Details about the giveaways at the end of this post!
But first, a story to celebrate! It’s never felt right not to have a The Girl from the well story out for Halloween, so here’s a little something I wrote for the occasion!
The Skinless Man
An hour after Zachary Atkinson’s body was found in the woods with half its skin missing, his ghost stared at me from behind a row of crime scene tape, like this was somehow my fault. His incorporeal form was not an improvement from his corpse. Half-peeled flesh curled up along the sides of his face to reveal jawbone and perpetually grinning teeth, and the right side of his body was an angry blister of blood and pus.
If I’d been anyone else I would have run for the hills. As it was, his corpse rated just a little worse than a shitty cult horror remake and a little less than unsatirical clown sex.
And if I’d had any thoughts about leaving, the look in his eyes would have stopped me. For all his horrific disfigurement it wasn’t hate that was festering in his gaze; it was the dazed look of a wounded dog who’d been tortured beyond its own comprehension.
The closest I’d ever gotten to that kind of confusion was watching Shark Week promos advocating how sharks aren’t vile, people-eating monstrosities – before watching Shark Week programs showcasing victims partially eaten by apparently vile, people-eating sharks.
I looked back at him without flinching. He seemed to appreciate that. We weren’t friends, but we’d seen each other around school. Before he died.
He’d died horribly.
I looked back at Okiku. Something passed between the two ghouls, an acknowledgment of sorts. “Are we good?” I asked her quietly. That she’d shown up to greet a ghost she didn’t even know, but hide from me these last few weeks – that hurt.
She gazed back at me and turned away, saying nothing.
It had started with the staring, and not because of my white socks with loafers faux pas that day.
I was used to those by now, even though Dad and I had moved to Washington only the month before. I got stares from jocks either stealing my bookbag or shoving me into a locker, from students who’ve heard of my sordid past, and from others claiming I was cursed because of said sordid past and for a few unusual things that happened. Like how a locker had toppled over and nearly squished Stanley Boden after he’d expressed a desire to see me in an internment camp. Okiku was avoiding me, but she still hated bullies.
But these stares weren’t malicious. I snuck a look behind me, and saw the members of the Spirit Quest club watching me. Four of them, anyway: Gavin Furst, Chapo Marquez, Min-Kyung Park, and Harold Peck.
Here’s everything important you’ll need to know about the Spirit Quest club: it’s a really stupid name, especially for an organization the school didn’t approve of and had in fact rejected all financial stipends for. Officially, they’re a crime club bonding over police reports and cold cases, so everyone thinks they’re the next school shooters waiting to happen.
Unofficially, they’re a group of avid ghost story collectors who prowl through microfilm and haunted histories. They’re pretty intense about it – not in that I-love-this-hobby kind of crazy, but in the that-Giorgio-guy-from-History-Channel-who-thinks-everything-is-made-of-aliens-and-thanks-them-for-it crazy. Chapo definitely had the hair for it.
Even I thought the crime club was a reputation killer, and I’m both the actual ghost hunter and a prominent bottom feeder in this government-mandated aquarium.
I dumped my tray and strode to their table. They shrank back. “What do you guys want?” I asked, attempting to tug my sleeves over my wrists before remembering I had a t-shirt on. Old habits suck.
They looked nervously at each other. I wondered how freaked out they would be had they known Okiku was on the ceiling, hanging right next to them. She circled them slowly, her black button-like eyes unblinking. Strands of dark hair swept past Gavin’s shoulder, and he reached up to brush it off without thinking. My stomach clenched. She’d been hiding from me the last two months. If she’s here, that meant something was wrong.
“Well? Are you guys done being unpopular with me, so I can go and be unpopular somewhere else?” I took a step back, but Chapo shook his head, frantic.
“You have to help us,” he burst out. “Everyone’s going to know soon, anyway, but you have to come with us now.”
“For the last time, I don’t want to be a part of your club.”
“It’s not that,” Min said nervously. “It’s Zac.”
Right. The fifth member. “If he doesn’t want to be a part of your club either, then that’s between you and hi – ”
I paused. Okiku’s eyes came alive with a strange, terrible want. “And what does that have to do with me?” I finally asked.
Harold gulped. “Some people say you’re… occultic.”
“That’s not even a goddamn word, Harry.” Two weeks ago, one of the boys thought it would be fun to empty the contents of my bag into a trash can. They’d found my record player, and the whole cafeteria was treated to the sounds of the upcoming Billboard Top 100 hit, Taoist Incantation Mantra #52. Now everyone thinks I’m an exorcist, or possessed.
Ironically, they’re right on both counts. “How exactly did he die?”
Another round of nervous, worried glances. “They found him in the woods,” Min-Kyung finally said. “Somebody had ripped his skin off.”
I can deal with a dead Zachary Atkinson; I’m not sure I can deal with Okiku. She’s new, so to speak, having inhabited my body for less than two months. For the most part she’d left me alone, locker incident aside. This was the longest she’d been in my presence since expunging the masked woman from my system.
The police had long since taken the body away, but the ghost remained. His friends huddled up behind me, waiting for me to speak.
“Did the cops talk to you?”
“Yeah. They want to speak to us again later.”
None of the cops were going to tell a bunch of kids anything, so my own investigations will have to take place after they’ve gone. “Then tell me everything now.”
We left the crowd before anyone could stop us. Zachary just stood there and watched as we walked away.
We found a table at a nearby diner, and they plied me with information. They’d been researching a string of unsolved cases dating back twenty years, where victims were flayed of their skin and left to rot in the forests. Rumors of some creature lurking in the woods accompanied these tales, no doubt due to the lack of evidence and the particular grotesqueness of the bodies. But as far as the crime club were concerned, it was like any other case they’ve read and tried to solve.
“But Atkinson grew obsessed,” Harold said, around a mouthful of burger. “He started spending days holed up in his room, not going to school. We didn’t see him for days at a time. His mom was worried, but he didn’t want to go out and she didn’t force him to. Just let him do what he wanted, I guess.”
Some mother. Not that I’m in a position to criticize.
“And when he did get out, he looked terrible,” Chapo added. “Pale like a vampire, and thin. And he wouldn’t shut up about the Skinless Man.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Back up a little. Skinless Man?” Okiku was wandering by the counter, peering into a jukebox older than I was.
“There were rumors,” Gavin mumbled into his milkshake. “A legend, really. Kinda like Bloody Mary and the Jersey Devil, except this one’s about a Skinless Man hiding out in the woods. It comes out to get people who try searching for him.”
“And they got him,” Chapo interjected, bobbing his head. “I know it.”
“And you decided to let me in on this because I make Buddhist monk chant mixtapes? Are you frigging kidding me?”
“No,” Harold whispered. “Because my cousin studies at Perry Hills High. He… he saw what happened with the birds. And the tattoos. And… he knows about your mom, and the bully that died.”
I don’t have a lot of fond recollections of Perry Hills High, or of Applegate, the town I used to live in. For the first time in over two months, I remembered. Headless crows crashing into windows and dropping dead at my feet. The faint glint of silver as a pedophile swings his knife in the darkness, and Callie screaming.
A woman in black, hiding a face of horrors behind a pale white mask, stepping through a mirror into my bedroom with her sharp talons.
The jukebox crackled to life, and Santana’s Black Magic Woman sputtered through the air. From the amazed glances the waitress threw its way, I reckoned that it hasn’t played for a long time.
Okiku lifted her hand from the glass. Her pale, bloated face looked back at me.
Okiku. Okiku, blocking the woman in black’s path before the latter could take me. Blurred and unfocused images of Okiku, dragging a screaming killer into the darkness.
Okiku, soft and beautiful, framed by moonlight.
“We’re not going to tell anyone,” Harold continued. His eyes slid down to my arms, no doubt puzzled that the notorious tattoos I once sported were no longer present. “At least, if you’re willing to help us out.”
“Did I hear you assholes right?” I leaned forward. “You’re going to blackmail me into helping you out, knowing I may or may not have torn the head off a bully, of some birds, and of possibly even my own mother? That I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids?”
Now they’re scared, Chapo’s eyes rolled so far up his head he could probably see his own brain. For a moment, I felt a little vindicated, a bit empowered to be the bully for a change. And then I felt guilty.
“Idiots,” I said, relaxing. “You really believe all that junk? I know stuff, fine. Some of my best friends are Japanese shrinemaidens. My mom was one.”
Nervous laughter. “Sorry,” Chapo whispered. “We just wanna know what happened. We weren’t there to help Zac.”
“It’s horrible,” Min-Kyung added brokenly. “I still can’t believe it.”
Friends wanting to do right to honor one of their fallen. Who am I to argue with that? “I’ll help, but I want every article and piece of lore you’ve got, and I want it now.”
The music’s switched to Blondie’s One Way or Another. While Debbie Harry crooned about how she’s gonna getcha getcha getcha I glanced back at Okiku again. Her lips are pursed. She should be thrilled to have a new killer to chase. We hadn’t done that since she’s been with me. So why does she look so unhappy?
“Are you still avoiding me?” I asked later that night, on my knees in my bedroom surrounded by scrapbooks the crime club had put together for the flayed cases. Kagura taught me as much as she could about dealing with spirits, but she never taught me how to get them to like me. I didn’t like Okiku’s silent treatment, like she was angry at me for reasons I couldn’t understand.
She said nothing, tracing a small symbol against the window she’s perched beside. The murder was in the news- Zac had been dead for nearly three days, reported missing for two. There were no details of his being half-skinned, just references to similar cases in the past that suggested there could be a serial killer on the loose.
“Right. I’ll rationalize things out myself, then.” She’s angry. She must be angry. I had no idea how the mind of a living female works, and I know even less when it came to the dead ones. “In all these cases there’s been no evidence of DNA or blood or any kind of forensics. Some go as far back as the seventies, so that’s understandable. But there is literally nothing, even with the more recent murders. No strands of hair, no footprints, no murder weapon. It’s like the victims went out and flayed themselves, except they’ve all been skinned with surgical precision, which suggests a medical practitioner.”
“And then there’s all these accounts of the Skinless Man collected over the years. Sounds a bit like the whole Slender Man mythos, really, except that it predates that one by a couple of decades. As far as rumors go, he looks just as flayed as his victims. No reason given as to why he kills them, only that his targets had been researching his legend or something. If he’s the culprit, he’s targeted all kinds of people: children, adults, all genders and races… look, if you’re angry with me, ‘ki, then at least let me know why. I know I didn’t want to push the last couple of months, since I wanted to get us used to each other first, but if you’re mad – “
“Do you want to?”
The question was unexpected. Okiku turned away from the window. Her eyes were black soulless caverns as always, but I could sense how she felt. If I’d had a flashlight and shone it into those dark depths I would have found something very much like… worry. And annoyance.
Things seemed easier between us back when she’d been wrestling ghosts and serial killers for my soul.
“Do I want to do this?” I gestured at the clippings and witness accounts. “Yeah. I mean, it would be selfish of me not to try and help, given everything that’s happened to me. Is the Skinless Man thing real? It’s not just some serial killer, it’s another ghost?” She closed her eyes, and that confirms my suspicions. “Even more reason to. I don’t want any more murderous spirits wandering our territory – present company excluded, of course.”
I tried to make it sound like a joke, but Okiku could never process humor. She faded back into the wall, leaving me alone again.
She’s mad. I can feel it in my bones. But why?
I sighed myself. This is my first ghost hunt on American soil, and I would have appreciated a little more support.
“It won’t be easy,” Kagura warned me, two nights after the woman in black had been purged from my body. “Okiku might be a more accommodating spirit, but she comes with a new set of problems.”
“Like what?” Dad was due to arrive the next day, and he was infuriatingly mad at everything that had transpired in his absence, mostly because I had gotten Callie hurt. My lovely cousin was due out the hospital today, but Kagura had begun instructing me in ghost-taming, as she called it, before we picked her up. She did so reluctantly, though I was a more than willing student. “I have a kickass ghost. She’s not going to hurt me. What possible disadvantage can I get from this, other than her seeing me naked in the shower or something?”
“Don’t treat this like it’s some kind of game, Tark.”
I sobered immediately. We’d lost friends and mentors that week, and Kagura’s beloved home had been destroyed, possibly permanently. “Sorry. I just wanted to think positive for a change, you know? I never had much reason for that before.”
She smiled. “You’re taking things better than I hoped. Possession always comes at a price, Tark. Okiku is like no other spirit I’ve ever encountered, and I don’t know what might happen.” The topic of our conversation was currently sunning herself on the front porch of the small ryokan we had sought refuge in, owned by one of Kagura’s friends, while we waited for both Callie’s discharge and my father’s upcoming ire. I winced, certain I was going to be grounded till I was seventy.
“She won’t hurt me.” I’ve never been so sure of anything else in my life. She saved me when she didn’t have to. She followed me all the way to Japan to protect me, despite all the sad memories she had here.
“Not deliberately, no. And that’s why you need to learn some protecting yourself. For both your sakes.” She pressed something into my hand. It was a small recorder. “I can email you several more chants when you return to America, but this will do for now. I will teach you how to defend yourself from other ghosts who may still seek you out. You were the source of a very powerful, malicious spirit, Tark. Even after she’d gone, you remain a beacon to others strong enough to try and take advantage.”
“Okiku won’t let that happen.”
“Okiku herself attracts another set of monsters. You will both need defending – from other spirits, and also from each other. She understands this. Let me show you how, so you can show her, too.”
“She seems to regret being with me,” I said bitterly. “She doesn’t talk to me anymore. What do you want me to do when she’s not there? Howl into the crippling void? It’s not like she has a cellphone I can call.”
“She expresses her frustrations and desires differently than we would. Reach out to her. Tell her you care, even when she may not seem to. Three hundred years is a long time to be lonely.”
The police were gone the next day, and we returned to the Atkinsons’ house once classes were over. The new obstacle in our path, however, turned out to be Mrs. Atkinson. The door opened a couple of inches, and she peered out from behind it, her face tilted toward us. Her eyes were red, no doubt from crying, and her face was pale. Her hair hung untidily down, and she looked and smelled like she hadn’t had a bath in awhile. “Leave me,” she whispered in a muffled voice.
“Mrs. Atkinson,” Harold spoke up, trembling. “I’m so sorry. We just want to know how you’re feeling and if there’s anything – ”
“Leave me.” The door slid shut.
“Can’t really blame her,” Min-Kyung said, sounding depressed.
“There’s another way,” Chapo said. “Sometimes we climb up his window. We’ve done it loads of times before.”
They found the ladder they used and lugged it out, while Min-Kying kept a nervous watch just in case Mrs. Atkinson heard us. I’d thought ahead, and had worn gloves. They could all explain away their DNA in Atkinson’s room, but I couldn’t.
None of the boys wanted to be first, so I volunteered. The window was unlocked, which wasn’t the problem.
The real problem became apparent as soon as I stepped into the room.
Crazy writing was smeared on the wall, dripping in what I hoped was either lipstick or red paint. Why wasn’t this in the news?
“What the fuck,” Harold muttered, as the others clambered in.
“Okiku,” I muttered, “what’s all this?” It was disturbing, to say the least. Atkinson didn’t just write them, he scratched the letters onto the surface. The house is not here, he had scribbled over and over again in places. We burn. We are free.
Chapo looked oddly at me, but I ignored him. Okiku hadn’t answered, was still nowhere to be seen, and I was annoyed. Whatever her beef with me is, couldn’t it wait until I’m no longer knee deep in this body horror of a room?
“This is some Texas Chainsaw massacre shit,” Gavin said, staring.
“How does he keep his room?” I asked.
“Is he a neat freak? Messy? Does his mom clean his room for him?”
“Uh, he’s pretty organized. Cleans his own room and doesn’t like a lot of clutter.”
“You know his computer passwords?”
“Yeah. He uses a laptop.”
“Even better. Grab all the relevant files you can find.” I handed him the USB drive I’d carried with me, then checked the study, the dresser drawers. Then I made for the closet. Nothing.
“Don’t read anything,” I said, as Gavin started to click through his computer.
“If they’re right about the Skinless Man going for the people who know too much about him, maybe not paint a target on your back, right?”
Harold’s eyes were wide with fright. “But what about you?”
“Trust me.” I turned back toward the wall, leaning forward to inspect one of the words. There’s a faint scent in the air, a heavy metallic aftertaste. My stomach turned.
“Blood,” Okiku said, materializing by my elbow.
“Holy Jesus freaking Christ!” I jumped. Everyone else stared at me like I was already insane. I swallowed and tried to act cool. “Um, never mind. It’s just – this isn’t paint or lipstick or anything. It’s blood.”
“Blood?” Chapo echoed. “Whose blood?”
I snatched a pencil from the table and poked at the smear with its eraser tip. The blood seeped through the soft nub, and my own veins ran cold.
The door creaked. Mrs. Atkinson peered in.
Except, I realized much to my horror, this wasn’t Mrs. Atkinson at all. It looked like a woman, and while the boys identified her downstairs as their friend’s mother, something about her looked terrifyingly wrong now. She’d hidden most of her face from view then, and in our worry about getting into Zac’s room we hadn’t paid much attention beyond noting how terrible she’d looked.
Now, she shows us everything. Areas of her face stretched up in places that didn’t warrant stretching, while others sagged down like loose skin. It was almost like she wore an ill-fitting mask, but whoever behind it was still too large for the face. The eyes looking back at us weren’t bloodshot from crying; they were bloodshot by nature – if anything about it was even natural.
Leave, it whispered again in that same raspy voice as before, and the door slowly swung open.
Gavin was right about that Texas Chainsaw Massacre crap. Except the Skinless Man wasn’t a person, it was a large hulking thing that had two arms and two legs like a human but was attached awkwardly at parts of its body in a way no human appendage had ever been attached – like it had collected random body parts and then sewn them on itself. It appeared naked, though with no defined extremities that I could see, because –
Oh, shit. Because it had no skin. There was no layer of it anywhere on that hideous, squat frame, and the closest thing to flesh I can see of it was the one on its head.
And it wasn’t even its own flesh. It was Mrs. Atkinson’s, stripped and fused to its face.
I grabbed a baseball bat. The boys were screaming and they were jammed against the window, struggling over who gets to go down the ladder first. The thing took a step closer. It spread its hands, and I saw to my revulsion that it had no fingers, but something closer in shape to sharpened, interlocking branches.
Leave me, it hissed. Leave me leave me leave me don’t leave me don’t leave me DON’T leave me DON’T leave me DON’T LEAVE ME DON’T LEAVE ME –
Buddhist chants blared out from my record player, and it flinched back, briefly. That didn’t last long; it leaped for me, and its jaw twisted open. There was a sickening, tearing sound as the deceased Mrs. Atkinson’s mouth ripped apart, the skin unable to bear the strain. I swung the bat as hard as I could and felt it connect – but the wood sank deep into its body like it was soft putty. It wasn’t insubstantial. This thing wasn’t a ghost, it was a living monster.
There was a furious flurry of cold air, and then Okiku’s presence washed over me, even as the girl herself dropped from the ceiling. Her nails ripped through the thing with greater effectiveness, and it scuttled back. Okiku placed herself between us, her expression still carefully blank.
It immediately retreated back into something else – a hole that opened up behind it, though trying to focus on that only gave me nausea – and was quickly gone.
Chapo, the last on the ladder, was already halfway down. I grabbed the rungs and hoisted myself over the window. “’Ki!” I cried. She was still staring at the place the thing had disappeared to, but she turned obediently and followed me out of the house. The boys were running, and didn’t stop till they were back onto the main road, far enough away.
“What the hell was that?” Min-Kyung quavered, as I caught up to them. “What the hell, man!”
“You guys have done enough,” I told them grimly, pocketing the USB drive Gavin handed over. “I want you guys to go home, hug your mothers, and for God’s sake don’t even think about what happened here today if you know what’s good for you.”
“B-but what if it goes after – “
“It came after me. You guys might have read up on the cases, but I know a little more about it now. Don’t read anything about this. Heck, don’t read anything tonight.”
“What if it gets you?”
“It won’t.” I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt. Mrs. Atkinson must have found her son’s notes. She must have been killed after talking to the police – maybe shortly before we arrived, which explained why that thing was still there. She wrote those words, I thought, sickened, remembering how the eraser sponge had pinkened so easily. She had scratched them on the walls. The blood was still fresh because it was her blood. “Just stay low, alright?”
“Back there,” Chapo said. “I saw something else. There was a….”
Chapo looked at me. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Nothing,” he said.
One of the documents in Zac’s laptop was a gold mine of information, if fucked up stories were a valuable commodity. He’d collated a list of cases he’d done research on.
Put it together in between. Then he won’t know. Maybe he won’t know.
Isolated house burned, mother’s skin taken off. Civilization ten miles away. A son, survived. By the time help came, he’d been sitting with his dead mother for days. All he could say was that she was skinless. Bullied the son, but that didn’t matter, I guess.
They told me how three kids found the Skinless Man, once. All that was left of them was the tip of a finger and cheap corduroy.
The cop securing the crime scene tried to burn the house down two hours later, screaming gibberish, and bit off an EMT’s ear.
A mother and her child. Kid was untouched. Mother had been slit from ear to ear, all muscles but no skin. Scalped of all hair. Eyes were missing. Dog was skinned, too. Found its fur miles away, intact and in one piece save for a large slit along the abdomen. Shucked like an oyster.
Unidentified woman’s body turned up in a ditch, naked. Animals had gotten to it, but remains showed no skin remaining. Bits of blue; her uniform survived, but no flesh. Same cop.
A man somewhere in Nantucket, skinned and hung from a tree like deer meat, pickling in the breeze.
He doesn’t like it when you know. You can burn him if you knew everything.
A boy trussed up like a present during Christmas Day. His parents found him underneath their Christmas tree. Mother killed herself two years later. The father tried to self-lobotomize after that, died in a mental asylum. Raved about being skinned alive till the end, about wishing he’d never been burned.
To pass, you must burn.
Fingers. Fire. Skinless Men. Crazy cops. As far as I was concerned, this was ghost hunter bingo.
Some of the other files had more details about the cases he’d mentioned, though nothing about the Skinless Man lore, specifically. A quick google search didn’t turn up much, either.
Atkinson’s notes deteriorated shortly after that. Several page breaks isolated this wall of text from the rest.
The house is not there. The house is not there. Follow the dead, and the house will be there. There are eyes on the wall. There is a hole on my wall that is not here but there. He told me how to get in and I’m afraid. Too much love and too little love. Love burns too much. Burning is free. Always free. Knocking on door. Is it my mother, or is it not my mother. I know too much, too late. But I must I must go back I must face the woods and follow the dead and burn. I don’t want to die my face is my own not anyone else and I want to be free and my face is my own and my own is my face and I
It stops at that point.
There was something else at the very bottom of the word document. A webpage URL: http://www.skins.com.
Skins. How appropriate.
If I’d been expecting anything to leap out at me when the page loaded, I was disappointed. It was blank, with nothing but a prompt to enter a password of sorts. Checked the source code, and found nothing but a confusing array of letters and numbers. “They should fire their marketing guy,” I muttered. I’m no programmer, and this is all gibberish so far. But what about this made Zac a target?
I read his notes again and again until my eyes began to blur. Growling, I rubbed at them, and focus one more time.
How can a house not be there? What’s all that crap about too much and too little love? Who told Zac to ‘get in’, and where exactly is ‘in’?
To pass, you must burn. That sounded strangely out of place given everything that came before it.
I stared at the login screen on the laptop. What the hell, I thought, typed youmustburn into the input box, and hit enter.
A loud sound grated the air, and I spun. There were scratching sounds coming from inside the wall.
It grew louder.
I’ve been on this rodeo before. I backed as far away as I could from the noise, into a corner.
There was that strange blur again, of a hole opening up in the center of my room that my mind refused to acknowledge was a hole, like I’m seeing it from two different timelines where it existed in one but not in the other. And then it climbed out.
There was no skinned flesh to hide behind this time. It had an abyss for a face, so dark that you can look into it and see the fog of mindless eternity staring back. But somewhere in that pit were eyes, red-veined and bulging. Leave me don’t leave me, it hissed without a mouth. I saw the sharp, twig-like fingers extending toward me and realized how the creature had sliced its victims open.
The thing reeled back from the word like it was a powerful incantation. Okiku slides into view, eyes fierce with barely controlled rage. “Leave!” she hissed again.
It looked past her toward me, and snarled. And then it was gone, the not-hole behind it disappearing.
This was the second time Okiku saved me from something in my own room. I sank down, breathing hard. “I kinda wish that there doesn’t have to be something hunting me down for you to stay with me more than five minutes,” I joked, trying not to shake.
“Do not do this.” She was still angry, her fists balled, but she’s no longer silent. “I leave you in peace because you are safe and that is all that is needed. But you refuse to be safe! You are free of danger, yet you return to it again! Why can you not feel grateful, to be safe?”
She’d said more words in that moment than she’d had in the last two months. I breathed easier, relief pouring out of me. She wasn’t mad because she regretted her decision and didn’t want to be with me; she was mad because I was an idiot. This was an easier truth to swallow. “I can’t leave Zac’s ghost like that. His friends could still be in trouble! Two months ago, Zac was me, except I was luckier because you were there! You never interfered in human lives before, but you chose to do so with me – twice, no, three times! You of all people should understand!”
“I am different!”
Filthy little maggot spawn curling
curling hate little sinking death
Filth and rot –
“Oh, don’t give me that crap!” I fought through her anger. “I’m different, too! Not as strong as you, definitely, but I am! And that’s why you fought for me! You knew that! Would you have saved me if I was the type to not care about those who’d gone through what I had?”
A pause. The malice retreated as she took back control, her lips twisting. “I do not want you harmed.”
A small ball of warmth bounced around my gut. “Is that why you’ve been giving me the cold shoulder? Because you didn’t want your presence to get me into more trouble? Is that why you didn’t want to help? You wanted me to fail so that it wouldn’t hunt me?”
“Tough noogie. I’m way too smart to fail.” I bounded over to where she stood, and took her hands in mine. She felt cold and clammy, her skin still puckered and warped from her own death. She started to pull away, but I held on. “I don’t want to be normal. I’ve never known what that felt like, so it’s no loss to me. I’d rather be weird and in danger with you – by my side, by the way, and not hiding like you’re the one being punished when all I want is to get down on my knees and thank every day that you’re here – than be normal without you. I accept that you could put me in danger. I don’t mind. But since I already am anyway, then let me in. Let me hunt with you. Don’t push me away.” I stopped, suddenly self-conscious. “You’re not regretting staying with me, are you?”
Okiku said nothing, but for the second time since knowing her she looked soft and vulnerable. Her features shifted, and then she was whole and human again: impossibly pretty, with her eyes alive and warm, and for some reason my chest hurt, looking. And then she was back to dead and drowned.
“It’s no ghost,” she said softly.
“I’m pretty sure it is. Humans don’t pop out of freaky dimensions like that.”
“You do many things humans cannot.”
“But that’s because you’re with m- wait. He’s a human being possessed by another ghost, too?” Chants worked on full spirits, but not so much on possessed humans with a bond like Okiku’s and mine.
“Damn.” Explained why there was an online trail. Ghosts aren’t usually this modern. If the possessed man was willing, then was it him, and not the spirit he was a thrall to, who was using the internet to find victims? But if I assume that what Zac had written was true –
I rushed back to the laptop. The webpage was still blank. It was bait, then; knowing the password didn’t mean you learned more about the Skinless Man, it just allowed the Skinless Man to find you. “Atkinson did leave clues after all. Put it together in between. Then he won’t know. What if that meant to read every other paragraph? He must have been hoping someone else would find this if he died.”
I isolated the paragraphs and left in the relevant ones. In the end, I had –
Isolated house, mother’s skin taken off. Civilization ten miles away. A thirteen-year-old son, survived. By the time help came, he’d been sitting with his dead mother for days. All he could say was that she was skinless. One of the cops went missing after that. Bullied the son, but that didn’t matter, I guess.
The cop securing the crime scene tried to burn the house down two hours later, screaming gibberish, and bit off an EMT’s ear. Five days later, she’s still screaming.
Unidentified woman’s body turned up in a ditch, naked. Animals had gotten to it, but remains showed no skin left. Bits of blue; her uniform survived, but no flesh. Same cop.
He doesn’t like it when you know. You can burn him too much if you knew everything.
To pass, you must burn.
Was this the Skinless Man’s history? The unidentified woman could be the same cop who’d tried burning down the house. And the son was the only survivor in all the cases. A bullied son, and Zac wrote that that didn’t matter. Did the boy kill his mother in a fit of rage, then regretted it? And then, in typical serial killer fashion, opted for the tried and tested Norman Bates method to keep his mother with him always?
It was days before anyone else realized something was wrong. Long enough to skin someone and then claim innocence.
Why didn’t the son raise the alarm beforehand?
Burning. I didn’t like fire all that much – too many associations with my own previous possession. But the Skinless Man flayed people, not burned them. The cop tried to burn the house down. The key to get into the strange website had been youshallburn. Why?
I sat back, my head spinning. “Okiku. I think I figured out how to kill the bastard.” Everyone else who’d been investigating became a victim, even their family. That meant –
Oh, God. Dad.
I raced out, Okiku behind me. I skidded into the living room, and spotted Dad watching the news. “What’s the rush, Tark?” He greeted me with a laugh, eyebrow raised.
“Oh – I – nothing. Just hungry.” I was relieved. Of course. Dad didn’t even know what a Skinless Man was.
“I bought some Chinese takeout on the way home. Was thinking you could bring some to school since you said you were sick of cafeteria food, but you can get some now.”
“Have you seen this?” He shook his head and waved at the screen. “You went to school with that poor kid, right? Now his mother’s gone. Said they found disturbing things on the walls of their house, and they think she could be a suspect. Hope they find her soon.”
I stared at the TV. Mother of Slain Teen Missing, the headline read.
I looked back at Okiku. She gave me a firm nod. “Yeah,” I echoed. “I hope so, too.”
They held a memorial for Zac in school the next day, which was a load of utter bull. Few people treated him well when he was alive, so all the fake weeping grated on my nerves. The surviving members of the crime club were there, unharmed, and they looked equally relieved to see me with my skin still on. “Remember what I said,” I told them. “Stay out of this.”
Afterward, I rode out to the woods in my car with the stereo on full blast, playing every kind of thresh metal music I could find. Nobody told me I needed a modern mixtape for ghosts, but I had always been quick to adapt.
“Never come to a ghost fight unarmed,” Kagura said. “Incantations are good. Loud music is a poor substitute, but at least it’s a substitute.”
I still have the chants, but just to be on the safe side I’ve also found music that sounded like half a dozen bass guitars were giving birth to Axl Rose. I could never understand the mantras, but I’ve used it enough times to know that slower cadences were for unruly poltergeists, and loud shouty chants for the stronger spectres. Otherwise, play the most annoying music you can find. Most harmless ghosts can’t stand the racket and will flee, leaving only the dangerous ones needing to be put down.
I thought I caught a few glimpses of white lurking in the woods, but the music worked and they shied back into the dark. I waited until the station playlist had switched over to incomprehensible rap, and found I much rather preferred the thresh metal. Music may be the universal language, but I still don’t understand what the hell Flava Flav is trying to say.
Okiku was not amused by the noise, but said nothing. I turned off the radio and clambered out. “Follow the dead, right?” I came prepared. A small blowtorch, matches if I wanted another option. Flashlight, water, my record player just in case, a knife, and a large bottle of ethyl alcohol, which was the closest thing to an accelerant I could legally get my hands on.
The music chased away most of the ghosts in the surrounding woods, save for one. Zac Atkinson was there, standing in the same place I last saw him. “You can’t leave, huh?” I asked him. From what I knew of ghostly victims, they were bound to their killers until they died. Okiku had dedicated herself to speeding up the process for centuries before I’d met her. “That means it’s here, right? The Skinless Man is nearby.”
A shudder went through the dead boy.
“Right. Any chance you can show me where?” Follow the dead, after all.
He said nothing, but drifted deeper into the woods. He moved quickly, as if fearful that someone else might see us, and it took all my speed to keep pace.
We didn’t need to wait for long. I didn’t know what I triggered, but in between putting my foot down and lifting the other I found the scenery horribly changed. What was once dense forest had shifted to a vast plain of nothingness, with darkened skies and howling winds. I found myself staring at a house, the only structure that I can see in this vast emptiness. I turned, and felt relieved to see Okiku there, still beside me. I would have freaked if she hadn’t been able to accompany me into this level of crazy. Zac, on the other hand, was now nowhere to be found.
Cautious, I peered in through the window first.
The thing was in there. It had a victim stretched out onto a table in front of it, already clearly dead. I mentally tried to block out the grating, slippery noises coming from inside, not wanting to know.
It raised its head. The face behind it was still as black as the darkest pits of hell, but I had the oddest sense that it would be sniffing the air if it had a nose. It abandoned the corpse on the table and began to explore the room, making strange huffing noises.
Okiku had slipped away in the interim. I felt her rattle the windows on the opposite end, and the creature’s head turned toward the sound. With a hissing roar, it moved outside to pursue the new threat. I slipped toward the back of the house, away from view, and watched it trudge off, following Okiku’s lead. As soon as I felt it was safe I stepped into the house, trying to ignore the poor man. No time to mourn, whoever he was.
The rest of the contents of the room made me sick to my stomach. There was nothing else in the room but skin. Dark skins, light skins, large skins, small skins – all body suits and face masks with eyeholes cut out of the flesh, staring back at me.
I spotted what I was looking for, stretched out behind the rest of the terrible collection, hung on a wire right next to a heavily built woman’s, whose grey hair was still clinging to the base of what should have been its skull. The latter was in a worse shape than the others, with obvious rips and tears along the sides, and I wondered if it was because she was his first kill – his mother’s, maybe?
In comparison, the skin I targeted had been cleanly sliced; I don’t want to know what it must have felt like to cut at his own flesh while still alive, possessed by a malevolent being or not. It was pale white, but with the same squat build as the woman’s strung up beside it.
I tugged at the skin, but it wouldn’t budge. So I brought out my knife.
The door slammed, and an ear-curdling roar swept through the room. I turned just in time to see the thing scrambling for me, and ducked, yelping, to avoid the razor-sharp fingers that would have punctured through my chest if I’d been a second slower. I tensed for the next slash that never came. Instead, there was Okiku, slamming her smaller body into the thing’s and sending them several feet away. Her hands were on its face, nails digging into his eyes as she snapped and snarled, feeling no pain as the branches climbed up her back, raking through her clothes.
I sliced the thing’s original skin off the wire, and snatched up my blowtorch. Okiku clung on adamantly, refusing to permit it to take another step toward me. I could feel rather than see the strain on her part to hold him back, which was no mean feat.
With shaking hands, I poured the alcohol onto the skin and turned the blowtorch toward it.
It shrieked. It threw Okiku off with inhuman strength and stumbled for me. I dropped the skin and ran for my life as it flung itself on the carcass, attempting to stamp the flames out with its hands. Undeterred, Okiku snuck up behind it and plunged her hands into the gaping hole of its face.
I didn’t know what the fuck she did, but she managed to drag something else out from that void: it was the face of a man, Caucasian and yellow-haired and pudgy. It was like the creature was another suit he was wearing, two beings interposed into one. My girl’s eyes were all aglow with triumph, and the man’s face was scared, so very different from the creature he was inhabiting. “Leave me alone!” It was a high-pitched cry, but Okiku didn’t care. Her jaw widened, unhinging from bone. I knew what was going to happen, and covered my eyes as screams pierced the room.
When I opened them again, the skin I had torched had burned completely away. The thing was gone, but the man remained, now-dead eyes staring out from the bloated and twisted face that was Okiku’s trademark and handiwork. The house had disappeared, and we were standing once more in the woods, were the twittering of birds and the rustling of leaves against the wind were the only sounds left.
I turned and saw Zac Atkinson, whole and complete this time, with a crowd of smiling people. He nodded at me, looking more at peace now, if a little sad. In the next moment they had all shattered into a million points of light as translucent-like fireflies drifted up into the sky and were gone just as quickly.
“Thanks again, man,” Chapo told me a few days later. “I thought you were a goner for sure.”
The man’s body had been found only the day before, and aside from his flayed status his cause of death had puzzled police. How had he managed to drown in an area without any significant body of water?
A manhunt was underway for the serial killer. I felt bad about causing panic, but there wasn’t any way to explain what happened. The other boys had taken it at face value when I told them I’d fixed things. They probably didn’t want any details.
Too much love and too little love. I still can’t quite understand, but I can make a guess. Domineering mother, whose son killed her in cold blood. He regretted it, made a mother suit out of her. Reached out to other people who thought he was interesting enough to search for, trying to find some new, twisted form of friendship. Probably got possessed around that time. Insane ghosts can be lonely shitheads.
“Just do me a favor. Dissolve the club and find some less dangerous hobby, like spider collecting or parkour.”
Chapo nodded. “Yeah. We were kinda thinking about dissolving it, anyway. Thanks again, you and your girl.”
I fought to keep my expression neutral. “What girl?”
He cleared his throat. “Y’know, my grandma was a bruja. Could see things that most people didn’t. Maybe I picked it up from her, I dunno. I won’t tell anyone, I swear. I just – a couple of times I could have sworn I saw a girl around you. Not in a bad way. I got the feeling she just wants you happy, you know?”
“It’s that kind of overactive imagination that got your friend in trouble in the first place. Let it go, Chapo.”
“Yeah.” He didn’t look as convinced, but it’s not like he could do anything about it. He turned to go, and froze. I followed his gaze and spotted a glimpse of fabric as Okiku rounded a corner from her perch on the ceiling, and disappeared from our view.
“A less dangerous hobby,” I echoed, clapping Chapo on the back. “Trust me. You’ll feel better that way.” I probably would, too, I thought. But I’d rather go through a thousand more human skins than another two months thinking Okiku hated me.
“We still need some closure on a few things,” I told her as we sat in the park and watched the slowly darkening sky. “Who registered the webpage, for instance, and who else had been helping him. How internet could function in that dimensional thingy. What that dimensional thingy even is. Whether we really killed whatever it was that possessed the guy. No rush; the site’s currently down, so there won’t be anyone else getting skinned. I just want to soak in our first victory as a team for now.”
She didn’t speak. That had me worried again.
“How did you do that, by the way? Pull the man out of the creature’s body?”
“He killed children,” she said softly. “Burning weakened him. I claim rights, wherever he hides.”
Almost forgot about that. Avenging murdered children always made Okiku stronger, for some reason.
“I still want this,” I said, staring up at the stars. “I want to know more about what you used to do before meeting me, and I want to help. I don’t want you hiding from me, ever. I know you’re worried, but it’s normal to be worried, even for us, and it hurts more when you hide. I’ve never regretted you being here. Not one bit.”
Reach out to her, Kagura had said. Tell her you care, even when she may not seem to like that. Three hundred years is a long time to be lonely.
“Are we good?”
She looked at me, and then up at the sky as well. There was a smile on her face.
“We are,” she said, and all was right with the world.
Check out all the books in The Girl from the Well series below on Amazon!
And last but not the least, we’ve got a ton of giveaways to commemorate!
Giveaway #1 – Pretty simple. Simply retweet the tweet link below and you can win some Okiku and Tark dolls! I’ll draw a winner from the people who’d retweeted the link (and give away more than a pair of the dolls with enough RTs)!
— Rin Chupacabra (@RinChupeco) October 25, 2016
Giveaway #2 – I’ll also be giving away a signed paperback copy of The Suffering! As before, simply retweet the link above!
Giveaway #3 – I’ll be giving away a very special ARC of The Suffering, and also some really cute handmade ghost keychains I made myself! The ARC has some of my author’s notes, thoughts, running commentary, etc. about the book along the margins, and will definitely be a one-of-a-kind giveaway!
How to join giveaway #3? Again, you can retweet the Twitter link, but also check out the rafflecopter link below to up your chances. The more entries I get, the more prizes!
Good luck to everyone! I’ll be announcing winners at the next post! All giveaways shall end on November 2, 2016!
Also: I’ll be on Twitter on October 29 to talk about my upcoming new YA fantasy series, The Bone Witch!
— brittanysbookrambles (@bbookrambles) October 16, 2016