Skinwalkers

Brenna Ehrlich

Short Reads features fictional short stories written by some of our favorite authors and writers from around the globe.

Skinwalkers by Brenna Erlich

“How does it feel to have no ambition, Richard?” she asked.

I lit a joint and blew smoke in her face (by accident) and walked away, got on the subway—because how do you answer that? The truth would have pissed her off: “Like nothing. It feels like sleeping. It actually feels pretty good.”

That is not something you tell someone who doesn’t want an answer even though she thinks she wants an answer. At least if you want to see her again. The smoke thing was probably not the best idea, either, but it didn’t really matter in the end because basically, like, twenty minutes later, I sort of died.

I was watching the water swirl down the drain around my toes, lacquering my toenails like clear polish, thinking about all the places that water had been before. It had fallen on the backs of dinosaurs. Filled clear pools on moonlit nights; pools witches had splashed in before flying across the moon. Trickled down Cynthia’s face as I stood behind her in the shower the week before and felt her skin all wet and human against mine. Then it had all swirled back down again. Shot through the labyrinth of metal and dirt and charcoal and whatever where the mole people plodded under the subway systems. Years of extinct creatures and bad magic and sex mixing and cleaning itself and getting dirty again right underneath our feet.

I was thinking all that when drops of red started splashing on my big toes and little pieces of confetti light flung themselves at my eyes and my face crashed into the grimy tile of the shower.

And then the darkness came. A darkness so complete it felt like walking with your hands out in front of you on a night when the moon hasn’t made itself new again. When you’re playing Sardines with your friends and you’re the last salty fish standing. When all the fireflies of the summer have been caught in jars and gasped their last in children’s bedrooms across August. And then… I felt someone pulling on my skin.

None of us know what it feels like to be a shirt or pants, our only purpose to sheath the form of a full-fledged human. We don’t know what it’s like to move not of our own accord. But I do. At least now. After.

I felt his arm slide down my arm. His torso shimmy into mine. His legs step into my legs. His dick… well… make a valiant attempt. Not all clothes fit properly. My head watched almost detached as the limbs squirmed into my limbs, until his hands/my hands tried to cram his cranium into mine. I clutched at my mind then—in the same way you cling to wakefulness as you slide toward—and his brain and mine crammed themselves into my skull. And I saw a church spire.

I saw pews filled with bowed heads and my throat filled to bursting with whatever that deep kind of voice is called. Baritone… his brain supplied. Baritone. So I felt this skin-wearer’s “baritone” bursting from my throat in some kind of sepia-toned memory. I felt our eyes all bright with some kind of jet-plane dream and then I felt darkness—darkness that wrapped its tendrils up through my nostrils and into my brain like how they used to make mummies… And then I felt myself swinging from the bell tower and the bells ringing and reverberating all throughout the town below—the plastic houses and criss-cross crops and murmuring morning dreams.

We don’t know what it’s like to move not of our own accord. But I do. At least now.

I stood up. Or he pulled me up like a marionette. He amended, “I pulled you up like some deity’s hand bursting through the clouds and summoning.” He was still not satisfied with the analogy, but decided to let it slide.

He looked in the mirror, examining my face. He looked at the shadows under my eyes. At how my cheekbones jutted out and my cheeks looked hollow. How my hair wound around my head like a crooked crown of thrones and blackbirds. He thought that I was pale. Too pale. Like I slept too much and dreamed too little. He wiped the blood from above my chapped lips and pulled out a comb.

Cynthia scowled when she saw my face—worn by him. Her lips curled and she stood in the door, holding it not quite open in front of her.

“You never answered my question,” she growled, crossing her arms and kicking at her welcome mat—the one with the cat on it that the previous tenants had left there but she hadn’t bothered to replace.

I felt him wrinkle my brain, looking for the memory, looking for whatever it was she had asked. Then a screen flickered to life in the living room of my head and we were sitting on a dirty couch with cigarette burns, watching. Richard lights another joint and squints into the sun. Cynthia stands next to him on the stoop, smelling like rose perfume and detergent. Cynthia starts rambling about her artwork and how she should donate her body to science because at least if she died she could get into a museum—in that Bodyworlds exhibit or whatever. The one with the human bodies flayed and dipped in plastic goo. Richard tells her she’s being morbid. Cynthia tells him he’s being unimaginative. Richard says that being imaginative is detrimental if it means dreaming of being flayed and dipped in plastic goo. Cynthia asks if he’s done with his EP yet. Richard asks if she wants to get high and go lie in the park. Cut to the beginning of this whole thing.

The screen dimmed and my mouth opened, formed a smile with teeth. I don’t smile with teeth. One is chipped and they’re not so white. His were white and even. His were toothpaste commercial bright. His were displayed in all the pictures on his mother’s bedside table—rows and rows of photos. The same boy at different ages, like a Bizarro version of that classic image: man emerging from the sea. The earliest photo was him at the pool. His mouth was open in a smile even then.
My mouth started moving. “What I say to that, Cynthia, to your question, is… You’re a real pearl of a girl.”

Her face cleared then. I never knew what that meant before when I read it in books but I understood then. Her brow lifted and her mouth relaxed and she looked at me like…

“Andrew…” She whispered, looking into my eyes but past them.

My mouth twitched up at the side in a smile that I had never worn. “Hey, yeah. I’m back.” And then he was backing her into her apartment, slamming the door behind him and lifting her onto the back of the couch. And I was fucking my girlfriend. But I wasn’t. I was there but I wasn’t there. My hands were moving in ways that felt practiced but unfamiliar and my lips were moving and tasting like they hadn’t just moved and tasted earlier this morning. And my body—the most familiar thing about a person, really—looked strange and white and small under her sad, strung-up Christmas lights. And then my throat was gasping and my back was locking and she was sighing and smiling. And we were on the floor, my legs wrapped around her legs and someone else looking out behind my eyes.

Afternoon light seared the ceiling and my eyes blinked. My mouth smiled his smile.

“I never thought it would work…” Cynthia murmured, lifting her hand, lazy, to trace some pattern on the ceiling with her pinkie. “I never thought… I missed you.” Her voice broke.

Andrew—I knew his name now, he was Cynthia’s ex (you know, everyone has that ex)—nodded my head, making a noise deep in his throat.

“They said if you put it, the herb stuff, in the weed it makes a window. The people at the occult store. I just kind of thought it was bullshit, you know?” She rolled up on my chest, paused. “And it’s really you?”

Andrew nodded my head. He was a man of few words. Very introspective. Very serious. (Or at least that was how he wanted to appear; I could feel him trying not to look at her boobs.) He had been dead, after all. He knew things. Still, when I tried to access his memories of death all I could see was white. And panic. If panic were a color.

He reached in my pocket, pulled out a joint I had shoved in there before. Earlier this morning. When Cynthia had given me a baggie as a surprise and then berated my life choices.

His mind flicked back to the church steeple. To his neck snapping and his brain bursting and the bells pealing out all over the countryside. To how he noticed, as the stool kicked out from under him and the clanging started, that they were off-key—the bells. Untuned. He wished he had tuned the bells properly before he did it. So that the last sound he heard would have been perfect. And clear. Bells that sounded like her voice when she spoke through the nighttime darkness across the pillow and asked him if he saw the ghosts in the corner. A her with dark hair that tumbled. A her with bitten nails. A her not named Cynthia.
He held the joint toward her—Cynthia, her, not bitten-nail her—and arched my eyebrow. She looked at it.

“Where did you get that? Not from you—I mean, Richard’s stash?” She shrunk away from the twisted paper.

He shook my head. “No. No. Had some time before I came over. Thought we could celebrate.” He held out the joint and pulled my jeans across the floor to fish for the lighter.

Cynthia smiled, stuck the cigarette in her mouth and lit the end. Pulled the smoke into her veins. We watched as she tipped her white neck back and closed her eyes. Coughed. Watched as the atoms, the dust motes lit up by sunshine in the corners, swarmed together over her head. Red dripped on her hand. Her eyes got wide. Then another body started fitting itself into her skin.

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