This one includes some body horror so heads up there.
The sun had feels amazing, hot and warming. Actually, you admit, it’s a bit too hot. Being as the nearest body of water larger than a puddle was over an hour away, you didn’t bother to attempt to cool off. Instead, you roll over where you lay on the grass of the college Quad and and slip back into a light doze.
You sleep longer than you would have liked as it was well after six and most of your fellow students had left the stretch of grass for class, dinner, or friends.
You skin still feels hot as you pack up your Psy 101 textbook into your bag, squishing a notebook and what was left of your lunch. Sighing in annoyance, you shuffle the contents of your bag around until you’re satisfied, drawing out your smart phone in the process.
Strolling back to your shoebox sized dorm room, you check facebook, tumblr, and twitter, firing off a few responses to friends and family. You duck through a tree to a hidden away shortcut between several buildings, breaking out onto the cemented path in front of a group of stoned students, lounging in front of the library steps. One girl surged to her feet too fast and wavered because of it but she yelled after you
“Your skin’s coming off!”
For a second you almost pause to ask her what she means, because really how weird is that? but you decide she’s pretty baked and who knows what she thinks she sees. You keep walking.
The sun is still setting as you get to your brick and mortar dorm. Stepping into the shadow of the building was such a change in temperature it was shockingly cool. You shiver and think, Too much sun. A swipe of your student ID gets you into the building. The stairs up to your third floor dorm is a mountain but since your bed is on the top of that mountain, you begin to climb. Halfway up you think, Shit, I should have used the elevator. You always think that but never use it. The elevator is tiny and slow. It was often only used by folks moving heavy shit or by peers that were literally so beyond giving a shit they have ascended to a new level of apathy only seen by college students. Eventually you make it and you sigh wearily as you punch your code to get into your room.
Your room was, at one point, shared with another person but they dropped out several weeks back right after midterms and so you have the room to yourself for the rest of the semester. You don’t miss them. They were kind of an ass, always leaving empty soda cans about and had a strange love for sauerkraut. They did, however, know a guy who had great weed but that was easily solved by asking around campus. Apparently one of the biology professors grows it and provides a good portion of campus with it.
You’re not in the mood for a joint though. You just want to strip off all your clothes and lie on your cool sheets. You flick on the fan with rattles and whirls into life, toss your phone and laptop on your bed, and strip to your underclothes. The bed isn’t as cool as you would have liked but it works for your needs. You queue up Netflix and root around under your bed for both the phone charger cable and your copy of Moby Dick for Lit class. Might as well pretend to read while re-watching some classic Star Trek.
You come back to life in a spark of aching pain and light. The sun’s up and it’s well into the morning. You skin feels cracked and hurts but your throat is so parched it feels like sandpaper and is painful to swallow. A glance at the time reveals that not only did you pass out on your laptop again, you’re missing Lit class. For a moment you considering saying fuck it and going back to sleep but all the cons of that plan ring in your mind and you haul yourself up to drag on yesterday’s tank from the floor and wiggle into jeans. Shoving your feet in shoes reminds you that, yes, you’re an adult of some sort and this is the right thing to do because, shit, adults do things they don’t want to do all the time, right?
A hand rubbed over your face twice as you flail blindly for your phone. You forget to take out your Psy 101 book or yesterday’s lunch but you manage to grab your copy of Moby Dick before making a mad dash for class.
You are twenty minutes late for a fifty minute class but the professor barely looks up at your arrival. You find an empty seat, ignore the look from one of your sort-of friends Marley and try to find out where the class is. Your skin aches.
Thirty minutes later you erupt out of the classroom with Marley at your side and she says, “Hey, you’re all sunburned.”
You hadn’t really noticed but now that it’s been mentioned, it most certainly feels like you were sunburned. A quick glance at your reflection in one of the windows as you pass reveals, yes, you are sunburned quite badly and are more red than not.
“Aloe vera”, she continues, “Helps a lot. Trust me on this. In Cali, it’s a staple.”
“I thought you were from Colorado.” You answer unthinkingly. It was one of those facts you pick up about a person without meaning to. You don’t care where Marley’s from. You care that she is and she suffers through the Lit professor’s droning alongside you.
She pushes her long hair back, “I am but my cousin lives in Cali.”
You make a sound of acknowledgement and break out into the sunshine again. It doesn’t feel as good as it did yesterday and you reach up to scratch an itch on your shoulders. Marley slaps your hand away. “Stop that! You’re just shredding the dead skin and tearing the healthy skin. You’re better off letting it fall off on its own.”
You huff in annoyance because mostly she’s right. She parts from you to go to the Chem building and you head towards breakfast.
You must be quite visibly sunburned because several other acquaintances call out your sunburn by the time you finish with breakfast and make your way back to your dorm. As if you didn’t notice that your skin ached. You have another class at three but that’s hours away and you want to shower.
By some miracle, there’s no one in the communal bathroom and you take your time running the cool water over your skin. It’s a strange feeling. Cooling and restorative but nearly painful. the skin along the curve of your shoulder blades feels almost like it’s cracking. You vow to walk across campus to the little shopping center and buy some lotion with aloe vera in it and a couple of gallons of water. But later. For now, you dry off and slip into your softest, most worn tee shirt and jeans that should have been retired three years ago. You look like shit but you don’t care. You need coffee and that’s the only thing you’re going to do. Get coffee.
Although there is a no hot-plate rule in the dorms, the RA’s conveniently ignore coffee markers. Largely because they need the coffee as everyone else. You make up a huge pot of coffee and drink three cups in ten minutes, using slightly less milk than you’d normally like because you need to make the last eighth of the container last until you shop.
Antsy, you stick your hand up your shirt to scratch at your shoulder blade and the tearing of the skin trips back and forth on the pain/pleasure line. When you pull your hand away and look at your teeth-bitten nails there is a grotesque amount of skin underneath. You pick it out with a safety pin idly then collapse onto your desk chair to work.
Your day continues. You study, scratch your skin, bitch about life, drink a lot of coffee, text some friends, and head to class. You don’t work until tomorrow, thank fuck, but you’re working a double and that’s going to suck. After a truly boring psychology class, you walk down to the shopping center and pick up some essentials. You remember to grab milk for your coffee, water, and a sandwich for dinner but forgo the lotion. It’s more expensive than you thought and you’d like to be able to eat for the rest of the week. Fuck it. You’ll suffer. The pain isn’t that bad.
Walking back to your dorm is a hassle and you take the slow-ass elevator because the hell with that stairs shit. The folks two doors down from you are having a truly impressively loud gaming session and someone is sitting in the hallway with a guitar but you resolutely ignore both of them, step over the guitarist’s legs without batting an eye, and get into your room.
Your coffee has gone cold but that’s never stopped you before. You make up an iced coffee with the pot’s dregs and flinch when the coolness of the drink hits you. You hadn’t realized how warm you were until then. You scratch your back again and settle down with Captain James T. Kirk and your textbooks for some quality time. You eat your sandwich sometime after Kirk battles the Gorn and scowl at the wilted lettuce. You don’t bother to bolster the sandwich from the bag of lettuce in your fridge. It’s not worth the effort.
You text your mom and Marley but remain in your room alone until your eyes ache and words swirl together on the page. You drop your jeans and crawl into bed.
The next day, you are in phenomenal pain. With a groan, you sit up and blindly reach for a bottle of pain killers. You take two and consider taking a few more. You need to make them last however so you abstain and slowly crawl to your feet. You attempt to tug off the shirt you were wearing but it sticks to your skin and rips the flesh when you pull at it. With a gasp of pain and horror, you panic for a moment. How the hell do you get your shirt off if it’s stuck to your skin? Your whole back feels like it’s on fire.
You consider heading down to the showers but instead dump your towel on the floor, stand on it, and pour some water over your back. The water is room temperature but even the soft flow feels like knives. With a yank, you tear the shirt from your back and feel your skin come with it. You reach up and your fingers come away with blood on them.
Dazed because it doesn’t seem possible that the burn was that bad, you step off the towel and dab at the blood. There’s a lot more of it than you expected so you reach back and feel the tear in your skin.
It’s not just a tear. It’s more like your skin split open all along the bottom of your shoulder blade. Your fingers are wet with blood and it hurts so much. Your other shoulder blade feels like it’s cracking too.
You take two more painkillers and say fuck it. You’re not doing shit today. You lay on your bed with Shatner droning on in the background and pretend to study. You attend religiously to your back and know that it’s not getting better but worse. Friends and classmates text you to as where the hell you are and, when you’re only feeling worse by noon, you bite the bullet and call out of work. It sucks because you need the money and your boss is pissed but you’re still bleeding and still in pain.
You look up the hours for the on campus health clinic but it’s way across campus and you can’t even think about going that far for it. Instead, you adjust your pillow and sleep on your stomach.
You wake screaming. The pain is so intense that you only see whiteness and stars. You know you’re screaming but it’s also someone else too. The pain seems to only heighten and you feel oozing from your spine before you pass out.
There are fingers on your spine. Sharp fingers but they’re not tentatively touching the wounds. You’re in so much pain that everything feels dull and it takes you a long while to realize that the position of the fingers are wrong. You try to focus and realize that you’re alone. You’re alone in your dorm room and yet there are fingers on your spine.
You open your eyes and look around the room. You don’t move your head because you can’t but your eyes can see.
There’s something in your room. In the wain light of the dying day, there’s something in your room. Short like a toddler but spiky. It kind of looks like a goblin but so much worse. It’s standing in too much shadow to make out most of the details but it is moving and one too long, too narrow, too bony arm reaches out and it’s a vague sort of green in color. The nails are a grayish black and far too sharp.
It touches your spine and rends the flesh. You scream and return to the darkness.
The creature is still there when you wake and it has new friends. They don’t seem to be talking in any manner you can understand but they do seem to be familiar with each other. There’s three at least, maybe four. It’s too dark to see clearly but you can can see the darker darkness around them.
The pain you’re in is unbelievable but you can still tell that something is touching your spine. Again, fingers are on your back coming from the wrong direction and you realize that there is nothing standing next to you.
Slowly and distantly, you feel the fingers and something else along your back and your body shakes. Something is lifting itself out of your body, our of back like a diver out of a pool.
I’m dying, you realize. Or this is some pain-induced hallucination.
Another of the creature that didn’t exist before slides off your back and is greeted with excited movements by its friends. They must have some means of communication because they are utterly silent save for the scraping of nails on the linoleum tiles.
You sense more than see the lot of them turn as one to look at you. One steps forward and you watch a triangular face open up to reveal dozens of razor teeth. They sink into your arm and you somehow manage to scream and pass out.
You don’t wake again.
[Original work by Samantha L. Davidson / This Crooked Crown. Support This Crooked Crown on Patreon for more short stories and novellas. Originally posted here.]