Pealing Skin

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Beryl, smiled at the postman and placed her next door neighbor’s parcel on the floor. At home all day, she often took in packages for those who were out at work.

Before closing the door, she glanced across the corridor. Edith hadn’t taken in her newspaper yet. If it was still there at tea-time she might pop over and check her fellow pensioner was okay. Edith wasn’t as active these days and sometimes struggled.

Being neighborly was important to Beryl. Edwin, who lived upstairs, made it very hard work. Day and night he played experimental jazz music. If he had chosen folk, or even country, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. She could never settle, the atonal recordings too uneven to fall into the pattern of background noise. She asked him to maybe not play it so loud, but he just used very impolite language at her and slammed the door in her face.

The poppet was made to an old recipe, using clay from the youngest grave in the churchyard and moss grown on the skull of a murder victim. Beryl stroked her hand over the tuft of hair embedded in the head. Dried food and sour milk from the rubbish bag stuck the follicles together. Rubbing the surface of the small body with bluebells, she used a flint awl to press the crushed petals into the clay. Her fingers smelled of spring woodlands and road kill.

The effect wasn’t instant. It took time. All the best low magic did. About a week later the jazz was played less and less. Then the only noise coming from Edwin’s flat was the tinkle of bells like a sea of cats moving around the upstairs rooms. After a while even that drifted off to become an occasional spasm of sound.

Many months before, she’d stolen the caretaker’s master key and copied it. Just in case one of her elderly neighbors fell and couldn’t get to their phone. She opened Edwin’s front door. From the kitchen came the smell of clogged drains. Junk mail scuffed under her feet as she walked down the hall.

Edwin sat bolt upright on the sofa, fingers gripping the cushions so tight they’d burrowed into the foam. Most of his skin was covered in tiny metal bells, curved loops hooked into raw muscles, just visible through wounds that did not heal. He noticed her and started, setting off a peel of uneven ringing like churches competing. His eyes were red from lack of sleep. Beryl saw several places where new bells waited under the skin to erupt, lips and clappers straining the skin to cracking. A row of traditional cow bells hung down his spine.

“How are you doing, Edwin?” Beryl said, sitting down beside him. Judging by his trousers he hadn’t moved in days.

“Piss off,” he said.

Beryl shook her head. With a nurse’s touch she picked up Edwin’s arm and shook it in the air. He whimpered and tears slipped down the grease staining his cheeks.

“There’s no need to be rude,” she said, opening her bag and taking out a plastic bowl. “Now, you’re not going to be moving for a while, so I’ve brought you some soup.” She held his chin so the bells embedded in his jawbone stayed silent as she fed him. “After all, it’s important to be neighborly.”

end article

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Steve Toase

About Steve Toase

Steve lives in North Yorkshire, England and occasionally Munich, Germany. His stories tend towards the unsettling and unreal. Steve’s work has appeared in Cabinet de Fees’ Scheherezade’s Bequest, Innsmouth Magazine, Not One Of Us and Cafe Irreal amongst others. In 2014 his story Call Out was published in The Best Horror Of The Year Anthology 6. He is currently working with Becky Cherriman and Imove on a commissioned project called Haunt, about the haunting presence of Harrogate in the lives of people experiencing homelessness or living in vulnerable housing.