d call the cops in, anonymous.

‘Okay, Ray. Listen up. Proof’s in the room. He just left. Go in, see proof, call cops, get the fuck outta there. End of story.’

He nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. But what if he comes back early? What if there’s more than one of them in there?’

‘Right. Uh, okay. You take a big fucking knife. See him shift his way out of that, huh?’ he laughed, and couldn’t help but hear a bit of madness in it. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. It didn’t matter, as long as he trusted himself. He was just on reconnaissance, after all. Just look, don’t touch, then get out. Easy, easy.

‘Yeah, right. Get your shit together, Ray. You don’t know how long he’s gonna be. Best get started.’

The guy locked the door, but Ray could pick locks, especially these old ones. He’d bought the tools online, reasoning that it was an easy skill to learn and one that would surely come in use. They were always doing it in movies, anyway. The door clicked open after twenty or so minutes, but the hall was dead quiet and no one saw him. Skinner was usually gone for a few hours, so he had plenty of time. He slipped inside.

The place stank of blood. Ray had never really smelt blood before, but he knew it on a base, instinctive level, a heavy metallic smell that settled in the back of his throat. There was no furniture, and the carpet was a dark ratty brown covered in dark stains. Surely no one could live in a place like this. There was no fridge, and the kitchenette had no plates nor bowls. When Ray opened the cutlery drawer, he found it full of knives. They were all stained and razor sharp, ranging in size from a short flaying knife to a long, thick bladed butchers knife that could chop through bone. He looked from that one to the paring knife he held in his hand, then nodded to himself and tucked his into the back of his pants and took the other.

Across the room, a door stood half open, and Ray stared at it, wondering if he had the balls to keep going. Truth was, he should call the cops right now. They could wait for Skinner together and nail him. But no, there was time and much more to see here, and Skinner wouldn’t be back for a while. Besides, the rational side of him, the side that fought his paranoia, was urging him that the Skinner guy was just a drug dealer. That would explain the people going in and out all the time, and the old briefcases, and the state of the place. Surely this wasn’t an uncommon place for a heroin addict? As for the knives, maybe he was a cutter, one of those depressed people that had to hurt themselves to feel alive? Yeah, that could be it.

But the smell.

Ray shook his head and moved slowly into the adjoining room. His ears primed for the slightest sound. He pushed the door open and stepped into the musty dimness, his eyes taking in the rooms only inhabitants while his brain rushed madly to keep up with what he was seeing.

He had found Skinner’s children.

Skinner stared at the woman, leaning against an alley’s corner, skirt hitched up over a provocatively extended leg, fishnet stockings and a cigarette dangling between long red nails. She caught him looking and dropped the cigarette, grinding it out under her high heels.

A prostitute. Why hadn’t it occurred to him to add one of those to his collection? Now he thought of it, she could be the perfect tool – what better way to get prospective Skins alone, perhaps all the way into the safety of his own apartment? And to get money also, since her clients would always come prepared with plenty of cash? Her skin would be quite tight on him of course, may split here and there, but as long as she got them into the bedroom there would be no need to show them anything more than a gleaming blade.

He smiled at her, trying not to repeat the leer he’d seen in the mirror and, he suspected, failing. But she was coming towards him now, her heels tapping over the sidewalk, glancing casually down the street. The victim coming to him, and he’d barely gone a block from his apartment. This hunt was turning out to be too easy.

‘Hey there,’ she said, leaning against the concrete wall as she reached him. Her voice was put on, too deep and husky to be natural. She smelled like smoke.

‘How much?’ he said. He wasn’t sure how humans did this kind of thing yet, but he found the safest route, when in doubt, was to get to the point.

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Well you’re an eager beaver, huh? Guess that depends what you want.’ She looked him up and down, taking in his chef’s uniform. ‘Gonna cook me a meal after?’

He stopped smiling when he caught a familiar look in her eye. She’d already seen something different in his appearance, or his manner. He’d have to hurry this up before she got too freaked out. ‘Just normal. The usual,’ he said.

She shrugged, almost seeming disappointed. ‘Not a request I get often, but I’m not complaining.’ She gave a small smile, looked down the street again and folded her arms. ‘Three hundred.’


She raised her eyebrows and it occurred to him she had been expecting him to haggle, or refuse her. ‘I mean, two hundred.’

‘Two fifty.’

‘Okay, but it must be at my place.’

She gave him an uncertain look, but after a minute she nodded and said, ‘lead the way.’

They were lined up against the curtains, floating inside six large fish tanks that stood from wall to wall. They looked just like unborn foetuses, down to their curled up bodies and overlarge heads. They had no umbilical cords, and they had no skin. Ray could see the veins trailing along the surface of their raw meat flesh, pulsing with each heartbeat. Their lids were thin flaps, the pupils almost visible darting left and right in dream sleep. The liquid in which they floated was pale green tinged with red; each tank had a drip beside it feeding them what looked like blood.

‘What the… Jesus.’ He gagged on the chemical smell and put a hand out on the table beside him. It was the only other piece of furniture in this room, a large metal bed not unlike a surgeon’s table. It was covered in congealed and dry blood, and he pulled away as though he’d touched a hot stove. He closed his eyes, willing himself not to vomit.

When the feeling passed, he lifted his phone to his pocket. He had no idea what went on in here, but it sure as shit wasn’t legal. He got the operator and spoke, trying to sound as sane as possible.

‘What is your emergency?’

‘I need police. I was returning something to a guy in the apartment down the hall from me and his whole place is like a – a serial killer’s… there’s blood everywhere, there’s weapons. I found a dead baby. Please come quickly.’

He gave her the address and then hung up before she could ask questions. They’d come, he was sure of it, and as far as he was concerned, that was the end of the story for Ray Barron. Ray Barron had now done his part and he could return safely to his room and only emerge when the psychopath from room 126 was safely in custody, just long enough to tell them all ‘I told you so!’

The fear was pulsing through him in dizzying waves, and he was on the point of getting the hell out of there when a key turned in the front door lock and he froze beside the table, his mind a white sheet of terror. The knife was clenched tight in his fist but for the life of him he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it. He’d never thrown a punch at another human being, and the thing entering now was no human.

A woman’s voice came to him. ‘Oh, wow. Okay I get the price now. This place is…’

‘I know, I am sorry. Very old place, only just moved in, lots of cleaning to do.’

The second voice was Skinner, Ray was sure of it. He was putting on a Japanese accent to fit the body he inhabited but the tone was unmistakeable.

Ray looked around desperately for an escape and found it in the heavy metal door opposite the fish tanks. All he had to do was hide out until the police got here. He swung the door open quickly, praying the hinges weren’t rusty, and slipped inside. Thankfully, the voices in the next room drowned out whatever noise he made and he breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped back from the door.

It was ice cold in here, and a halogen light shone in the ceiling. Ray turned to see what new hell he’d stepped into here, and as his eyes fell on the hooks and the neatly hung skins that lined the walls, a scream welled up inside him. He held it down, but the horror around him pushed in on his mind, challenging his sanity.

In the end, only one thought saved him: the cops are coming, the cops are coming. He turned to face the door and raised the butcher knife with a badly shaking hand, his quick breaths steaming in front of him. The back of his neck prickled and itched, and he imagined the skins sliding from their suits and reaching for him with slack arms, boneless fingers curling around his neck and tightening, bodies weighing him down like wet blankets.

He shut his eyes tight and prayed.

Skinner gestured for the girl to go before him and she took two steps into the next room before she froze, her eyes stuck on his latest batch of children. She was reaching into her handbag for her mace, or tazer or whatever they held when he pushed his favourite skewering knife through the centre of her throat, grabbing a handful of her hair with his other hand to keep her head from going forward.

The blade was narrow at the tip and wide at the base, so it severed the top of her spinal cord and blocked her airway and jugular. Death came in a matter of choking seconds, her legs kicking involuntarily in the air as he lifted her up and carried her, knife still lodged in her throat and blood cascading down her body, to the skinning table.

He laid her out and left her to bleed, a bucket at the end of the tilted table to catch it all, and went into the kitchen to get the necessary tools. He was in good spirits, his face twitching and his tongue flicking out to lick his skin, a habit he had, used to being dry in the open air as he was. If he could get skins with such ease his collection would grow exponentially, and his children would have ever more suits to employ. Perhaps he could even start a separate collection of suits – doctors and nurses and even military. Faces to get his foot through coveted doors.

When he opened the cutlery drawer something strange tugged at his attention and he hesitated. Of course – the chopper was missing. It should have been right there in the middle of the drawer, but it wasn’t. Skinner looked up from the counter, his eyes narrowing. He inhaled deeply, but the chef’s nostrils were too inefficient, dulled.

He went back into the room with the operating table and, pulling the knife from the back of the prostitute’s neck, used it to open up his suit so he could step out of it. The slack skin pooled around his feet, he took another deep breath and this time the unmistakable aroma of intrusion filled his nostrils: foreign sweat, with a hint of fear. Someone had been in this very room, and recently.

He took two steps toward his bedroom, knife raised in a still wet hand, but the trail fell away almost immediately. He stepped back to the centre, nose poised like a dog’s, ignoring the unpleasant sensation of blood drying on his body. Slowly, his head turned until he found he was facing the door to his closet.

He stepped forward, blade still in hand, and sniffed the doorknob. The smell hit him almost like a physical thing, so strange did it taste in contrast to that of the blood and meat he knew so well. Tangy and ripe, terror and dirty clothes. A man.

Skinner stood in front of his closet, listening to the steady drizzle of blood into the bucket behind him, and found he could hear breathing on the other side of the door. It was very fast. He suspected it was the crazy guy from down the hall. Who else would have had the notion to investigate his apartment while he was away?

Just like that, two problems solved with one knife.

He whipped open the door, hard, bursting forward as soon as he had the room, meaning to slit the man’s throat before he had time to scream, but his blade fell on empty air and he realised, as his legs went out from under him and he found himself flying towards the back of his closet on his own momentum, that the man had been squatting the whole time.

Skinner slid across the metal floor, the pain of the cold and dryness on his chest and stomach almost too much to bear, and slammed into the back wall. He looked up, lips bared in a grimace of agony, in time to see the door to the closet slam shut.

Ray did not attempt to hold the door shut on the thing. His thoughts were not on killing it but on running as far away from that monstrosity as he could get. He had been crouching mostly because of the cold and in the hopes of surprising Skinner if he did open the door, and he was glad he had too, because he’d no time at all to react before the slippery thing had tripped over him and tumbled into the cool room.

If it weren’t for his fists clenching in fear, he would have already dropped his knife. Ray hit the doorway to the first room on the way out, throwing a horrified look over his shoulder at the pale body on the table, still dripping blood, and half fell into the front room.

He had barely recovered his balance when the door swung open and three police officers stepped inside, guns already raised and badges flashing.

‘Get back, get back! Against the wall, sir!’

Ray put his hands up in a comical surrender and backed up against the wall, one cop moving towards him with a gun pointed directly at his head, finger on the trigger.

‘It’s not me, it’s not me!’ Ray was screaming, ‘He’s in the freezer room, in the freezer room!’

‘Jesus Christ,’ he heard one of the other two cops exclaim as they entered the next room, no doubt seeing the mutilated body and the foetuses in the tanks.

Ray stared at the eye of the cop holding the gun on him, the man glaring at him as though he was the criminal, and then he realised he was still holding the knife in one hand. ‘Shit!’ he dropped it, but the cop’s expression didn’t change.

‘It wasn’t me,’ Ray said, wondering suddenly what would happen when they found the skinless freak in the freezer room. Probably the thing would die once they took it away from its nutrients and its skin suits. What would they believe then? That a man without any skin on his body, or a man with a large bloody knife in one hand had done the deed?

The reality of the situation began to sink in and Ray sank to his knees with the gravity of it. The cop moved in closer, pressing the barrel of his handgun to Ray’s temple. In those moments, Ray almost hoped he would pull the trigger. He saw his future ahead of him, trial and conviction as a paranoid mass murderer, a collector of skins. He tried to imagine Ernie Wells, or anyone else for that matter, saying anything good about him in a court, and couldn’t. He would be given death.

He looked up into the policeman’s eyes. They were dark brown and bloodshot. The rest of his face was drawn and tired looking, panicked, understandably. He had a blond beard which sat at a strange angle on his chin, as though it was trying to go one way and the rest of him was going the other. His ears also looked at odd angles on his head.

The freezer door opened, and then there was a brief silence. Ray experienced a few moments of confusion. He’d been expecting gunfire, or perhaps screams and curses as the cops saw what was inside. Instead, he heard a few muffled words exchanged, their tone that of mild concern.

His paranoia began to work again, but this time he wasn’t so sure it was paranoia after all. His eyes strayed to the front door behind the blond bearded cop in front of him and he noticed that not only was it locked but the chain was drawn across the frame. One of the cops had taken the time to do that.

The cop in front of him wasn’t shaking, which was also strange, because he was very young, not more than twenty or twenty one. This was likely the first time he’d drawn his gun, yet he was pointing it directly between Ray’s eyes, unshaking, unflinching, unafraid.

And his eye, what was it about his eye? It was bloodshot, but a little too red around the corner, like there was blood collecting, seeping through from the meat beneath. As he watched, Ray saw a teardrop collect there and run a little way down the policeman’s cheek.

‘Turn around, sir. You’re under arrest,’ the cop said. He neglected the Miranda, and that was when Ray knew it was all over.

He nodded at the cop and turned around. He was doomed, but there was a sense of relief even as he stooped and picked up the knife he’d dropped, knowing that at last, he’d been right, he’d known the truth from the beginning and he’d done something about it. He wouldn’t suffer any more.

He twisted around with the knife, watched it push through the cop’s eye and saw the surprised expression even as he pulled the trigger.

‘FUCK Y – ’


The cop stared at the body in front of him for a moment, shocked, numb to the low chuckle his father gave behind him. He holstered his gun and pulled the knife slowly from his eye, shuddering as the goop slipped out of its socket and hit the floor like a broken egg.

He turned to look at the others and they were laughing at him too, but he didn’t mind. He was the youngest, but he’d taken a second kill before any of them. He nodded his head and puffed out his chest, and the others came to help him lift the body to the skinning table.

There was much work to do.

This is based on a bizarre feeling I felt last week, while watching a movie. I began, inexplicably, to feel light headed, nauseous, and my heartbeat rose. I didn’t know what was causing it, and then I was reminded of a story my grandfather told me once, about a man who thought he had a snake in his belly and had died two days later despite having nothing wrong with him physically. What if it’s all in my mind, I thought? Rather than comforting me, it only made everything worse, because I, of all people, know what horrors my mind can imagine. If those horrors had any power, any impact on reality… Well, I was done for. Anyway, nothing came of it, obviously, but it was enough to get me to send my hobo of a muse on another trek.




By Ben Pienaar


As I write this, I crouch huddled in the corner of my spotless kitchen. I’m wearing gloves over hands that I’ve washed nearly twenty times today, and it’s only ten in the morning. By this point, it hardly matters. I can see my reflection in the tiles as clear as in a mirror. I look drawn, old. Most of all, I look very, very sick.

The truth is, I shouldn’t continue to write this, shouldn’t have even started it. I want people to understand what’s happened to me, and that I’m not crazy… I think.

A month ago, I was a doctor, and about as far from a ‘germ freak’ you could be: I’d had every bodily fluid imaginable on me, blood, excrement, urine, pus, vomit, you get the picture. I worked in intensive care, and so there was no shortage of horror. At first, everyone’s a little squeamish, but you have to learn to concentrate on the patient, and after a while it’s all just background stuff. Eventually you don’t think about it at all.

Recently, I turned forty, and decided I needed to relax, separate myself from the stress of work a little bit, so I opened my own clinic and started to treat patients in my own hours. A big change from the chaos of the hospital, and it was definitely a relief not to be called up at three in the morning after a twenty hour shift. I was enjoying it. Until, that is, I treated a woman named Ellen Ngona.

She entered my little white office at the back of the clinic, looking out of place and panicked. She was shivering, and had broken out into a cold sweat. I stood up immediately and told her to lie down on the bed, but she only shook her head. She was almost as tall as me, and lanky, so that it looked like she was on the brink of falling over all the time.

‘Doctor. I am a cursed woman,’ she told me.

I stood awkwardly in front of my desk and waited for her to go on.

‘In Africa, two weeks ago now, I saw my son talking to a man. This man, he was a witchdoctor, and he was going to take my son away. So I took him back, I screamed for help and my boyfriend came and helped me. The witchdoctor, he cursed us.’ She put a special emphasis on ‘cursed’, making it sound like ‘Kessed.’

‘I see,’ I said. From what I could tell, she had a fever of some sort, maybe gastro.

‘He said secret words to us, and the next day my boyfriend died straight away. The day after that, my son fell over and broke his skull, and then he died. I went to the witchdoctor, to ask him to bring them back, but he said no. He told me, “for you I put a snake in your belly, so it will take even longer for you to die.” And he… laughed.’ Here she put a hand up to her face and I was quite dismayed to see her in tears. Of course, if what she said was true it was entirely understandable. Murder, I could believe – curses, I could not, and so I vowed then and there to cure this poor woman’s illness as quickly as I could.

I put a hand on her shoulder and gave her my most reassuring expression. ‘I believe I can cure you, Ellen, and no curse of any kind has every stopped me before.’

The look of gratitude was instantaneous, tears forgotten. ‘Yes!’ she cried. ‘That is why I came to this country. In Africa, the hospitals are horrible, and if I wait too long there it will be too late. Here, I know, you have the machines, you can cut the snake out of my belly.’

I smiled uncertainly. I’ve treated the unstable and the superstitious before, many times. In my experience it’s always best to humour them. ‘Yes… We will do that but first we’ll have to run some tests to… make sure of exactly what to do.’

And that was what I did. I ran test after test on Ellen Ngona, first checking for the things I thought it was, then for the things I thought it wasn’t, and then anything at all. None of her symptoms seemed to fit with anything, really. Actually, there was a curious physical lack of symptoms, aside from the pains she claimed to have. After I’d gone through half a dozen different examinations, I found her to be completely healthy. Her temperature and blood pressure were both slightly higher than normal, but not by any serious stretch. Her heart rate was also up – from fear I suppose – and I couldn’t for the life of me determine the cause of the stomach pains she was having. In the end I gave her some mild pain killers, which she protested frantically.

‘You must cut the snake out!’ she said. In the end, she only left when I assured her that the pills were poison that would kill the snake. Luckily I hadn’t given her enough to overdose.

Two nights later, I got a call from a good friend of mine, Michael McHolland, who still worked in intensive care. I’d met with him for lunch the day before, as was our weekly custom, and mentioned Ellen, so he’d recognized her name when she was rushed into his operating room.

‘Nothing wrong with her, physically, you were right about that,’ he said over the phone. ‘She came to us because someone saw her staggering down the street with her entrails hanging out. She was practically tripping over them, trying to wrench them out at the same time. When they rolled her into the hospital, she was screaming “get it out, get it out”, over and over. Incredible, isn’t it? It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of an unwilling suicide, personally.’ He chuckled. Mike has always had a despicable sense of humour.

‘So she’s dead, then?’ I said, incredulous.

‘Yes. Sliced her belly open from hip to hip. Pierced the stomach and both large and small intestines. Not easy to come back from that sort of thing, you know.’

‘Yes,’ I said, feeling completely dazed. It was then that he said the thing that really drove it home to me. It was his simple observation that lay the seeds for my own horror. It is why, even now, my right hand writes while my left is scratching frantically, and why I’m trying to keep the damned paper away from my body so I don’t get any damned blood on it.

‘It’s incredible how the mind alone can destroy a person, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘I heard a story once, about a man who sincerely believed he was going to be struck down on his birthday, for who knows what reason, and when the day came, down he went. Heart attack. Truly incredible.’

I sat in deep thought for a long time after I put down the phone. It really was amazing, the way that worked, I thought. The way the mind had such power over the body, could make it strong or sabotage it, to the extent of death. I shook out of it after a few minutes and got back to work, and a patient or two later I’d stopped thinking of it. Notice, I didn’t say I’d forgotten it. I stopped thinking of it, yes, but it was there, in the back of my mind, burrowing and laying seeds.

A few days later, I treated an old man and found two melanomas on his back. I recommended he have them cut out as soon as possible, though they weren’t serious. The following night, I noticed something odd on my forearm. A freckle I’d had there my entire life had suddenly become darker, and a bit misshapen around the edges. I didn’t think much of it then. Paranoia, was all it was – a result of seeing the old man and worrying about myself.

When I woke the next morning, it was larger. There was a spot of red in the middle that hadn’t been there. The second I saw it I realised that it was a melanoma, and that it was growing faster than any that I’d ever heard of: usually it takes months even to notice the changes.

I skipped work and went straight to St. Andrew’s, where I’d worked the ICU, and as it happened it was Michael who was assigned the operation. After he cut it out, I told him, for the sake of his professional interest, how quickly it had come about.

‘Overnight, you say?’ he said, with a smile on his face. ‘You sure about that? You know that’s unheard of.’

I rolled my eyes. ‘You think I wouldn’t have noticed it, right there on my forearm?’

He seemed to think it was only bad luck, but the seeds were growing and I knew better. I’d caught it from the old man. I know, I know, and it’s true: melanomas are not contagious. But ideas are. The parasites of the mind are the worst kind. Trust me, I know.

After that, things began to accelerate. Now, I suppose I’d explain it by saying that, after Ellen, my ‘mental immune system’ broke down. It’s a ridiculous thought, of course, but that’s how I think of it. On Friday I treated a man complaining of fatigue and endless thirst; on Monday I had all the symptoms of diabetes. Luckily I have access to insulin. On Tuesday I treated a boy with a stomach bug and spent the remainder of that week struggling with the same thing, but in the end my immune system took care of it, barely.

After a while, I started to stall my patients. I’d let one leave and then just sit in the office, sweating and afraid, not wanting to let the next person in. What if they have something serious, I’d think. What if I get it, too? A woman would come in complaining of anxiety and my heart rate would double. A girl with a fever made me break out into a cold sweat (as soon as she left I checked my temperature and found it to be two degrees above normal). These things did not go away, unless I took the correct medications and treated myself the way I would if I actually had the diseases.

At last, I couldn’t deal with it any longer and I closed down the clinic. I wasn’t short on money, I told myself, and besides, I was more than deserving of a vacation.

I didn’t go on a holiday, though. Instead I stayed in my house, venturing out only to go to the shops or meet Michael for lunch. I told him about my worries, but of course he didn’t understand. ‘You’re telling me you’re sick, right now?’ he said.

‘No, not now. I was. I’ve been ok for a few days now, but I have diabetes.’

‘That’s why the water today?’

‘Yes. It acts up when I… well when I think about it. Which is usually when I eat food that diabetics shouldn’t eat.’ I knew I sounded mad already, but I needed a rational mind desperately – I no longer trusted my own.

‘You need to see a psychiatrist, John.’

‘I was looking for a second medical opinion, actually,’ I said.

He cut a fresh slice of his steak and put it into his mouth. Mike had always loved his steak rare and the blood was pouring out of it. Some of the veins twisting through the fat were still purple. I thought, salmonella, and then shut my eyes tight in a grimace because I realised that in that instant I’d just contracted it.

‘A medical opinion? You want me to look you over?’ he said, his mouth full of meat.

I shook my head. ‘No need for that. I’ve done the tests myself. I know when I’m sick. I just wanted to know if… If you had any ideas.’ What I really wanted, to be honest, was for him to prescribe me a placebo. Just sugar pills or something, and tell me that it cured what I had. I couldn’t actually ask him for that, however, because if I knew they weren’t real medications they wouldn’t work.

‘I don’t really have any,’ he said apologetically. ‘I’m sorry, but I really think it’s a mind thing. You need a psychiatrist, my friend.’ He spoke with his usual light heartedness, but I sensed the concern in his voice.

I considered it, but very soon after that day I was in no position to see anybody. I had salmonella, for one thing, as well as half a dozen other horrific things I’d accidentally thought of. At this stage it was taking everything I had to keep my mind on anything that wasn’t medicine. I spent all my time ridding my house of everything that might be harmful. The first things to go were my medical journals. If I even glanced the name of a disease I was sure to get it in a matter of hours, and I couldn’t take the risk.

After I started showing symptoms of several allergies, I began to cleanse my entire house from top to bottom. I threw out huge volumes of things I deemed too dirty. I dusted everything, had the place fumigated, shined, and I polished every surface.

It wasn’t enough. My body was vulnerable. If I touched anything at all, my mind would start listing possible allergic reactions, or infections, and if I didn’t wash my hands or shower immediately I’d begin to suffer the very things I feared.

It’s a peculiar thing, this hypochondria. You know it’s all in your mind, but you also know that your mind is capable of making your fears a reality. So you think to yourself: my heart’s beating a bit faster than usual, I’m sure I don’t have anything serious, but what if, by thinking about it now, my mind is making it beat faster. If I don’t stop panicking now, I might faint, I might blow blood vessels in my brain. You get scared, and your pulse rises evermore, and you think, damn!, it’s happening. My mind is making it worse. I have to stop thinking about it now! Only you can’t, and that’s the horror of it. And it worsens, and the next thing you know you’re having a heart attack.

I cleared most of my illnesses a week ago. I waited them out, I took the right medications, and I meditated the thoughts out of my head as best I could. (And that is no mean feat, believe me). The place was spotless, furniture covered by plastic and every surface disinfected a hundred times, including my own skin. Hospitals look like sewers compared to this sterile place.

I might have taken to drinking, but I was afraid: my diabetes might worsen, or I might become an instant alcoholic, or the first sip might cause alcohol poisoning. Any of these things could happen, because they were in my mind.

I made my visit to the psychiatrist three days ago. He was a highly regarded man, so Mike told me, and when I walked into his office, I admit he looked respectable. There were plenty of certificates and awards on the walls, and he had a professional, minimalist setup, complete with the soft couch in one corner. He was a friendly looking man with fuzzy grey hair and a wide smile. He came around the desk to shake my hand. ‘Dr. Vandenberg, nice to meet you. Why don’t you take a seat?’ he said.

I sat, and then, before he asked, I told him everything. I’d contracted at least four different diseases on the way to his office, and I was damned well going to make the most of my time. If he helped, I might never have to treat the osteoporosis now eating its way through my wrists and ankles, or the cirrhosis that would soon overcome my liver. A long silence followed the conclusion of my story, in which he sat in his chair, notebook in his lap, both hands steepled in front of his face.

After a pause, he said slowly: ‘It is a very interesting story, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Collins. In these sorts of… phobia related cases, hypochondria and suchlike, I lean towards a shock therapy approach. For phobias especially, I like to expose the patient to steadily more and more of whatever they’re afraid of. That doesn’t quite fit your case, however, and I think you’re especially sensitive.’ He paused, considering. ‘This is what I suggest. Take your mind off it. Go easy on whatever medications you’re taking, as well. What interests you? Besides medicine, of course.’

‘Travel,’ I said, truthfully. ‘Biology.’

‘Alright then. Read up on them, do some hobby research, if you like. Or start something new. Immerse yourself in a distraction. I think that when you’ve done that for a day or two you’ll realise that you’ve forgotten your “symptoms” and as a result they’ll fade away. I hope that will give you the strength to throw this thing for good.’

He wasn’t wrong, I’ll say that much for the man. I have a bookshelf full of National Geographics, travel novels and similar things, and when I came home from his office I began to read. I sat in my spotless study and scanned page after page until I had a splitting headache (I thought migraine, and it happened a minute later. Thank God I’ve been able to resist that thought since.)

When it faded, though, I realised several of my other symptoms had receded also, and I dove back into the literature before they could return.

Today, I began reading a long chapter on Amazonian insects, of all things. I was finding it fascinating, until I realised that at some point the chapter on insects had become one about parasites, and then the real hell began.

There is a parasite, you see, which lives in the rivers of the amazon, and has been known to infect people. It gets under the skin and multiplies, and travels, and multiplies some more. It is fatal, but not because of any of the usual reasons. It doesn’t cause deadly infections, or wounds, or serious physical damage. It’s the itch. The people who have been contaminated with this evil worm tend to die by suicide. Because the itching of the worms beneath their skin is constant and all encompassing, and there is no cure.

I dropped the book the moment I read that and stood up. My heart, already pumping from my new nervous disorder, pumped harder. I came straight to the kitchen to make myself a hot cup of tea and think of something else, forget what I’d just read as quickly as possible. I seized the nearest thriller novel and read the first ten pages in a frenzy. I can’t for the life of me remember what any of it was about, because that was when I felt the itch.

I settled down on the floor, my back against the refrigerator, and continued to read, focusing every ounce of my concentration on that book, and never have I concentrated so hard on a piece of paper in my life. Fiction, I thought, why the bloody hell hadn’t I been reading fiction the whole time?

It did not save me, then. As I read, I saw the letters on the page begin to move. The es uncurled and the ts uncrossed. They all turned into slippery, slithering esses, and they wormed their way down the page and into my fingers before I could drop the book. Most of them made it into me, by slithering under my nails and into the skin.

I screamed and stood up, tearing at my clothes and hair and skin, but it was no use. They were in me, now. The itch I’d felt a moment before had been only a premonition – this was the real thing.

No, this is the real thing. It’s not the worst it can be, yet, but it’s getting there. If I look closely, I can see the tiny letters squirming over and under the little veins in my arm. I can feel them in the space between my skin and my bones and GOD, it ITCHES. They haven’t even reached my waist, or my neck, yet, but Jesus. I want to peel myself like an apple and tear the wiggling worms from my exposed meat, just for the blessed relief it would bring. The only thing keeping my hands from scratching every inch of skin off my body is writing on this page. I won’t be able to bear it for long. though. When they reach the place behind my eyes – when I can literally see them crawl across my vision, then I think I’ll go mad. That’s when I’ll lose control for good.

In one sense, the good doctor was right: I’m not thinking of all those other diseases any more. They’re nothing compared to this, they don’t exist to me anymore. All I can think of is this godforsaken itch. ITCH ITCH ITCH ITCH! I must keep typing or else I’ll die, I’ll fall apart.

I’m thinking of the knives in my kitchen drawer, how good it would feel to scratch with them. It would feel amazing. Maybe I could even use them to pry out some of the worms. Maybe if I was careful, and I’m a doctor after all, I could pry out each and every one of the bastards, keep the wounds clean, get rid of all of them and stomp them into the tiles. I could live, still, suicide won’t be the answer for me! ITCH JESUS!

They’ve reached the bottoms of my legs now and I feel them in my NECK!

It’s all in my mind, all in my mind. I must keep writing or I’ll THEY’RE IN MY CHEEKS, CRAWLING. No, they’re gone. I have to focus.

I’ll scratch the skin off my face and then where will they go? Anywhere else but my face. I just saw two of them slime across my eyeballs. Black squiggly shadows crawling right across my vision. There’s more. I think I’m going blind. If I do, I won’t be able to see what I’m writing. I wont’ be able to concentrate. I’ll hav3 to start scratching, and scratching.

God please I hope no one reads this and gets what I have. I hope no one ever see sthis. They’re Under smy skIN HELP ME I CANT I CNT KEEP WROTPNG THEYRE IN MY BRAIN ITCH ITCH ITHC ITCH IT

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