Behind the local anchorwoman, Tessa’s snapshot hung suspended in the corner of the screen.
“Day two of search for missing woman,” the ticker tape read.
I switched off the set. I palmed my face and scrubbed the two day old stubble along my jaw.
Curled on Tessa’s side of the bed, I racked my brain as to where she might be, who she might be with.
If she was even alive.
I held the pillow against my mouth, trying to smell Tessa on it. But she was already fading.
Something scratched in the far corner.
My neck tightened. I strained to hear in the dark. The scratching continued.
A mouse. Maybe a rat.
“Hey.” I sat up, flung a crumpled beer can. “Scat.”
The scratching stopped. I laughed. Tommy Sutherland, Rodent Intimidator.
Loser , I imagined Tessa saying, grinning all the while.
Maybe she up and left me. Police thought I did her in. Calling me a “person of interest.”
I slumped back and flattened the pillow over my head.
The scratching started again. Rustled, more like something trying to squeeze through a space it didn’t fit.
“Damn it.” I sat up and climbed out of bed. The pine boards were cold against my bare feet.
Wood groaned. The lamp pull slipped between my fingers.
From across the room, wood broke with dry snap.
A shape crouched in the corner. My heart knocked into my chest.
“Tessa?” I asked.
My fingers caught the lamp pull and I yanked. The light clicked on, bathing the bedroom in soft yellow light.
The room was empty. Tessa’s knickknacks made scarecrow shadows on the walls.
I checked the baseboards. No knot holes or broken boards.
Beer washed away my lingering paranoia. I passed out on top of Tessa’s missing person posters, sleep coming for me as quick and hard as a fastball.
I dreamt of Tessa.
She climbed out of the baseboards, cracking the corner boards apart with her nails like a squirrel opening a nut. I wasn’t scared. This was Tessa with her turned up nose and freckled cheeks.
She crawled to the bed with her leaf scented hair over her face. Naked as a jaybird, every curve as perfect as I remembered. Tessa climbed atop me and straddled my hips. I reached to touch her, but she pushed my hands away.
Tessa grabbed the flesh of her chest with both hands. A gash opened over her breastbone. She dug her fingers into the raw, red space. The skin made a soft, sucking sound as it peeled away from her exposed flesh.
I opened my mouth, but Tessa pressed her sticky finger to my lips. I shook. Tessa worked her right arm free of the rubbery skin, shedding it, the muscles and sinews glistening.
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing myself out of the dream. Her lips touched mine and I shuddered at the smell of cadaverous rot.
With a jolt, my lungs spasmed. The air in my chest was sucked out as forcefully as if I’d been kicked in the gut. I struggled to breathe, but her lips never left mine. My breath spun out… and out… and out…
I woke at half past three in the afternoon, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. My lungs burned. I struggled upright, half falling when I tried to stand. Every joint in my body ached until I wondered if I’d aged overnight like old Rip Van Winkle.
A trail of translucent white flakes led away from the bedside. Crouching, I poked the flakes with my fingernail. They peeled up easily from the worn floorboards, reminding me of slime trails left behind by garden slugs. I rubbed my fingers together, held them to my nose, and sniffed.
My stomach lurched with the smell of rot.
My lips felt numb. I could almost feel the sticky wetness of Tessa’s mouth sealed against mine.
I stumbled from the bedroom, and grabbed my wallet and keys from the kitchen countertop, hands shaking. I could barely unlatch the security chain on the apartment door. The chain popped loose, and I swung the door open.
The creature had taken Tessa, my Tessa, through its door.
I stared into the empty hallway and my rational world crumbled.
A sick pit opened in my reality.
I stepped back inside, closed the apartment door and locked it, because the door to find Tessa wasn’t going to open with a key.
I’d inherited a crowbar when my old man died. It was buried in the hall closet beneath a pile of coats, so I dug it out.
I wedged the iron crowbar beneath the baseboard. Throwing my weight behind it, I popped the corner board loose. The crowbar splintered through the floorboards at the corner’s base. Shards pelted my face and eyes. The last layer of floorboard, big enough for the creature to have climbed through, broke free in a gust of stale air.
I stared down into a deep tunnel dug out of the red clay. Grooves marked the edges. It seemed to have been scooped out with bare fingers.
I squatted. Clicked on my flashlight and shone it as far as it’d go. The tunnel dropped about six feet then curved off to the left, away from the apartment building’s main foundation.
“Tessa?” I whispered.
I swear the tunnel sucked up my voice the same way her lips had sucked my breath.
I tried again, louder. “Tessa?”
“Crap.” I swung my feet into the hole, and before I could lose my nerve, I dropped.
I hollered as I fell, landing in a crouch. The tunnel was barely wide enough for my shoulders. The damp clay smelled of earthworms and taproots and upturned stumps, all the things I used to love. Now they made my guts churn.
Wriggling onto my belly, I shoved the flashlight in front, and crawled on my elbows into the tunnel. The best I could tell, it extended fifteen feet or so more to the left, slanting downward before curving out of sight.
The tunnel narrowed; I shimmied my way through. My hips dragged, legs wedged together so tight I had to push on my toes in spots.
I don’t know how long I crawled. By the fourth or fifth switchback, the flashlight started to flicker so I switched it off and slid it in my jeans to save the battery. The tunnel got colder the deeper I went, the clay tighter packed, broken up by flat chunks of rock that scraped the skin off my arms and shredded my jeans.
The quiet plink-plink of water droplets made me pause. A breath of warm air stirred against my cheek.
“Tessa?” My whisper rasped against the darkness.
A rustle came from ahead as if some nocturnal creature had shaken itself awake.
I dug at my waistband to pull the flashlight free. My hand closed around the aluminum grip and I slid it up my back.
I imagined the creature slithering toward me, obscene limbs dragging behind it. My pulse spiked in my ears. I jabbed the flashlight forward, snapped it on.
A mewling creature squirmed away from the cone of yellow light. Skinless arms wrapped over its scalped head. Its legs curled, fetus-like into its sinewy belly, muscles coated in grime.
It cowered, pressing itself deeper into the tunnel wall.
My jaw shook.
“What…” I started.
The creature lifted its head, and my words choked in my throat.
Some flash of recognition passed over its face. It lunged for me. Both skinless arms reached out. I tried to crawl backward. It slithered forward on its belly. Its fingers groped at my face, touching my eyes, prodding my mouth.
My yells echoed off the walls and drowned out all thought but to knock the creature away.
“Tommy.” It seized my face between muscled fingers.
I slapped its hands away.
“It’s me.” Its fingers wrapped in my hair, made me look in its eyes.
Eyes I knew.
I stared at the ghoul gripping me.
I shook my head, squeezed my eyes tight, the raw meat stench festered in my nose.
“Lost,” it said.
The air left my lungs in a rush. I opened my eyes, but I could hardly look. “Tessa?”
“I hurt.” Her voice was weak. “Stole my skin.”
“What did?” I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. No one stole human skins. “You need a hospital.” I wriggled back the way I’d come and motioned for her to follow.
Tessa curled her legs into her chest, the yellow line of her shins showing between the strips of muscle. “The hag’s wearing my skin.”
“That’s crazy talk.”
Tessa was a monstrosity. A horror. Skinless. By all rights she should have been dead.
“Go,” Tessa said.
I shook my head. “You’re having some kind of delusion.”
A hiss echoed from further down the tunnel.
“She rode you. Stole your breath,” Tessa whispered.
“The creature in the night, the one I thought was you, who I…” My spine locked tight.
“Hide,” Tessa said.
I turned off the flashlight and gripped it two-handed. “I’m not leaving you alone with it.”
The scuttling grew louder. I remembered the creature in Tessa’s skin crawling toward my bedside, long hair swishing back and forth. I imagined it now, brown hair sweeping the tunnel’s floor, spine arched against the clay ceiling, swollen with my breath.
The hag clucked to herself as she drew near, nattering in a sing song voice that sent ice down my spine. She stank of rain-slicked rot and the three day dead.
The hag stopped. “I smell man.”
I held my breath, lungs burning.
“It’s me,” my Tessa said.
“Lie.” The hag crawled closer.
I waited, flashlight clutched tight.
The hag grew still. “Two hearts,” she said at last.
Her breath brushed my face, hot and foul. “There’s the man.”
I flipped on the flashlight. The beam blazed into the hag’s watery eyes. She howled and flung her arms around Tessa’s stolen face.
I cracked the flashlight into her forehead. The hag screeched. Tessa squirmed herself around the hag’s waist and pinned her down. I smashed the flashlight above the hag’s ear and she crumpled.
Tessa and I half lay, half sat in the cramped tunnel, panting. My flashlight was still raised to strike. A clump of long brown hair hung from the its glass cover.
Tessa reached out a knobby finger and twisted the hair.
I wrapped my hand around hers, the tendons thick and strong as piano wire.
“Can we put your skin back?” I asked.
Tessa smiled weakly.
I shone the light on the hag who sprawled in Tessa’s skin. Blotches were already forming around the head and neck. I winced.
Tessa didn’t hesitate.
“Here.” She pointed to a faint pink line running vertically down the hag’s breastbone.
Tessa dug her fingers into her stolen skin. It peeled back with the same grisly sucking sound. She yanked and tugged. Together we rolled the hag over and peeled the skin completely off.
Tessa shook her skin out gently. Her abandoned arms and legs swayed in the flashlight’s beam. Tessa was exhausted. I could see it in her eyes.
I smiled as she unrolled the creamy flesh of her calf and began slowly putting herself to rights.
I didn’t flinch when I touched her skinless arm. “I love you.”
“You better,” she said.
© 2014 by Anna Yeatts
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