It’s been twenty years since that day. Twenty years since Maria disappeared on these tracks, all for some stupid dare. Don’t believe what they tell you. She didn’t die; she disappeared. And I know, I know that her body was there. No one knows better than me, because I was the one that felt her grow heavy in my arms while I waited and waited and waited for help. It was me who watched them zip her up in the body bag, even while I was trying to tell them that she wasn’t dead, that she had disappeared and that we needed to keep her body for the time when she would come back.
But no one listened to me.
Her family cremated the body. Sometimes I feel like it was just to spite me; just because I tried to stop them. I tried to talk to her parents, but they wouldn’t listen. They blamed me for her being out there in the first place–and maybe it was my fault. I’m pretty sure her dad thought that I killed her, but he doesn’t understand. I could never have done that. I loved Maria.
I was a suspect for a while. The sheriff kept bringing me in for questioning. They could never prove anything because, of course, I didn’t do it. In the end, that didn’t really matter. To the folks in this town, I became a murderer. Now I’m just the local drunk.
It’s getting close to time now.
I guess the first time was exactly a year later. I came every night, everything else be damned, and waited. Waited for something to happen, waiting for her to return, waiting because I knew she would.
The warning bell chimed and the arms started to lower. The breeze picked up, coming out of nowhere on a night that had been still. I couldn’t stop my feet as they trod the familiar path to the edge of the tracks, eyes straining the darkness.
She appeared as she was that day, dressed in a black leotard with a little cat-earred headband in her short curly afro. She hadn’t aged a day and I was an old man, but she smiled the same smile of recognition I’d seen for the last twenty years. Seeing that smile was the one moment when my heart felt peace.
I stepped on to the track, cautiously, not wanting to spook her, but before my second step she was already fading. I always hoped that she would take me with her. I knew she could not stay. Every year, though, she left and I stood there, empty of hope and drowning in my despair, at the tracks that took her again and again.
Them woods. You want to run in them woods at this time of day. I’d think twice about that if I were you, young lady.
Why? Why? Cause gals like you tend to go missing in them woods. No, no, I’m not joshin’ ya. I wouldn’t tease such a serious young woman like you. Girls are always going into them woods and going missing and they ain’t never found again.
Like who? Well there was Sara from over in Dorset County. I knew Sara–know her momma and her daddy too–and Sara knew them woods, or so she thought. But them woods, things change in them. You think you’re seeing one thing, but it’s somethin’ else entirely.
Like, you see that? That over there. Looks like a tree stump, right. But sometimes, if you look at it different, when the light’s just right, it’s somethin’ else. Somethin’ alive and not of heaven or earth, but maybe from hell. Yeah, you see it now, don’t you. How it looks like something between a wolf and a fox. And I’ll tell you what, I’ve seen it move.
Yes, ma’am, I have. Seen it move in the moonlight, just as bold as the Gentleman himself. Those woods changed on Sara and she didn’t never come out, and they never found any part of her either. Tore her mama and her daddy up.
Young lady, young lady, listen to me now. I’m tellin’ you, don’t go in them woods. Definitely not by yourself; not even with a friend. There’s strange noise in them woods. I hear all the time. I’ve been livin’ across from them all my life.
Naw, naw. Not ghosts. Not “WOOOOOOOOOO!!!” or anything like that. Somethin’ else, somethin’ scarier. I play my television loud a night so I won’t have to hear it.
Well now, I can’t quite describe it. It’s kind of like whispers, where you can never hear quite what they’re trying to say.
I’m tryin’ to tell ya, miss. It’s not just the wind. It’s not just the trees. It’s them things. The ones that change the woods; the ones that change in the woods. They the ones makin’ that noise. Whisperin’ over what they done to all them young girls. Whisperin’ over what they’ll do to the next.
Miss. Miss. Come back! Ain’t ya heard a word I said.
A quick jog? A quick jog is all them woods need to eat you alive and swallow you whole.
Yeah, I seen it. It’s too bad for her folks.
Yup, I knew her. New to town. Wanted to go for a jog.
I tried to tell her. Yes, ma’am, I did. I tried to warn her.
I glanced to the left to access the help manual and moved my eyes up and down to scroll through all of the options, searching for instructions on how to connect with social media. I couldn’t wait to show my friends that I was in the cool kids club. Finally, I found the link and blinked once to access it. Seconds later, a video began to play.
The woman in the video was hotter than I’d ever seen, but there was no sound. How did the sound work again? It had to be something in the lens. My friends had never mentioned ear buds or headphones or anything like that. I closed my eyes to let the system reboot again. Maybe I hadn’t kept them shut long enough the first time. I squeezed my eyes tight. So tight my eyelids pressed my eyeballs into my skull. So tight, I saw red at the edges of my vision. I held my breath and counted to thirty.
When the pain came, it wasn’t just a pinch and it wasn’t just the corner of my eye. Searing pain erupted from my eyeballs, sweeping like flame across my face. It felt like something was clawing at my eyeballs, digging through them and into my skull. My eyes shot open and liquid rushed down my face. At first, I thought that they were tears, but when I looked in the mirror and saw the red lines tracing down my face, I realized it was blood.
Panicking, I grabbed at my eyeballs, trying to swipe the lens out, but they wouldn’t budge. Instead, they burrowed deeper, moving towards my skull. I clawed in desperation, trying to stop it anyway I could. In seconds, I felt the digging sensation inside my skull. The pain was so excruciating, I collapsed to the floor.
I rolled over on my back and that was all the movement I could manage. Anything more sent jagged, knife-like pain flashing through my body. I was helpless; there was no way that I could stop the burrowing. These lenses were killing me and all I could think was why didn’t my friends tell me.
“Rex. Rex.” It took me a minute to realize that the voice wasn’t a figment of my imagination. It took me another second to realize that it was my friend Seth and it was coming from inside my head.
“Is that you?” I asked the question aloud.
“It’s me. We’re all here.”
“Why?” I didn’t even have to say the whole thing.
“We wanted you to be with us.” When he said it, it was like a curtain went up and I could hear and see them all. Not just Seth. Not just the other guys, but thousands and thousands of others. People I didn’t know. Their voices were all there and, somehow, their voices were all one. Behind them was something larger and different. It wasn’t human and it held them all together. Not held, bound.
“Was any of it true?”
“All that we told you and more. Just rest. It will be over soon.”
Everything went dark.
At last they’ve arrived. It felt like I’d been waiting forever, even though I only ordered them last week. Maybe it’s because I had to save up the money for eight months and after that I decided to wait another three until the latest model came out.
I ripped open the package, tearing through the cardboard while those little s-shaped packing pieces rained to the ground. My fingers grazed the top of the titanium colored case. It was cool and so smooth to the touch that it almost slipped from my fingers when I pulled it out. My heart pounded in my chest at the case that sparkled like some tortured, starving vampire in the sun, and I grinned. Finally, I had them. Finally, my friends couldn’t tease me anymore for not have the InfoComTM integrated visual information systems. For what seems like years, they’d been passing jokes, pictures, notes, and dirty pictures back and forth to each other in, literally the blink of an eye, while bugging me to get them too. It’s not my fault my parents are broke and I had to earn the money for myself.
I twisted off the cover. Inside the case in a clear sanitizing liquid, the lens swam. A slight, silvery sheen moved back and forth over their surface. I’d read all about it: about the hundreds of thousands of nano circuits that comprised each lens and about how they used the faint electric currents from our bodies to power the cutting edge operating system. I reached to touch them but I’m nervous. My hand froze, hovering about them.
In the house, I ran back to my room to wash my hands. For good measure, I splashed them with a bunch of alcohol too. With fingers shaking so hard I thought I was going to poke my eye out, I put the first one in. The second is a little easier. Both in, I closed my eyes and counted to thirty to let the system boot up.
At first nothing changed; just a little blurry vision. Every couple of seconds, light flashed somewhere just outside my field of vision. I turned my head, searching for the source, but there was never anything there. I closed my eyes again, squeezing the shut. Before I could count to twenty, I felt it. It wasn’t anything at first; a twinge I almost though I was imagining. But then I felt it again, where the lens skimmed the edges of my eyeball. Something was definitely happening.
I jumped off of my bed and grabbed the comic off the corner of my desk. I hold it in front of my face and focus on the title. Instantly, information streamed before my eyes; everything that I could ever want to know about the series, the creators, and the comic universe.
I tossed that book aside and picked up another and another. For each one, streams of information appeared before my eyes. Photos of other comics, videos from the movies, wiki files.
It was so cool. I couldn’t wait to see what else they could do.
I giggle and snicker as I float down the corridor. I can’t help myself. I did try, at first, but once one escaped all other efforts were futile. I can’t control it anymore. I can’t conceal my pure glee.
The container in my hands is lighter than a feather, though it must weigh several pounds. The liquid inside roils to the top, straining against the glass to be free. It is a concoction of my own making, specially engineered out of the basest elements and unknown on Earth—until today. I will slather it everywhere before I’m done, before this final stage of my greatest achievement.
The hold is quiet save for the faint strains of Bach’s Cello Suite Number 1. All of my shipmates are asleep, including the two on shift with me. I am responsible for that; I gave them a little help. I giggle again.
I float past the port window; I’m in no hurry. Outside there is only blackness, which is deep and stretches on and on. A darkness so black that to look into it is to see nothing but my own reflection. No stars guide me, no moon gives shape and perspective to the endless inky depths. All that exists is me. I stare.
The diamond tipped drill glints in my hand. I will need it for my work. The liquid I carry is relatively harmless unless it gets beneath the skin. Only then, in contact with flesh and bone, can it dissolve a living being into a sack of pus in minutes.
We are rotating slowly. The first faint blue light of earth appears. Now is the time to begin. I don’t want the world to miss this.
They will call it space madness. Lunacy. But it’s not. This was my plan from the start.
They’re coming. I hear them coming. I hear the faint, incessant clatter of their tiny little claws on the hard, cold concrete. On the hard, cold concrete click claws, not sharp enough to tear but blunt enough to dig and dig and dig, until I’m raw and bleeding. And I lay here raw and bleeding night after night waiting, again, for the sound that means this unending torture will commence once more.
They’re closer now and the squeaking begins. Squeaking that starts with one; who smells the blood, who knows the meal is near; who squeals joyously, ravenously, frenzyingly. Others join in. They can’t smell yet, but they’re stirred by their leader. Their squeaks become cacophonous, echoing off the walls of the tunnels they travel to reach me and rending at my cochlea so that if I could I would to finish their work of ripping my pinna from my head.
And then the scent. The fetid scent fills the air, rushing before them to surround and embrace me. I’m enveloped in the rancid smell of fur and filth and breath hot with hunger and undigested bits of me. A blanketing stench that creeps up the soles of my feet and slides through my toes; that crawls over my ankles, my knees, my thighs. Across my body, it insinuates itself, not missing a single crevice, suffusing every pore until, with every inhale, I gag, longing for the release of a breathless sleep.
And now the fur, dear God, the fur. Sticky and stiff again my feet. Sticky and stiff as the whiskers that are tiny little needles; not soft or yielding, but pricking everywhere they touch, quivering with raw excitement. And the teeth come next. Teeth that nibble and taste, as though they reacquaint themselves with the sweetness of the meal in which that have so recently enjoyed and will soon ingest again. Tiny tongues lick wounds until they ooze again with saliva or blood.
And now they climb. And now. And now. And now.
We file into a room that’s something like a small theater. Somehow, the women appear on a little stage at the front. We settle into our seats and the lights go down until the room is so dark that I can’t see anything except the women under the spotlight. The short, skinny one speaks first.
“In 1692, a dark evil swept over this land, settling in Salem. God had given this new world to man, so that he might have dominion over it. But Satan would surrender no square inch without fight.”
I look in the direction that I think Guin is. God? Satan? Where had she found this tour? The small one goes quiet and the tall one steps forward. Her mannish voice is deeper and ominous when she speaks this time.
“And that’s when our ancestors stepped in. To fight God’s good fight and lay the demon witches to rest.”
My eyes almost pop out of my skull. What the hell are these chicks talking about? Demon witches? This is supposed to be a historical tour. The audience is dead silent, not an uncomfortable, incredulous chuckle among them. I can’t so much as hear as an inhale. The tall one’s voice is more strident.
“Yes! God charged our ancestors to rid the land of those demon spawn!”
This lady’s lather put Guin’s to shame. Even from were I stand, I see her eyes glazing over like she’s going into some kind or trance or fervor.
“There were mistakes. Yes, there were innocents who suffered. But their cause was just and now they are reviled.”
“That’s it.” I whisper in Guin’s general direction. “I can’t listen to anymore of this. You coming?”
Guin doesn’t answer, so I turn and start making my way back to the door. The theater is packed, but I manage to make my down the aisle without bumping into any knees On the stage, the women still drone, but their voices are muffled. I wave my arms. I look and they seem so far away, like seeing them through fog and haze.
I start to freak out, flailing my arms, but there’s nothing but a void. I turn to go back to my seat the seats aren’t there. I call Guin’s name, but with despair because I know for certain that she’s not there either.
“You’ll not see her again.” The voice whispers to me out of the voice. I whirl around, searching for the source.
“What’s going on? Am I hypnotized? What are you trying to pull?” I scream and my voice echoes.
“You will suffer. You will take my place.”
The darkness seems less dense. There is light now and the room is familiar and yet somehow different. I can’t move my arms or my legs and something heavy crushes my chest.
“Wait. Wait a minute.” My words are huffs of breath expelled from my lungs as the thing on my chest sinks deeper and deeper, making it impossible to speak. With one last, desperate inhale, I scream Guin’s name into the silence.
Blackness is coming again. This time, I know, for good.
They were right.
“It’s kinda amazing, right Lyn.”
I turn around on the narrow cobbled street. Vendor stands line the sidewalks, stacked high with cheesy t-shirts emblazoned with one line witchy slogans. Between and around the vendors, people mill in full on costume even though Halloween is still more than two weeks away. Witches abound. Kiddie witches. Sexy witches. Drag queen witches. There are others too. Insane clowns, zombies, and fairies.
At Guin’s insistence, I’m in on the fun, dressed in allegedly authentic seventeenth century clothes with a ridiculous bonnet over my head. It’s kind of frumpy. Salem at Halloween, not exactly my idea of a party, but Guin was having a good time. In fact, she’s way too excited. I guess it’s to be expected from someone whose parents named her Guinevere.
“Wild,” I agree. “What time is our tour?”
The sun is gone and a huge, harvest moon is rising above the roofs of the buildings that line the town center. It appears that glow in the dark make-up is especially popular among the clowns this year. I’m about at my limit; the sooner we get out of here the better.
Guin looks at her phone. “Ah! Five minutes. We have to run.”
She grabs my hand and we run through the crowd. I pull into myself, not wanting to even brush against the robes of the guy dressed like Death. Guin seems oblivious.
“There it is!”
Guin drags me into the line that is starting to wrap around the block. Ahead, the solemn gray house is somehow creepy. The windows are tiny and sparing. White lattice covers them all, even the ones in what must be the attic.
“It’s one of the original houses. They actually held witch trials here. Torturing and condemning those poor women.”
I glance at the house again. Perhaps that’s what makes it creepy. Perhaps the gross injustice of it all means this place could never be normal.
“They were all innocent, you know.” Guin’s voice is loud and carries in the night that is somehow suddenly silent.
I nod, already preparing myself. She’s gearing up, and there’s no stopping her once she get’s started on her version of the “Salem Trials Atrocity” rant. We know. We all know. Anyone who’s taken a tenth grade history course knows. The Salem witches were innocent, killed by power hungry men. She goes on for a few minutes and I just nod, tuning her out. When her voice fades away, I look around for the reason why.
The doors of house swing open and two women, dressed like me, stand in the entrance. They are supposed to be descendants of the original judges, but with their narrow, drawn faces, their stern buns, and their dour expressions, they look like they could have been a part of the trials themselves. Their ancestors were responsible for one of the earliest travesties committed on American soil and now they stand here profiting off of it. It’s a little shameless.
The taller, plumper one speaks. Her voice is deep and mannish. “Enter and prepare to hear the tragedy of the Salem Trials.”
With those words the two step to the side, extending their arms to the dark interior of the house in a gesture that I guess is supposed to be welcoming but it makes me feel like running.
Guin grabs my hand. She’s practically shaking, she’s so giddy. We walk into the house.
“I don’t want to.”
“Come on Maria, full of grace. Nothing to be afraid of.”
Dart’s beer-soaked breath wafted over my face and I felt a foreboding that was deeper and darker than Tartarus. A wind whipped down the dark, quiet street. It’s cliched to say it was cold, but it was. At nearly midnight, everyone in their right mind or not two sheets to the wind was at home. Trick or Treating was done. Costumes abandoned and candy devoured, yet somehow, there I was, standing at the railroad crossing with my best friend on what, I was fast coming to believe, was the stupidest dare in the history of dares. The foreboding grew.
“Dart, let’s go back. We’ll tell them we did it. They’ll never know. Besides, if the police catch you wasted, your parents are going to be pissed.”
D’artagnan Smith, otherwise know as Dart, ignored me, grabbing my hand and tugging me toward the tracks.
“It’ll be over in a minute. Besides, three beers doesn’t mean wasted.”
I stumbled over the steel tracks. They were those old fashioned kind that stick up out of the ground and so corroded I could barely see them. Dart, gone as he was, didn’t seem to have the same problem.
He stopped, clenching my hand in his cold, moist palm, and I finally figured out that for all his bravado, he was as scared as I was.
“All we have to do is wait.”
Wait until midnight. Wait until the bells clanged and the red lights flashed and the rails went down. Wait, after that, for thirty seconds more, while nothing happened, because nothing ever did. Wait until the rails rose again.
A ghost train. It was the only explanation, which wasn’t an explanation at all, for the fact that every midnight all of the signals went crazy though nary a train ever appeared. No amount of electrical work or new equipment made any difference.
Clang! Clang! Clang!
If I weren’t seventeen, I’m sure I’d have had a heart attack. As it was, fear forced my heart higher and higher into my throat. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the flash of red warning lights and the white rail floating down in the darkness.
“Just thirty seconds more, hon.”
Dart’s hand crushed mine, but I couldn’t respond because in the distance, coming in fast, was the train.
“Run!” I screamed, but my voice stuck in my throat and my breath forced back into my lungs. No matter what I did, my legs wouldn’t move as the train barreled down on us. Dart just stood there.
When it hit, it was different from what I imagined. Everything that had been forced down inside of me, my voice, my breath, was sucked out through my back, right at the center, where my heart would be. The force pushed me backward, though my feet never moved, and Dart was suddenly farther and farther away, yet I was standing there with him.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
The white rails slowly raised. The lights flashed one last time.
“See nothing to it.”
I couldn’t answer him because I was already gone.
My name is the last thing I hear.
Music was such a part of writing this novel. Every part had me scouring for music to invoke the mood or emotion, and there was so much emotion in the Finale–parts that it made my heart hurt to write. Before Part II, I wrote about Luca’s playlist, so this time I share a little of the playlist for Ankh and Luca. skinless is, after all, a love story, as one reviewer noted, and every love story has a soundtrack.
This is where the Finale starts, and if you’ve read Part II, you know why this song is so Ankh in the first chapters of the conclusion. I don’t know if it’s kismet or serendipity this song, which is the opposite of the last song on Luca’s playlist in sentiment, is so close to it in title.
There’s so much I want to say about this song, but I can’t. Too many spoilers.
One of the things I love about Ankh and Luca as a couple is that they are fight for each other. These two songs are kind of the essence of the strength that they find in each other.
These songs were on constant repeat as I wrote the love and battle scenes of the Finale. Can you feel it?
Read Part I of the novel that’s receiving rave reviews. Download skinless (Part I) for free for Kindle, Friday and Saturday only.