Skin Deep - John Palmer
TW: disturbing imagery, mentions of suicide
Unsure of how long he’s been awake, he lies there, knowing sleep won’t come. Trapped inside his own mind, he’s forced to relive every regret as the montage of lost hope thunders through him, reaches its crescendo, and then resets. The cacophony of pain, fear, and regret picks up speed once more, when a piercing screech pulls him from the tracks.
It can’t be. Not already.
He fumbles for the alarm, shuts it off, then launches it across the room. He knows that taking any more sick days will lead to a disciplinary, but the thought still emerges, is it really that big of a deal? Do I really need this job? But he knows the answer before the debate has even begun. He pulls back the quilt and falls into the cold darkness of the empty room. With a sharp click, the yellow bulb devours him.
Stepping over yesterday’s discarded uniform, he opens the wardrobe door to reveal the mirror hidden within. He despises the way it judges. Every flaw, every scar, every big mistake highlighted by his reflection, but worst of all, is the four-letter word etched across his forehead.
It used to change with his mood, but for years it’s stayed the same, and now, as it stares back at him, he hates it. Running his finger over each raised letter, he wonders whether it’s broken or not, whether he’s broken, and he knows he should ask someone, but who, and how? It’s easier to leave it alone.
Turning to the wardrobe, he reaches for the smooth suit of empty flesh and yanks it from the hanger.
It’s a slow and painful process, but it’s worth it. One foot at a time, he forces himself into its ever-tightening grip. As he pulls the taut flesh up and over his legs, he can feel it compress and then mould him into a far more suitable, although somewhat painful, shape. The elasticated skin stretches as he pulls, it slaps as he releases, and then it tightens. Using both arms at once, he writhes his way deeper into the suit’s clutches. Its coarse innards scrape against his chest as he contorts his body, until finally, his hands are gloved, the scars of his past are hidden, and the suit is sealed.
The silver-backed mirror no longer feels so judgemental. Instead, it glares in admiration at the figure stood before it, but a quick slam of the wardrobe door is enough to silence the glassy stare.
He groans as he crouches over yesterday’s clothes. Every piece is given the sniff test, and every piece passes, until once again, he is dressed in the same lifeless grey and black uniform he’s worn to work for the last four days. He reaches for the door handle, notices the cardboard box full of hollow faces sat on the cold wooden floor, and stops. How could he forget?
Pulling out one elasticated flesh mask at a time, he reads the dark words written on their foreheads, and begins to discard them. Each one inherited from his parents. The fifth one reads: AGGRESSIVE. It’s perfect. He fumbles with the mask, pulls wide the open neck hole, and buries his head inside. Aggressive is his favourite. People never want to speak to someone that’s aggressive. It takes several tugs, but he manages to apply the mask with relative ease, considering how tight it is. But perfection comes with practice, and he’s had a lot of practice.
Delving into the box of false emotions once more, he grabs CONTENT and JOY. ‘No,’ he mutters to himself. Joy is too much, so he searches for HAPPY.
As he stands back up, his thighs ache from the skin-tight suit pinning his flexed muscles into place, but with hands pushing knees, he manages to right himself, then looks down at the pile of discarded emotions sprawled around his feet. ‘I’ll tidy up later,’ he tells himself.
Grabbing his faux-leather satchel, he crams the hollow emotions inside, then steps out into the empty corridor and passes through it like a ghost. Rounding the corner, he heads down the stairs and leaves the despair untouched for when he returns. With a swift click from the front door, the sanctity of his home is defiled by the early morning breeze. The branches of the privet bush in his front yard dance with the wind, but he can barely feel it against his skin. Not anymore.
Blinding darkness engulfs all that the eye can see. There is nothing, not anymore. He reaches out to search the void but it’s empty. The only exception being the warm, moist air caressing the back of his neck.
One quivering step at a time, he edges through the dark hoping to find a way out, but there isn’t one. The only thing he has for guidance is the hard stone floor pressing against his bare feet. It’s hopeless. The only thing that’s changed in all the time he’s been down here is the breeze. Its grown heavier, warmer, and its pace has quickened. Almost as if…
He spins to face it. He can’t see it but he knows it’s there. And all it takes is one long malodorous exhale for his fears to be confirmed. It’s not a breeze, it’s breath.
The pneumatic hiss of the bus doors opening snaps him back to reality.
Head spinning, he steps onto the bus. The impatient look on the driver’s face is enough to unnerve him. Panic courses through his veins but his face and body show no sign of weakness. Frantic now, he fumbles through his pockets looking for the little blue travelcard, until eventually, with two trembling fingers, he slides it from the depths of his coat’s inner pocket and offers it to the driver, who nods in return.
The bus jerks forward as he stumbles on to a seat.
He doesn’t remember walking to the bus stop. He doesn’t remember any of it. Yet he’s here, so he gazes through the rain-soaked window at the world beyond, and without hesitation, runs his fingers through his thick, damp hair. His back straightens, his stomach tightens. When did it start raining? How did he get to the bus stop? Why can’t he remember?
Heart pounding, he instinctively starts to count front doors as they pass by, windows too, as well as lampposts. These are soon replaced by idle cranes, worn out diggers, and high-vis clad workers demolishing another empty quadrant of the city. The continual influx of numbers thrash through his mind until all intrusive thoughts are pushed aside.
Whilst counting the seven strangers boarding the bus and their thirteen averted eyes, he watches them closely. Hope walks by first. Followed directly by Happy, Happy, Proud, and Happy. None of them make a move to sit down beside him, but as the few remaining seats fill up, Content’s eyes meet his own.
The word CONTENT begins to fade from its forehead until it is replaced by NERVOUS. With eyes that shift, Nervous searches the bus for safer pasture but they find no solace. With an obvious reluctance, Nervous sits in the empty seat beside him, taking extra care to ensure their bodies don’t touch.
At least there won’t be any small talk, he thinks as he looks back to the window and rubs the condensation from the glass.
The world outside is dismal and grey. Rows of pebble-dashed terraces being reduced to rubble float past the window. The concrete slabs of the pavement are cracked and worn, and as the bus nears the now quiet heart of the city, those hideous glass-fronted buildings dominate the view. Each one a monument reflecting the storm clouds above.
As the bus nears his stop, he notices the sign is already lit but reaches out to press the button anyway. The nervous stranger jumps into the aisle to let him pass but is stuck waiting as he inches his way across the barely padded seats.
One wary step at a time, he makes his way towards the front, grabbing every filthy handrail within reach. His body jerks forward as the bus comes to a halt. A body slams into him from behind. Heavy breath burns the back of his neck and radiates down his spine. He shivers.
As the hiss of the retracting door pierces the air, he lurches forward and exits into the rain with a quick ‘thanks’ to the driver.
The soles of his shoes slap against wet pavement as he rounds a corner and disappears into a side alley. His heart churns and his stomach pounds. He reaches out to the wall for support.
Both hands meet the wall with the full weight of his body behind them. The rough texture of the brick is muted by the damp build-up of grime as its slimy surface oozes under his palms. The only sound he can hear is the casual drip, drip, drip of water as it slaps against the stone floor in uneven intervals. Yet even though he can’t hear it, he knows that thing is still out there, somewhere in the darkness, hunting him.
With a solid boundary to guide him, he begins to run but his foot slips on the dank floor and slides out from under him. Going down, he manages to catch himself on the wall and steady his balance.
With one arm searching the empty space before him, and the other trailing along the greasy wall, he stumbles as fast as he can through the hollow darkness. Water splashes as his feet pound the slippery stone tiles. His fingertips collect the oily substance secreted by the wall. A single droplet of water drips down the back of his t-shirt with pinpoint accuracy, and trickles down his spine until it’s soaked up by the cloth rubbing against his skin.
As he works his way through the dark, the wall suddenly stops, then rounds a corner. Reaching out with his left hand, he discovers another wall opposite this one.
He stands in the entrance of a corridor, unsure whether or not to delve deeper when that old familiar breath warms the nape of his neck.
‘Mummy, isn’t that...’
‘Ignore him,’ a familiar voice replies, ‘and don’t mention this.’
He glances over but they’ve already passed the entrance of the alley. His heart stops. Only for a second, but it’s long enough for him to notice the cold tightening his lungs.
He doesn’t need to look at his hand to know what he’s holding, but he does anyway. The loose elasticated flesh hangs limp from his fingers. Scrambling to see the word, he turns it over. The thick black letters stare back at him. AGGRESSIVE. His hand shoots to his forehead. Four letters.
In one swift motion, he turns, lunges, then ducks out of sight behind one of the large industrial waste bins lining the alley. Heart racing, he rips open his satchel and stuffs the hollow mask into its depths. Why did I take it off? It needs changing before I get to work, but not here. His mind races for an answer but he finds none. The HAPPY mask hanging from his hand now. He stares at it.
Ignoring the lost time, he stretches the elastic wide and pulls it over his head. It takes some adjusting, but eventually, he manages to set it in place.
With laboured breath, he wills himself to his feet, exits the alley, and begins to weave his way through the pre-work crowd. A multitude of faces pass by in a blur, each one highlighted by the thick black letters that mar their skin.
As he rounds the final corner, those familiar neon yellow letters fill him with dread. The Box Office: Best Boxes In Town. What a ridiculous name. Back when he first started working there, he found it amusing, but now, the sight of it makes his heart sink. It’s not just the sign that puts him on edge though, it’s the building itself, with its glass front, white metal frame, and concrete walls. From this approach, it blocks out the rising sun. In truth, it looks no different to the other buildings in the sales quadrant, but this one he despises the most.
He’s halfway up the busy street when the distant clocktower chimes eight singular beats. The pace of his heart quickens along with his feet. As he reaches the sliding glass door, his lungs tighten. With laboured breath he stops, looks up at the imposing neon sign above, and tries to remember what it felt like when he first walked through those doors, but he feels nothing. Instead, he takes a deep breath and steps inside.
The open-plan shop floor is littered with empty boxes. From cardboard to plastic, from wood to titanium, they have it all, but as he strides through the center aisle, he pays them no attention. Instead, his eyes are locked on to the employee elevator across the room. Johnson isn’t there. This might be his lucky day. He presses his thumbprint against the up arrow.
‘You’re late,’ comes a voice from behind.
Johnson. He knew it was too good to be true.
‘That’s the third time this week. You need to get your shit together.’
‘I know,’ he replies. ‘I’m sorry.’
But Johnson cuts him off. ‘Look at me when you’re talking to me.’ So he turns, and notices Johnson’s overcoat is wet and still buttoned up. ‘I don’t know who you think you are, but this needs to stop. Not only are you late, but you’re happy about it too. There really is something wrong with you isn’t there. I don’t know why I ever hired you.’
The elevator doors open with a ping, but he just stands there with clammy palms, too tired to defend himself, waiting for Johnson to finish his tirade. Johnson glares at him.
‘Are you going to get in the lift or are you just going to stand there?’
The question was rhetorical, but he says ‘Sorry’ anyway and steps inside. Still under Johnson’s uncomfortable gaze, he presses the number three and stands there awkwardly until the doors close.
As he sprints through the empty tunnel, his elbows catch the walls either side of him, but he doesn’t slow down. Not whilst that thing is out there. Whatever it is, it’s still behind him. He can tell by the way his skin crawls, by the visceral fear pumping through his veins and corrupting his heart. He must keep running. He doesn’t know why, but he can’t let it catch him.
The slapping of feet against stone is barely noticeable over the thunderous beating of soft tissue against bone. The faster he runs, the louder it gets. It’s unbearable, but just as he’s about to give up, lie down, and let this unwanted horror devour him, the darkness dissipates and before him, stands a brick wall.
He braces by planting his left foot onto the stone below, but the right foot follows and he loses all sense of balance.
The elevator pings as he tumbles through its opening doors and lands on the harsh, green carpeted floor of the corridor.
He surveys the empty space and there’s nobody there to witness him, so he scrambles to his feet, but as he does, his stomach tightens and his vision blurs. He reaches out to the wall and leans into it for support.
With palms planted against the wall, his head hangs heavy as he struggles to keep the colour of the carpet in his mind.
The tired red bricks surround him on three sides. The impenetrable wall of darkness keeps him locked in place. He can’t go back the way he came. He’s trapped.
His stomach churns, then attempts to eject its contents onto the floor below, but it’s empty. He’s dry heaving now. After three unsuccessful convulsions, he collapses to his knees, but he can’t stay here, someone will see him.
He rubs the moisture from his eyes with the side of his quivering fist, then clambers back to his feet.
‘You can do this,’ he tells himself. And with one small step at a time, he reaches the end of the corridor, places his trembling hands flat against the hardwood door, and with a deep breath, pushes it open.
The hum of the office assaults his senses. They’ve barely been open five minutes and already the phones are ringing. Rain hammers against the windows as the grey blanket of clouds stretches out as far as the eye can see. The clatter of fingers on keyboards, the enthusiastic chatter, and the smell of coffee hangs in the air. Head down, he follows his usual path through the maze of makeshift cubicles, photocopiers, and plastic plants.
‘This is the Box Office where we sell the best boxes in town. You’re through to Mandy, how can I help you today?’
Mandy’s enthusiasm sickens him. As he tries, but fails, to scowl through the mask at her, she throws him a quick smile. How dull must your life be to enjoy this job, he wonders.
The printer whirs as it dumps paper onto the floor. The cartoon rabbit poster screams GET MOTIVATED in capital letters. Whenever one phone is answered, another starts to ring.
He reaches the back of the room, squeezes past the pillar of boxes and walks the final few feet towards his own desk. He drags back the seat with the broken wheel, hovers over it, then pulls it back under the desk with him on top of it.
Grey, felt-lined cubicle walls surround him on three sides as traces of sunlight pour in from the wall of glass behind him. He is almost able to make out the shape of his own face in the monitor until he kicks the computer’s on button with his foot, causing the screen to flash blue and stir into action.
He places his satchel beside his chair, pulls his wallet from his trouser pocket and places it carefully onto the desk. If he’s going to be here all day, he may as well get comfortable.
The bulb above his head starts to flicker. Again. He was told they’d replace it last week. That was clearly a lie. With his elbows on the desk, he buries his face into his hands, waiting for the computer to come to life.
With his back pressed firmly against the bricks, he surveys the scene. The wall of darkness appears to shift before his eyes. Whatever has been following him is right there, he can feel it. It’s like a caged beast, pacing through the darkness, out of sight and out of reach. He’s safe for now though. At least he hopes.
Weathered, red-stone bricks surround him on all sides. Their faces smooth, their edges round. He looks down at the grey stone tiles beneath his pale feet. He’s seen them before, but where? And why can he see?
Looking up, he realises there is no ceiling, only a blue cloudless sky. It’s out of reach. The red bricks appear to chase after it, creating what he imagines the inside of a chimney would look like. There’s no ladder. No rope. No discernible way out. Yet, it’s calling him. He can feel it in his gut. This is how he escapes.
A noise draws his attention back to the tunnel. Was that? No, it can’t be. Yet, he continues to stare into the darkness, just in case.
There’s something unnatural about it. It’s not a gradual change from light to dark. No, where he stands there is light, and in front of him stands a completely black banner. There is no in between. No middle ground. Just light, and dark.
He hears it again, except longer and louder this time. There’s no mistaking the sound of a shadow growling at you.
Fingers clawing against solid brick, he tries to climb the wall but can’t get a grip on anything.
That low guttural growl reverberates through his chest as it fills the chamber. He grips a brick with his left hand. The growl grows louder, surrounding him. He jams a foot against the opposite wall. The pitch increases, piercing his eardrums. He pushes against the wall, lifting himself off the floor. The growl becomes a scream, tearing at his insides, ripping through his brain.
He wedges his other foot against the wall when a heavy, moistened hand clamps onto his shoulder and yanks him back into the dark.
‘Are you serious?’
He pulls his shoulder out from under Johnson’s thick fingers and turns to face him.
'You haven’t even logged in yet and you’ve been here for almost an hour. I’m done.’ RAGE emboldens across his forehead. ‘You’re done. Go home. I don’t want to see your lazy ass in my office again.’ Johnson glares at him. ‘There’s something seriously wrong with you. Get out. Now.’
He stands, and tears the mask from his head. He can hear the surprise escaping his colleague’s mouths, but the only thing he can focus on is Johnson’s face as it contorts in disbelief.
‘I hope you die,’ he breathes in Johnsons face before turning his back on him and navigating his way through the now silent office.
The mass of stunned faces stare at his forehead as he walks past them. The suit hugs his body so tight he can barely breath.
Something slaps the ground behind him, but he ignores it and heads straight out the door.
Passing the elevator, he turns left at the end of the corridor and starts up the stairs. It’s time to take control of his life, he reassures himself. As he reaches the top of the stairwell, he stops, eyes his own reflection one last time in the mirrored window of the door, then pushes it open and steps out onto the cold rooftop.
As he strides over to his usual spot, the wind tussles his unkempt hair and the rain soaks into his clothes as it lashes down from the clouds above. The city looks nicer from up here. He lights a cigarette, places his arms on top of the wall, and rests his chin against his forearm. From this angle, between the large glass towers and the high-rise apartment buildings, he’s able to see the rolling waves as they move along the coast. It’s a pity he doesn’t work in a taller building.
‘Oh well,’ he mutters as he cranes his neck over the edge of the wall. There’s nothing but concrete below. The bad weather must be keeping people away.
He looks out to sea once more, wishing he’d had more time to sit on the shore and appreciate the beauty of the crashing waves.
‘Hey’, a familiar voice calls through the rain. ‘I’ve got your wallet.’
He turns to look at her. It’s Mandy. He should have known. ‘You shouldn’t have bothered’ he replies, turning back to look down at the concrete below.
‘I figured you’d be up here. Look, don’t worry about Johnson, he’s an arse. You’ll be able to find another job in no time. I just. I just wanted to let you know you’re not alone.’
He scoffs at her words.
‘It’s true. You’re not. I know what you’re going through.’ Her arms come to rest on the wall beside his. She’s holding his mask.
‘Thanks.’ He says, reaching for it, but she pulls away from him.
‘That’s not yours. It’s mine.’
He looks at her. Those thick black letters etched across her forehead aren’t HAPPY anymore, they are NUMB.
John Palmer is a writer of predominantly dark fiction, with a first-class degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. He is the editor-in-chief of Northumbria University’s creative arts magazine and set to start an MA in Creative Writing in September or 2021.