Porcelain Skin

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A Bugly Sleeper

I’m seated at a large, oak table. It extends across the length of the dim room and disappears into the darkness that cloaks the outer edges of the hall. I’m completely alone, but I can hear the echoes of my own breathing vibrating around the empty space. There’s a heaviness that has settled around me, creating a twisted, clawing fear in my gut.

I slowly glance around at my surroundings. The walls are bare except for a few cracks that snake their way from ground to ceiling. The floor is made up of concrete bricks that have become uneven and jagged with age, and the ceiling extends upwards to a small skylight that does very little to illuminate the space around me.

I have a sense that I’m being watched, but there’s no sign of life other than myself and the dark cloud that hovers just out of reach. There’s something in there; I can feel it. I stare into it, willing whatever is there to have the courage to step out. My spine tenses as ice scurries up my back.

There’s a faint scratching noise as if something is being dragged across the floor. I’m reminded of horror movies where the murderer is pulling an axe behind him, and my throat closes up. I don’t dare move, and barely breathe, so as not to draw any attention to myself. It doesn’t dawn on me that I happen to be sitting in the only source of light. It’s like a beacon announcing my location.

I’m straining to detect any sort of unusual movement within the shadows, but everything is still. Too still. And then I see it, a sort of separation. Whatever it is, it’s attempting to free itself from the murky arms that have tangled themselves around it, until it becomes a distinguished shape of its own.

It’s oddly familiar, giving me a sense of deja vu. The fact that I recognize each distinct movement of this shape has my fingers curling into themselves, and my knees weakening. It moves closer until suddenly I can make out the form of a man emerging from the black fog. He is no longer one with the gloom but is now a separate entity. His movements are sluggish, yet stiff. As if something is hindering his progress.

His steps falter, but he never falls. His eyes are trained straight ahead, holding the weight of regret. His shoulders stick out, trembling with the burden they carry. Not a physical burden, but emotional - mental.

His lips are moving, but no sound is heard. Though I can make out particular features hidden in his saggy, wrinkled skin, I can’t grasp why he seems so familiar. The look in his eyes has me trembling with emotions of my own, a gut-wrenching sorrow that seems to flow out of him and blend with that of the black fog swirling around him.

He takes another step towards me, and the light catches the shimmer of something silver near his feet. My eyes are drawn down as he attempts another step but comes to an abrupt halt. I see them now. Chains. They’re wrapped around his ankles, dragging across the rugged, uneven ground.

Though I can’t hear his words, I can understand him. He’s begging, pleading for a chance to start over, to do things the right way. He’s screaming into the stillness, resembling a crazy man who speaks to the unseen around him.

And then his dark eyes zero in on my own, and the hatred emanating from them has me doubling over. The scars that once drew fresh blood still ache and the steel look he’s pointing at me is like a dagger cutting new wounds. He’s wordlessly yelling his regret at me. He made a mistake. It never should have been him. I shouldn’t have let it ever happen. He’s wishing it had been me instead.

I’m choking as I try to scream, but like him, no sound is uttered. My mouth is just an empty cave as I cry silently. He doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t understand what I’m saying. His shoulders drop further as his gaze sharpens. And then, as if he’s given up the fight, he’s yanked from his feet and sucked into the blackness, the sorrow and pain evaporating with him.

And then I’m alone once again. I glance around the table, surprised to find a feast laid before me. There are bowls full of berries and jams. Plates stacked with pancakes and waffles. A pot full of roast and potatoes. A stack of burgers and a bowl of salad. Full roasted chickens steaming with herb-infused juices.

My mouth waters with anticipation. The old man lurking in the shadows now forgotten, as the possibility of feeding the beast in my stomach becomes a reality. It’s as if I haven’t tasted food in days. I’m ravenous. I reach out across the table to grab a plate full of spicy-scented sausages, but as I lean forward something falls onto my plate. I glance down and shriek as a cockroach scurries across the dish, over the table, and out of sight.

I catch my breath before leaning forward again to grab at a plate of cheeses, but again something falls to my plate, followed by another and another. I look down only to find three cockroaches desperately trying to escape. I look up, searching for the source of the falling bugs, but find nothing.

I suck in a breath, a tickling sensation at the base of my neck freezing me in place. I quickly reach up to swipe it away, but before my fingers even make contact I already know what it is. It’s as if this one movement has prompted the little terrors into action, and suddenly my scalp comes alive with a scratchy, crawling sensation as the horrifying bugs emerge from hiding. I can feel them winding their way through the strands, their small feet clinging to the skin that houses my roots.

I begin to tremble as they scurry out of my hair and down my back, my neck, my face, my arms. I’m swatting desperately for them to vanish, but they just increase in number. They’re pouring out of my hair like theater popcorn spilling over the edges of the machine. I can’t see as they run across my face, blinding me. I jump from my seat and shake my head upside down but they cling to me.

A scream erupts from my lungs as one, then two, three cockroaches find the entrance and scuttle into my mouth. I fall to the ground as they take over my body. Tremors wrack through my limbs as I shrivel up into a ball and allow myself to be completely consumed.

----

I awake with a jolt, my fingers tangled in my knotted mass of brown curls. I’m breathing heavier than normal, but I know it’s only a result of my nightmare. I haven’t experienced a night terror like this in years, and I’m wondering what has me so worked up. I rub my eyes with the palms of my hands before opening them to the sun streaking through the windows.

I take a moment to relax and calm my breathing. I lie down on my back, staring up at the ceiling as my mind replays the dream. It was so strange and horrifying. I’m not even sure if Trevor and I will be able to decode it because I don’t have the slightest idea why I would dream something like this.

I lean over to my side table, reaching for my journal so I can jot down all the details. It takes nearly ten minutes to complete, and then I throw the journal on the table and lay back down.

Suddenly I remember my night with Trevor, and I bolt straight up again. My eyes fly across the room and land on the bundle wrapped in Mercy’s bed. She looks like a fly caught in a web. I smile with pride. She hasn’t moved a muscle all night, not that she really could even if she wanted to. The sight is a welcome distraction from the tormented thoughts reverberating around my skull. I grab for my cell phone from under my pillow and scroll through my contacts. I hit the green button to call.

One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Fo...

“Hello.” His voice is groggy and deep.

I clearly woke him from the arms of sleep. I pull the phone away from my ear to glance at the time. Six-thirty! Oops.

“Hey,” I whisper back. I’ve got my hand covering my mouth a bit, hoping to keep the sound of my voice from traveling to Mercy’s ears.

“Emma?”

“Hey, Sorry, but I thought you might wanna see this.” I giggle into the phone. “You should come over.”

“What is it?” He sounds irritated and not completely coherent. I hear him yawn, and I assume he’s stretching by the strain that accompanies the sound. “Can’t you just take a picture and send it to me.”

“It’s Mercy,” I explain in a hushed tone. “She hasn’t moved all night.” I can hear movement on the other end, and a door opening and closing.

“Ish she breefing?” I hear him ask, and it sounds like he’s got a mouth full of marbles.

I hop out of bed and tiptoe my way across the room. I hover my hand just above her mouth and feel the damp warmth escape as she breathes out. I’m surprised she’s not snoring for once in her life.

“Yeah, she’s breathing.”

I hear the unmistakable sound of a toothbrush against teeth, and I know he’s up. I grin to myself, knowing that he got up just for me. I really think he might be softening towards me. Maybe it won’t be much longer before his eyes are opened to my undeniable beauty and quirky charm.

“I’ll be over in ten,” he tells me, and then hangs up before I can respond. My eyebrows shoot up in surprise; I didn’t actually think he’d come.


I sit on my bed staring at Mercy’s stiff form like a creep until there’s a muffled rap on the door. I dash as stealthily as possible across the room and tug the door open. I put a finger to my lips as I usher him inside. I’m impressed to see him dressed in a pair of fitted jeans and a long-sleeved, button-down, black dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his forearms.

I see a smile fall into place as his eyes skim over Mercy’s unconscious state, and then he turns quickly to shoot the smile at me, and he totally catches me staring at him. His lips slowly relax into a curious smirk. My body ignites instantly.

“She actually looks peaceful,” he whispers to me.

“Yeah, for once.” I snort. “She usually resembles something closer to an ogre. She’s a bugly sleeper.”

“Bugly?” He doesn’t look impressed by my made up word, which makes me laugh. He doesn’t know it’s not made up, it was an accident. One of those instances where your brain thinks of two words at the same time and the only way for your mouth to comply is by combining the two.

“Yeah, butt ugly—bugly.”

“Rude.” He chuckles. “So, nothing having to do with bugs then?”

My mind instantly returns to my odd dream where bugs were flying out of my hair, and I squirm uncomfortably, bringing my hand up to brush through the knotted strands. That’s when I realize I still have bed head and dragon breath. “Grick!”

I’m not sure what I was trying to say, but the confused word makes me sound like a moron. Trevor doesn’t seem to notice as he continues to examine Mercy’s even breathing.

Who am I? I’m supposed to be trying to impress Trevor, and instead, I personally invite him over to a front row seat of my morning face. I’m pretty sure Trevor’s fighting to keep his breakfast down right about now. I’m debating whether or not to dart into the bathroom and salvage as much of my appearance as possible, but I can’t muster up the energy to care enough. He’s already seen me with pit stains and butt sweat, and now he’s seen the bird’s nest that somehow grows out of my head every night. As long as he doesn’t try to kiss me we’re good.

Having him get a taste of my morning breath, literally, would probably send us both to our graves prematurely. Me, from mortification; Trevor, from actually spewing his guts out.

I pull my thoughts together while tucking some of them away in the very depths of my mind to hopefully never be heard from again. I peek at Trevor and cringe when I find him watching me now. He’s probably assessing the damage that sleep does to my appearance.

“So, what’s got you all dressed up?” I ask, forgetting to whisper. My eyes fly over to where Mercy is, but thankfully, she hasn’t budged.

“Work,” he answers simply.

Work? He has a job?

“How ’bout we move out there so we don’t wake the beast,” he says, while tipping his head towards the door.

I nod in agreement and we both slide out.

“Where do you work?” I ask, after shutting the door behind us and turning to face Trevor.

“I guess it’s not really work work. It’s just an internship,” he explains, while straightening out his rolled up cuffs. “See, I’m majoring in art and illustration, so I’ve—”

“What? No way! That’s awesome” I interrupt out of shock. “Sorry, go on.” I flick my hand at him to continue.

“So, I’ve got this internship with a magazine company, and I have to spend four to six hours there each week. I go in for a couple hours every Friday since I don’t have class until later.”

“That’s so cool,” I gush. “What’s the company?” He gives me a withering look as if wishing I didn’t ask that question.

“Don’t laugh,” he says as he rubs the back of his head.

I smile as I pinch my lips together.

“It’s called Kids Discover,” he sighs. “It’s an educational magazine for kids. I just help with some of the graphic design aspects of it. Nothing major, but I am learning some things.”

“Is that what you hope to do when you graduate?” I ask, making myself comfortable against the wall.

Trevor mirrors my actions as he leans against the wall opposite me. “Naw, not really. I’m actually aiming to do some book or movie illustrating, but we’ll see. It’s a pretty tough job to get into, so I really gotta push myself to get out there.”

I’m nodding in complete understanding.

“What about you?” he questions. “You’re doing some kind of music composition, right?” My eyes widen, and he can see the surprise in my expression. “You mentioned it to Mike that day we were tricked into getting drinks together.”

I scan my memories until I land on that day, and a small ‘oh’ forms on my lips. “Yeah. I’m surprised you remember.” I look down at my bare feet. They’re nearly blinding compared to the dark beige carpet under them. Some sunshine would do me some good.

I tilt my head to glance back up at Trevor.

“I love music, and I love writing, so I just put the two together. I also play the violin,” I explain, “and that helps me know how a piece will sound when it’s played, instead of just hearing it in my head.”

He’s nodding like he completely understands.

“I actually do a bit of writing myself,” he says. I remember him mentioning that he plays piano, but I didn’t know he wrote.

“I found this old barn,” I start to tell him, and then freeze.

He notices the sudden pause in my train of thought because he’s eyeing me strangely.

I’m wondering if I should go on. Can I trust him with my secret place? We’ve definitely grown closer, but he also did say that he was planning on playing nice until the semester was over so we wouldn’t kill each other. Now I’m wondering if any of this is real, or if he’s just getting through our time together.

Why would he bother hanging out with me if he didn’t have to, though? He volunteered to help with my prank on Mercy. But then again, if his night of dropping oil-filled balloons from the roof was any indication, he enjoys a few pranks occasionally. So maybe it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the thrill.

I peek up at him, trying to read the emotions on his face. If that were the case, then why was he here now. Maybe he just enjoys the after-effects of his work. But something in the way he’s been treating me lately makes me trust him, and I’m wondering if that’s a bad thing.

“You found a barn?” Trevor asks, his brows raised in question.

I laugh breathily. “Yeah, um... so I found this abandoned barn where I go to unwind sometimes.” I decide to risk it, hoping he doesn’t get adventurous and try to find the place. “I take my violin with me and just play for hours. It’s got the most beautiful acoustics. So warm.” I smile, and I catch Trevor mirroring my expression. “It’s my favorite place,” I add timidly.

“I’ve got a place like that,” he tells me gently like he’s trying to reassure me that it’s not stupid to have a special place. “I’ll have to show you sometime.”

I gulp as I search for any sign that he might be messing with me, but there’s nothing. He looks completely genuine. Is he serious? He’s offering to let me into the one place he goes to find solace and peace. Is he opening his door and letting me step inside? Giving me a glimpse of the heart that beats beneath his chest? I offer him a soft smile as warmth spreads out from my rib cage and pulses into my fingers.

“Well,” he huffs as he pushes himself off the wall, “I gotta get going. My shift starts in forty-five minutes, and it’s a half an hour drive. I’ll catch you later.”

I just nod stupidly as he makes his way down the hall. I don’t move until he’s stepped into the elevator, offering me one more smile before he disappears.

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