Sunday, 21 July 2013

Skin Baby

Here's a short story I wrote as a way of getting my brain back into a habit of writing. It's based on a rather strange dream my friend and editor Kathryn had. Enjoy!

Skin Baby

"Hoffner," said the suited man. "Is that a type of beer?"
"No," I replied. "No, I don't think so..."
The man wrapped his tongue around his gums, before giving his head a sharp nod.
The solution to his personal conundrum seemed to satisfy the man, bookending the conversation in his mind. His brow glistened with a thin film of sweat. His glasses were thinly rimmed with gold, or gold effect. I looked down at my notes. My words were drunken spiderlegs on the soft blue lined paper.
"What am I looking at here?" he eventually asked. His eyes narrowed against the glare of the halogen strip lights. The glass was clear, but only on our side. The infant could only see his own reflection.
"Samual Leopold Mc-"
"Official designations only, if you please," said the man curtly, flicking his eyes towards me. I paused, momentarily blank. Too much coffee. I'm becoming blinkered again.
"Subject one," I said, having to read it off the page. Of course. How could I have forgotten that?
"He's unique enough to warrant it."
"But surely-"
"We've defined a new category."
"How old is-"
"The boy will be three this month."
"Hoffman," said the suited man, turning towards me fully. His shoulders pressed against the smooth lines of his off-grey suit, "if you interrupt me once more I'll send you back to pharmaceuticals."
I bit my lip reflexively. Don't mention that he got your name wrong...
"Fine..." he continued - to himself more then me - before turning back towards the observation window.
The room beyond was a mess of broken toys and spilled food, bodily fluids and blankets.
"It looks like a nest," said the man. I've already forgotten his name... Mancini? He's Professor Kray's superior, I know that much. "There had better be a good reason why that room hasn't been cleaned to company standards. This is a research facility. We have standards to maintain."
The blankets shifted as a small hand reached out. It slipped through a miasma of rotting fruit before grasping a red and blue plastic hammer and dragging it back into the grimy cotton folds. The suited man's eyes fixed on the movement.
"I was led to believe that agitation caused the effect," he said, leaning forwards until his forehead almost touched the glass. A faint halo of condensation began to form on its surface.
"Yes, but we've both recorded and exhausted the effect. Did you watch the footage?"
"I watch all footage from all departments. It's one thing to see it on screen and another to witness it."
"Well... we have got a test scheduled for this evening."
"Very good. I'm here now."
"I'm here now," said the man, looking back at me. His eyes widened beneath his glasses.
We looked at each other for a few seconds.
"Perhaps we could bring it forwards," I said slowly. Kray will have my head.
"I think that's for the best."
I turned and scurried over to the control panel. My white coat was stifling. My badge beat against my breastbone with each nervous step.
"Begin," said the man, folding his arms across his chest.
My hands flew across the various dials. My fingers twitched with stress. Easy now, not too much...
A high pitched wail sang out. It was loud enough on our side to cause an involuntary wince; I knew that beyond the glass it was almost insufferable.
The mass of blankets unfurled like a dying flower. The boy rolled out, pink and glistening. His skin hung in rolls. His mouth was wide and toothless. We could barely hear his wails over the siren.
"Does it take long, or does... ah..."
The suited man's voice trailed off as the boy flipped onto his front. Bones shifted and slipped. Skin stretched and balloon, flowing as smoothly as water. Flesh tumbled and rolled.
"As you can see, the skeleton slips free almost immediately," I said, managing to keep the nerves out of my words.
The suited man flinched as a sudden shape pressed itself against the stretched skin that had been the boy's back.
"The skull," I said by way of explanation. I was gaining confidence in direct relation to the man's increasing disgust.
Streams of blood drizzled out of eye sockets that flapped free of their usual home. The press of frenzied limbs within the skin dome brought to mind a soft edged anemone.
"Stop this," said the man in hushed tones, as if afraid he could be heard over the cacophony.
Nerves fell back into place. I should have warned him. The recordings do no justice to the living sight. I shut off the wail and watched as the vigorous movement began to slow to an undulation.
“The way it moves...” started the suited man, before slipping a handkerchief free of his breast pocket and holding it to his mouth. He turned away to retch. In the room beyond, the boy's finger bones started to slip back into place within the glove of his own flesh.
“The boy has complete control over his body cells,” I said by way of explanation. The information did nothing to improve the man's mood. He closed his eyes as he pulled himself up straight. I could hear his breathing, sharp and fast.
“It's too much,” he said quietly. His back was both to me and the boy, who had begun to crawl back into his makeshift bed.
“We have even begun testing on smaller, ah... off cuts,” I said. “Professor Kray said we needed more time but the results are already astonishing. It's as if each cell can divine a purpose individually.”
“Divine,” repeated the man. He turned back towards me. His skin had bled of all colour. The sweat was no longer a film but a delta of rivulets.
“They can move. Each cell can move, when provoked.”
“Burn it,” said the man. He pulled his glasses from his eyes roughly and wiped his other hand over his pallid features. Sweat rained onto the ivory tiled floor.
“I don't follow,” I said carefully, hoping I had misheard.
“Burn it. Cleanse the room.”
“With respect, he is not an 'it'. His name is Samuel.”
“Do you think that matters?” asked the man, reaching forward and grabbing my shoulder. He began to knead the bone and skin together. “No one knows he's here. We paid good money to ensure that was the case.”
“But morally speaking-”
Moralilty?” screamed the man incredulously. He swung his arm and gave my cheek a sharp slap. I stumbled sideways into the glass with a dull thud. The sound caused the blankets to stir. “This has nothing to do with morality. That thing is repulsive. It disgusts me.”
The man bore down on me. His hands grabbed my lapels. The crocodile clip that held my badge snapped free and the my plastic enshrined face fluttered to the floor like a sycamore seed.
“We are here to study the next age of evolution, not to cavort with demons. That thing is a unholy. Kill it.”
My mouth moved uselessly. My thoughts froze.
“He's a boy,” I said softly.
Kill it,” repeated the man.
My eyes slipped towards the room. The greatest discovery of this age, lost because of fear...
The man released me, letting me tumble to the floor.
“You have one hour.”

The room was bare. The scent of bleach still stung my nostrils.
“Two years of research...” murmured Kray.
“He looked at me,” I said, staring at the spot that had been Samuel's bed. “He looked right at me. I don't know if he recognised me.”
The flame-thrower had been the only tool guaranteed to rid the room of all bodily cells.
“I don't even recall if I've ever shown him my face before.”
Kray sniffed, three times in short order. “Enough. This has left a bad taste in my mouth.”
The lab hummed with a dull machine heartbeat.
I carefully lined the remaining documents up with the shredder and began feeding them into the machine. The waste paper basket was already brimming with a vermicelli of white entrails.
“The air is too dry in here,” said Kray, sliding an index finger into his collar and jerking it away from his throat. He sniffed, before giving a quick cough, as if trying to dislodge a hair ball. “Do you have much more to do?” he asked irritably.
“There's just the samples,” I replied numbly, turning my back on him as I cast my eyes down upon the Petri dishes that were lined up along the counter.
I blinked. My right eye spasmed a little. I reached up with a knuckle and rubbed.
“Did you already dispose of these?” I asked. If he had, it would have been the first time he'd touched the samples since harvesting. Kray was an infirm man mired in theory, with hands that jerked in time with his pulse, despite his best efforts to control them.
The only answer from Kray was another rasping cough.
The counter itself didn't appear to have been sterilised. I placed my hand upon the surface, and lowered myself into a crouch as I carefully began to trace a barely visible, pink tinged line that zigzagged towards the floor.
“Hoffner,” said Kray, the word whistling in his throat as he gasped.
I shot a glance towards him. His hands were straining reflexively at his face, as he delved his shaking fingers into his own mouth. I pulled myself up quickly, my hands unintentionally sweeping the dishes onto the tiled floor, where they clattered and span.
“Move,” I commanded firmly, pulling his jerking fingers away from his spittle flecked lips, before tilting his head back. My right eye began to water with effort as I scanned his open mouth.
I caught sight of it a moment before it slipped from view, pink and quivering, wriggling downwards along the back of the old man's throat.
I let go of his face in shock, stepping back.
The faded pink/red line was there, snaking it's way up the hang-dog folds of Kray's sagging face, snaking its way into Kray's left nostril. It was indistinct, and far too faint to notice unless it was looked for, but its significance warranted fluorescence.
Kray gasped, a dry, jittering wheeze. His eyes conveyed a thousand questions, but only one emotion – desperation. His airways have closed. His airways have been closed.
My right eye flared with a sudden needle of pain. It was so intense that it dragged my attention from the dying man towards my own physical plight. I staggered over to a mirrored cabinet, scattering a trolley of surgical tools. Steel glittered as it rained upon the tiles.
The surface misted with my breath. I wiped away the condensation in time to see the line of hairs, crawling like caterpillars from my ear and into my eye, following a line...
Blood began to bead at the corner of my eye, seeping from the newly created and deepening wound.
My own words returned to sting my mind. “They can move. Each cell can move, when provoked.”
Perhaps the mind was never in control...
Kray collapsed. His lips were lined with blue. The memory of seeing the square of the child's flesh crawling into his lungs forced itself back into my mind. It was somehow worse than the knowledge that the boy's hairs were digging through my optic nerves, towards my brain...

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