Under the Skin

By Leah Tanzy-Roberts

I should’ve known something was wrong when I got that stupid tattoo in the first place. I’ve got plenty of ink, a half-sleeve on my left arm and a full wrap on the other, but I didn’t have anything on my back. Nate said it looked like I was wearing those sleeves the baseball players have on under their jerseys when I took my shirt off. I told him not to compare me to baseball players if he wants to keep seeing me without a shirt on.

Most of what I have is pretty normal. A lot of fish and waves, mostly black art backgrounds that just make the color pop. The art is almost exclusively Japanese, and some I even had done in traditional tebori style, where they poke you with a bamboo stick. I cannot tell you how much I wanted to enjoy that better than a tattoo gun, really I did. Then I could say my tattoos were legit, that I like it the pure way. But it sucked, it hurt so much more, and the little old man who I thought was so cute ended up dicking me on the price by faking that he didn’t speak English when I tried to argue with him. I finally paid him what he wanted, but fuck if I was going to tip. Even if you don’t understand the language, you can do math.

The tattoo was Nate’s idea. He had lots of ink, too, but his wasn’t pretty. It was mostly line-work, and a lot of it looked really amateur. I didn’t tell him that because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Isn’t that funny how we do things like that? I’d tell my boyfriend he was a fucking asshole loser for leaving the toilet seat up, but I didn’t want to tell him his ink looked like some angry emo ninth grader had scrawled on his skinny body with a magic marker. I guess I’m not a complete bitch.

But he got it into his head that since we’d been dating five whole months, we should get tattoos together. It was actually eight months now, because I didn’t trust him picking out the design, but finally he’d found something I was okay with. It wasn’t my usual Asian style of art, it was more line-work, but it looked really detailed and well done. It was a bunch of circles and weird little designs with runes around the edges or something like that. Nate said it was from some club him and his friends were part of in high school, but I didn’t care. If this would get him off my ass about the whole thing, I was fine with it. Besides, it was creepy as fuck, and I knew my mom was going to flip out when she saw it. That’s how you know it’s good.

The guy who came up with the design was a kid named Sutton that Nate knew from his old neighborhood in the Valley, and he was going to give us a deal if we got it done at the same time, at his house. Now, call me cynical, but I think it’s super sketchy when someone says “I know a guy who does tattoos in his garage,” and this someone also happens to be covered in shitty art. But I saw some of Sutton’s work online, and it actually looked really professional. Macabre, sure, but that’s never really turned me off.

We drove up to the Valley on Saturday night with a couple bottles of wine and some snacks (I gots to have my chicken wings). The house was a decent size, full of a lifetime of clutter, especially the weird old moth-eaten books in the garage. Sutton explained he’d just inherited the place from his great uncle, which made a lot more sense. He couldn’t be pulling in enough cash to cover a mortgage.

Nate got his ink done first and it looked really good in angry blacks and reds. I guess they’d gotten the idea of the design from one of the old books, because Sutton had one open to a crumbling page showing something similar for reference. I didn’t think I’d had that much wine but I was almost dizzy looking at it while Sutton was inking it on Nate’s back. I had to leave the garage and sit on the front lawn with my cigarettes and my vino. All I can remember thinking about was that it was a whole lot bigger than we’d talked about, but that’s how it was with tattoos sometimes. They have a will of their own.

When it was my turn, Nate hung around to watch. That was fine by me, I was lying face-down on a table without a top and I didn’t know how grabby his friend might be. Nate was already drunk by then, and they were laughing and singing along to this awful death metal garbage blaring on the old stereo in the corner of the garage. I know you’re not supposed to drink before you get a tattoo, but by that point, I didn’t care. The music was too loud, whatever weird incense he was burning (who even does that anymore?) was making me sick, and the needle hurt. Not so bad at first, but after he’d inked the black outline, he went back over it with the red and it burned. It’s never hurt that bad before, where I’ve almost wanted to say stop, let’s take a break. But I’m a skinny little black-haired waif, I was not about to give them the satisfaction of the stereotype that girls couldn’t handle some pain.

This wasn’t just some pain, though. I swear to God it felt like the needle was tearing my back open. My skin was already tender from the outline, so I guess it makes sense it would hurt more to go back over it, but this was unreal. I felt like I was burning up, either from the pain or the merlot, or both, and my head was reeling. At one point, I thought I heard screaming over the music, and I’m pretty sure it was me, but then Nate refilled my glass and I drowned the whole idea.

I don’t remember how we got back to my place that night. I do remember that we had sex, sort of. Specifically I remember that it wasn’t very good because we were both drunk and my back was on fire. I would’ve just as soon gone to sleep, to be honest, but Nate was unusually horny and I was pretty… responsive. Usually when he’s drunk, he’ll just end up on the floor somewhere, and I can’t get him to move no matter if I’m kicking him, screaming at him, or blowing him. Not this time.

I expected the tattoo to feel better in the morning, and it did a little, but it was still raw and tender. Sutton had put it right in the middle of my back so I could only see it out of the corner of my eye in the bathroom mirror. It looked red and swollen, but it was kind of supposed to, so I let it go. All day at the diner I could feel it every time my shirt brushed the tender skin between my shoulder blades, and I was starting to feel like maybe it was infected. A few Google search results on my phone were enough to give me nightmares, so I pushed it out of my mind and finished my shift.

That night, Nate came over and I asked him to check it out. My back still felt really irritated, but he said it looked fine and reminded me that tattoos were supposed to hurt. Like I needed him to fucking tell me that. I fell asleep on the couch while he sat on the floor and played XBox. At some point during the night, I remember opening my eyes because I’d heard a weird gasping sound. I don’t know if it was from the game or what, but I saw Nate hunched over on the floor, dimly lit by the red TV screen. His shoulders were shuddering, almost like he was convulsing, or laughing, or jacking off, I really couldn’t tell. I thought about calling out his name, but before I did, he stopped and lifted his head. His face started to turn in my direction, but I shut my eyes and pretended I was still asleep. I don’t know why I did that. I don’t know why I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I listened to him stand up and walk around the coffee table, open the front door, and I guess stand there because I didn’t hear anything for a while. Then I heard his footsteps on the concrete outside, and the door shut behind him. I was suddenly glad he was gone.

The first time I saw the bugs was a day and a half later. Tuesday was my day off, and I was finally getting the chance to sleep in. For some reason, I keep thinking I should’ve been having nightmares, but I don’t remember dreaming anything. I just opened my eyes and saw a small, dark shape crawling across my tangled sheets. An insect, but it wasn’t moving right; I don’t know how to explain it, but I swear it was moving with a purpose, some kind of intent. It took me a second to panic, but I shrieked and flailed my arms, making contact with the back of my hand. The fucking thing was heavier than it had any right to be, and it hit the wall with a thud. I rolled off the bed and scrambled after it.

It’d landed on its back, and I could see its legs kicking in the air. It looked like one of those beetles that you see in the movies, the ones that swarm and eat people when they break into a pyramid and get cursed, and for a second, I thought I could see it glaring at me with a hateful little face. I didn’t look too much closer, though, I wanted that thing dead. I stomped on it with my bare foot, and the crunch of its shell was both sickening and satisfying at the same time.

It took a few more stomps to finally convince myself it was well past dead, but I finally lifted my foot and looked. The thing was obliterated. I thought I’d cut my heel on the fucking thing because there was red blood mixed in with the white guts splattered on my carpet, but it didn’t feel like it. Just in case, I hopped to the bathroom on the other foot to wash it off. No cut, no puncture, nothing.

I went back into my room as the terror was fading, but when I bent down to investigate the remains, my back stung worse than it had all yesterday. To make matters worse, the blood was smeared on the outside of the bug’s shell. I don’t know what I was expecting, like beetles might suddenly bleed red or something, but then I noticed the red blotches on my sheets. I was the one bleeding.

After a frantic search, I found my cell and texted Nate. I hadn’t seen him since he left my place Sunday night, but we’d texted a few times since then, everything had seemed normal. He gave me shit about being scared of a bug, and said I was just seeing the red ink on the sheets, but fuck him, I knew what blood looked like. I just didn’t know what the fuck it meant.

I know what you’re thinking, I should’ve gone to the doctor, or the hospital, or something. But what was I supposed to say, my tattoo hurt? A bug bit me? Besides, I didn’t have health insurance, and my chance for that whole thing got pushed back to 2014. Thanks, Obama.

It was Friday before Nate came over again. We’d gone to lunch the day before but we both had late shifts, and I’d been feeling tired all week. He’d insisted he was feeling fine, though he was getting dark rings under his eyes. That was kind of normal, I had to admit to myself, he was always up ‘til 2 or 3 playing video games. I promised him my Friday night, and he kissed me goodbye and slapped me on the back. The fading pain blossomed down my spine once again and I told him to go fucking choke himself and die. He cackled over his shoulder and said he’d bring me Tito’s.

Friday night he pulled up to my place in his Corolla and let himself in. He’d kept his word and brought me tacos, along with a few decent bottles of cab, so I got a little slutty and let him fuck me on the couch with Bad Girls Club playing on the TV in the background. Who even watches that shit. Then I got a little more drunk and fell asleep to Family Guy reruns.

When I woke up, the lights were out and the Grand Theft Auto loading screen was the only thing illuminating the room. Nate was passed out on the floor, and the DVR clock read 12:02. I started to go back to sleep, not sure why I’d woken up in the first place, when his phone chirped again. It was tucked between the arm of the couch and one of the cushions, and I fished it out and typed in Nate’s passcode. There was a text from Sutton. It read “Right about now.”

I started to look at their text history, but a familiar noise caught my attention. Nate was making that sound again, shuddering on the floor. He’d fallen asleep on his stomach without his shirt, and the light from the screen fell on his tattoo. It was rippling. Or, I guess, something under the skin was. I had a split second to recognize another of the awful beetles crawling out from a slit along one of the lines before I felt a searing pain flaring up across my back. But it wasn’t just pain; the way the needle pricks were sending spasms along the muscle of my shoulder blade meant that something was moving.

I pushed up from the couch and stumbled, screaming, towards the kitchen. I could feel the fucking little thing burrowing around under my skin and I had to tear off my shirt to get to it. It had just broken the skin when I was able to reach around and grab it. This time it did cut me, or bite me,or something, as I slammed it down again and again on the counter top. It exploded in my hand, and I swear to God this time it shrieked at me. But even though it was dead, I still felt a throbbing pain in my back, and my head was starting to reel.

Nate staggered into the kitchen. He looked sicker than even I felt. His eyes were sunken into his skull and his cheeks were hollow. I searched for a clean knife while I hysterically tried to explain to him what was happening, that Sutton had done something to us, that we had to cut up the tattoos before something else crawled out. And the motherfucker smiled at me. I trailed off my rant as my hand closed around the handle of a carving knife I almost never used and drew it out of the drawer.

He lurched towards me and grabbed my wrists, pulling the knife out of the way and shoving his terrible, gaunt face against mine. I recoiled, turning my head away; it didn’t matter that we were making out a few hours ago, that twisted grin wasn’t even his anymore. He was trying to hush me, going on about how I should just calm down and let it happen, this was the point, this was why, it had to be me and him together, and some other garbage, but I wasn’t listening at that moment. His grip was too tight for me to pull away, and my eyes were tearing up from the frustration and the terror and mostly the utter betrayal.

I don’t remember what I swore at him when I turned the knife over in my hand and sliced his forearm, but I remember seeing the blood well up in a thick line. He let go of that hand and finally I could wrench my other wrist free. His face contorted in rage as I backed away a few steps, but the kitchen wasn’t very big, and I didn’t get very far before I bumped into another counter-top.

Nate lunged at me and started to screech that I was going to ruin everything, his arms wrapping around mine as I tried in vain to push past him. But this time I kept the knife between us, and plunged it into his chest. As he fell forward he tried to grab me again, but he only caught the strap of my bra and I slipped free. He curled up and clawed at the knife with his hands, and more blood than I’d ever seen started pooling on the linoleum floor underneath him. I tried to catch my breath, but then I heard him making those gasping sounds again. I thought he might just be dying, but then I saw his back rippling again. It was worse this time, though. Not just a beetle, something bigger. And then the skin of his back started to tear open.

I can’t tell you what climbed out of Nate. Between my mad scrambling to get out of the kitchen and my complete unwillingness to see what was happening, the only thing I caught was a spindly limb slick with blood dragging itself out from his back. The terror I felt as I sprinted down the hallway was multiplied by the pain crawling across my own back. If that happened to him, what was going to happen to me?

Wet footsteps followed me down the hall and I fell through the first door I could slam shut behind me. I sat up and braced my back against the toilet, holding the door shut with my feet as whatever was out there pounded against it. Another spasm of pain almost had me doubling over, and out of instinct I reached back to feel something pulsing under the skin.

I reached around the bathroom for something, anything I could use. For what, I didn’t even know. How do you fight something that shouldn’t exist? How do you protect yourself from what’s hiding within your own flesh? The thing kept slamming against the door, rattling the cheap Ikea mirror mounted on the inside as I searched, my hands finally closing around the curling iron sitting on the counter. What a worthless fucking weapon. Plastic and ceramic, two of the weakest materials I could imagine, and I’d gotten it from Target for less than $30. I was wracked with another wave of agony before I decided what to do.

I switched the iron on, gritting my teeth and trying to hold off the monster outside. I couldn’t do anything about the thing on the other side of the door, but maybe I had a chance against the thing on the inside. Once the iron felt hot enough, I swung it over my head and started beating it against the tattoo on my back. The stench of burning flesh assaulted my senses, and I could hear the hissing and popping as the skin of my back sizzled under the iron. Something was screaming again, only this time it wasn’t me. The pain of the burning iron was nothing compared to the pain that came before it.

Finally the shrieking subsided, and the pounding on the door stopped. The same wet footsteps retreated down the hallway. Whatever was crawling around in my back was gone now, and I managed to get my breathing under control. I switched off the iron and pushed myself to my feet, wincing.

I waited a long time at that fucking door. The only thing I could hear was the muffled ambient sounds of the video game that was still on. Finally I pulled the door open and started back down the hall. The only thing I could see was the bloody, crumpled mess of a body on the kitchen floor.

What was left of Nate looked up at me from the ground, that twisted grin on his face, and told me that everything was going to be okay. The piece of shit. My stomach turned as he told me that he was the beginning, and I was the end. And then he died. I didn’t have time to struggle with whether or not to be sad, partly because I was too scared to be, but mostly because that fucking thing was still in my apartment.

The sound of shattering glass from my room sent me running in that direction for some terrible, terrible reason. My bedroom window had been busted out, and when I went to look, all I could see was a retreating figure disappearing into the darkness of the alley outside. I should’ve been happy it was gone, but I couldn’t be happy about anything at the moment. I was still worried about what Nate had started that I was supposed to finish.

His phone chirped again, and after a numb moment, I went and retrieved it. Sutton was texting him. “Still there?” the message read, and it was followed by “what did it look like?” I stared at the screen for a few minutes, trying to reconcile my fading terror with the growing bewilderment and anger as I slowly plodded back into the kitchen. With my free hand I pulled the knife out of what used to be Nate, and texted back with the other.

“Come see.”