by Dona McCormack
Issue 8: Weird | 4,129 words
Not There by Allie Cheroutes
Cat trembled in her bed, dared not to move, dared barely to breath. She awakened in her own dark house. Her ears still rang with the sound that had blasted through her skull. She reached for the dream as it drew back. She snatched and pinched but was left with only shards.
She bumped between bodies on the busy sidewalk, burst through gusts of steam to keep him in sight. She knew what he was.
His skull hairless. Latex skin bald. No eyebrows.
He stopped. His nose turned up; his nostrils flared, like he could smell her.
His jaw unhinged. Out of his throat clawed an animal screech that compressed the air around her into a fist.
None of the people on the street reacted, only gawked at her as she cowered near the ground with clenched hands over her ears.
Then, her bedroom. Hard, shaky breath. Familiar darkness of home.
Her fists unclenched, and she wiggled her stiff, sore fingers. Her head banged. Her ribs ached. Her muscles thrummed. She took deep breaths, and her body returned to her.
Cat sat up slowly in the predawn gray and rubbed the tired from the muscles in her face. Then, fingers at the hairline, she tried to massage out the throb beneath. Through her long, straight hair, she combed. Her fingers came away tangled with a web of silky black threads.
Her heart jumped onto the back of her tongue. That’s a lot of hair, she thought, and that last word seemed to echo inside her skull until she was full of black, satin air.
Out of the corner of her eye, Cat made out the dark, irregular blur at the center of the dent in her pillow.
Slowly, she reached both hands round the back of her head and parted the hair, searching. She froze. Her breath caught. She returned her hands to her lap, each one grasping a fistful of soft, enviable hair.
Scrambling from the bed, she careened through her shadowed house, stubbing toes and crashing into furniture, in tears once she reached the bathroom. The overhead lights brutalized her teary eyes. The sight of her reflection turned her heart in her chest.
She rushed to the paneled mirrors and positioned them to see the back of her head. With shaking hands, she parted her hair over and over, poked and peered, until—
There, under her hair, down by the nape of her neck, a perfect two-inch square bald spot. She rubbed one finger on the skin as though it might be toxic. Soft. Baby soft. Like latex. No stray hairs, no stubble. No follicles, even. As though no hair had ever been there.
The instant the clock flipped from 4:59 to 5:00, Cat’s thumb descended on the screen of her phone. Jules had put this rule in place back in college, when they had been research partners. He was still in the lab, while she had opted for something a little different in life. But no matter how old they got, he was still the only one she could call this early.
After the third ring, Jules picked up and sighed into the mouthpiece.
“Morning Jules,” Cat said in the sweet voice she always used this early.
“Terminal insomnia kicking your butt again?” His voice was muffled by a pillow.
“This time I woke up at 1:45 or something like that. Will you fuckin’ kill me, please?”
“Kill us both, then.”
Cat crossed her right arm over her chest and picked at a bump she found on her shoulder. “Am I that goddamn annoying?”
His tone softened and came out of the blankets. “Nightmares?”
“Yeah, weird ones. And…”
“… Can I come by the lab?”
“… Of course.”
“Don’t even think about getting fucking doughnuts.”
“What the hell am I even looking at?” Jules pressed his eye hard against the microscope’s eyepiece. Lemon curd leaked from his forgotten doughnut, congealing on the silver lab table.
“It’s the hair I pulled out of my head in my sleep, what the hell do you think it is?”
Jules straightened up and fixed his eyes on hers. “Come here a minute. I want to see your scalp where the hair came out.”
Cat approached and turned her back to him. She pulled her hair apart and, after a brief moment, felt his finger rubbing the skin of her scalp. She shivered. “Weird, right?”
“Yeah, this is pretty freaking weird.” He prodded again. “This skin looks strange—”
“What do you mean, strange? Like cancer strange?”
Jules paused a beat. “No, not cancer strange. Spending all your time in expensive suits and lying to people has made you soft—”
“If you really think now is the time to disparage my job—”
Cat tried to turn her head, but Jules held her still with his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, gently patting her head. “Just relax until we know something. I want to take some pictures and then look this stuff over for a while.”
She nodded, waiting for Jules to photograph her bald spot a few times. He promised he would call as soon as he had something to tell her and assured her that her bald spot was unnoticeable. Before she walked out the door, she hugged him tight. She just didn’t want to let him go. She didn’t let him go until he complained about his neck hurting.
Latex skin bald. No eyebrows.
This close, he looked freaky. Without pores. Pearlescent sheen to the skin. A latex man.
His eyes appeared human, though, small and blue. Ice chips. Sky-colored diamonds. Still steel pools.
He stood only feet from her and faced her, but he didn’t seem to know she was there. Cat stood frozen, only able to glance around. Other people stood with them. Their group of bodies formed a circle, one which she, positioned just across from the leading man of her nightmares, completed.
The others were each in some or another stage of baldness. None of them were as bald as the man across from her. Latex skin bald. No eyebrows.
The silence in the circle was thick like gum and it suffocated them all. Oxygen trickled down her throat. Her muscles burned, but her chest made no movement to inhale. Her heart gave one hard bang in her chest, and then nothing.
In the perfect stillness, the bald man’s small motion was an earthquake. Only his lower jaw moved. It jiggled and juddered, a blur of motion. Then, his mandible separated from his skull and tumbled to his chest. The skin on the sides of his face stretched. His face pulled into something monstrous.
Still standing motionless, Cat glanced around to see the others’ jaws also shimmying. With a loud, staggered pop, their jaws plunged. All but Cat stood still with their wildly gaping mouths. Overstretched tongues dripped saliva. Blood red throats yawned.
A rough bark from the throat of the latex man shattered the silence. More sounds sprang from his huge, dark mouth. Chitters. Squeals. Chirps. Nothing human. Some of the others around her also made noises, as though in response to the latex man.
The sounds meant nothing to her. Alien and ugly, painful in her skull. And yet, an idea began to form in her mind. An image. Buildings crumbled. People screamed. Weaponized air and space. And a sensation of time. An appointment of which some speechless part of her made sense and took note. An appointment, swiftly approaching.
Silence bloomed in the air again for a moment. Then, the dead stillness broke as all in the circle turned their heads, their empty eyes locking onto her. Their mouths hung huge and ugly—red and black craters promising end and endlessness.
She tried to turn, tried to run, but she remained still, stared back at them. Heat shot through her face and skull as her jaw began to hitch and tremble. Tears gathered in the corner of her eyes, dripped down her plaster cheeks. She was unsure if she cried in agony or in answer.
She listened to her shriek die in her throat. Sweat clung to her crawling skin and her chest heaved. A pit of cold opened inside her. Her body fought with the tangled bedding until she tumbled to the floor. On the floor, she hugged her knees to her chest, holding back burning tears Massaging hear head, Cat found another bald spot.
“Not again.” She groaned and prodded her fingers about her skull, searching for more damage. Only one new patch, but it was bigger than the first and at the crown of her head, where everyone would see. The pit in her gut grew larger, icier. The acid that stung the corners of her eyes slipped free, crawled down her cheek and dripped off her jaw.
Red numbers hovered on the bedside table above her head, telling her it was still too early to seek comfort from Jules. Three hours too early. All the same, she grabbed her phone.
The email icon on her home screen showed a blue subscript “1.” She tapped the tiny picture of an envelope. The email was from Jules, as she’d suspected. He’d found something. The protein structure of her hair had gone funny, somehow. He refused to explain in the email. He wanted to meet at the lab to show her his findings. Would she come as soon as she woke up, as he was sleeping at the lab tonight and waiting for her call.
For a moment, Cat trembled too hard to send the call.
The weight of Jules’s eyes on her hat burned straight through her. Brown wool, newsboy style, the hat was a favorite. Now, though, it masked the loss of her self, one hair at a time.
“Don’t stare.” A whimper had replaced her voice. Cat lifted her eyes but not her chin. “Didn’t you say you found something?”
Jules drew closer to her, softened his green eyes. “It’s okay to be afraid. I would be too.”
Cat’s expression crumbled; her shoulders drooped. Her legs stumbled to cross the few feet between them. He hugged her as she cried and shouted about her nightmares. After Jules led her through a few deep breaths, Cat slowed down enough to describe the dreams in detail and sequence. Jules’s eyes widened, and his face paled with every word she said. By the time she finished, he sat still and quiet and studied her expression.
Her eyes teared up again. “What did you find?”
Jules took a breath. “My turn, huh?” He looked across the room at his powerful microscope and sneered. “This is going to sound crazy—”
“Crazier than these fucked up dreams?”
“Well,” Jules grimaced as though something stank, “what I found is physically impossible, so, yeah. Simply put, the molecular structure of your hair is wrong. Embedded in the keratin on the outer layer are long strings of crystalline O3 molecules.”
Cat stared, slack-jawed.
“I told you,” Jules said and glowered.
“Ozone?” Cat’s tone rose and fell. “Crystalline ozone…”
Jules shrugged. His eyebrows drew together, wrinkling his forehead.
“But that requires cold, like ridiculously cold, like—”
“Almost negative two hundred Celsius, yeah, I know. It’s probably best if you just look for yourself.”
She did. And under the light of the microscope, Cat found monsters.
Cat poured the last of her vodka and tonic down her throat and smacked her numbing lips. “I need this,” she said into her drained glass. Then she lifted it and clinked the ice cubes within in the general direction of the bartender, who smirked and started making her another.
“You need alcohol poisoning?” Jules sat next to her and sipped his second beer to her soon-to-be fifth cocktail.
Cat turned and glared at him, but the look had no bite since her eyes refused to focus. “I need to forget.” Her chin trembled. “Forget I’m going bald, forget those insane dreams, forget…”
But she couldn’t bring herself to say out loud what she’d seen under the lens of the microscope. The translucent silver threads that twisted among the scalloped appearance of the keratin outer layer of her hair. The encroaching fibers were somehow beautiful, like veins of precious metal in a stone. But those veins, they break the stone, leave it changed. True, more valuable, but different. Other.
And as she traced with her eyes those shining fibers, Jules had magnified the lens again, and the threads became columns upon which were emblazed indecipherable writing. The glyphs, she could see then, were what shone, emitting beautiful light.
Cat shook her head. The bartender arrived with her new drink, which she snatched up before it even hit her coaster. She took a deep pull from the side of the glass, ignoring the tiny straws. The bartender smirked again and moved down the line to the next customer.
“Cat, please slow down.” Jules tried to take the glass Cat held to her lips
Cat scrunched her face and moved the glass out of his reach,. “I just want to sleep.” She sighed through her lips and punched the little black straws into the pocked and broken chips. She’d tried everything for her insomnia, and now she was having the nightmares too. So, she was trying to drink herself into oblivion rather than face another nightmare tonight. Alone.
“What if I stay with you tonight?” Jules said, and then quickly, “On the floor, of course, or on top of the blankets at least.”
She turned toward him, her eyes wide and watery, face stark. Then she turned back to the bar, stared into the vortex her straws twirled in her vodka. She offered an unsteady smile. “Not yet,” she said, sounding firm in her voice. “If I dream again tonight, let’s talk about it again.”
Jules lifted his hands up beside his face in a gesture of defeat. “Then you’re at least eating something before I take you home and pour your drunk ass into bed.”
After they ate, Cat felt queasy, but still drunk. She somehow kept the burger and fries down, but only just. Jules was not much bigger than she was, and he stumbled and swayed under her unsteady weight as they tromped up the stairs of her apartment building.
Once he’d gotten her into bed and pulled off her boots, she felt quieter, less sick. He fetched her a glass of water from the kitchen and put a comedy on her bedroom television with the volume low. He put his hand on her head, still hidden beneath a hat. When he didn’t lean over the bed toward her, but turned and walked toward the bedroom door, she sighed quietly, and her stomach untied. “Call you in the morning,” he said and pulled on the doorknob.
He turned back, his eyebrows high.
“I want a sleeping pill from my medicine cabinet.”
“You want to mix—”
“I’m a fucking pharmacologist, I don’t need a lecture.”
His eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed, and he scowled.
“Please Jules.” She swallowed her tears. “The pill and alcohol might stop me dreaming.”
Jules’s hard expression crumbled. Without further argument, he went to retrieve her medication from the bathroom cabinet.
Cat awoke groggy and nauseated, but she realized she hadn’t dreamed for even a second. She gave a little laugh and sat up in her bed. Groaned. Her head banged with alcohol and sleeping pills. But the sun was up and shone almost straight into her eastern facing bedroom window. The clock on her bedside table confirmed it was just a touch after 6:00 am.
She got out of bed, wondered at the fatigue in her muscles after nine hours of sleep. She chalked her tiredness up to the alcohol-narcotic lullaby and trudged toward the bathroom on shaky knees.
Cat’s reflection made her grin when she spied the crown of her head still jammed deep in the hat she wore yesterday. She grasped the brim of the hat to remove it, but her fingers stalled. Her grin drooped. Fingers that were seconds ago motionless now sent tremors through the fabric of the hat.
She inched the brim up off of her forehead, held her breath, and tugged it away.
A disconcerting shush filled her ears as a flurry of shiny black strands cascaded down around her shoulders, clinging to her skin. Tufts collected around her feet. Cat picked a clump from her shoulder, fingers trembling. Her throat tightened, but her eyes remained dry and painful.
An eternity passed before Cat raised her gaze back to her reflection. The bald crown of her head shimmered in the morning sun. The contours of her skull bones stood out beneath the remaining, sorry patches of hair. Whatever process her body was undergoing was speeding up. Inside her chest, something terrible and inevitable settled.
She dropped her gaze. A flash of rust in her periphery. Her vision sharpened. As she inched her head around toward the soap dish, her neck creaked. The bar of soap was pink. The hardened bubbles in the dish, reddish. The sink drain clotted with maroon. At her feet, beneath the black snow of her hair, the clothing she was wearing last night was stained with brown. For the first time since awakening, she noticed she wore nothing but her carelessly cleaned skin, still messy at the elbows with what she could only assume was blood.
Her stomach rebelled and the lava in her belly escaped into the sink. Shaking and gasping, Cat fumbled to retrieve her phone from the bedside table. She couldn’t figure who the blood could belong to.
She called Jules. Straight to voicemail.
He never turned his phone off. He was always worried she might call.
She tried again. Same thing. “Call me back, Jules! Like, right the fuck now!”
After an indecisive moment, she also messaged and emailed him. Even if something was wrong with his phone, he could still get the rest of it.
Then she waited.
When she hadn’t heard back from Jules by 8:00 am, Cat drove to his lab, where he would already be at work. Two blocks from his building, she hit a road block and a couple of cops, waving her either right or left.
She peered past them to the third building down on the right side—Jules’s building—in front of which a handful of police cruisers and an ambulance were parked. Just then, two EMTs rolled a gurney out of the building. Whoever they transported was zipped in a body bag.
Sure to her depths the corpse was her oldest friend but too shocked to sob, Cat turned left just as one of the cops at the roadblock began to approach her car. As she drove away, the breath she’d been holding the last two minutes escaped in a scream.
In the semi-darkness of twilight, the yellowed bulbs on the motel sign appeared bright and warm. Twin Pines Lodge, said the white fiberglass, behind which a stubborn light flickered. Cat saw no pine trees, but the motel was isolated and far enough away from the city to make her feel safer. She couldn’t possibly cause any more damage out here.
Before leaving her parked car, Cat checked her reflection in the tiny mirror behind her sun visor. Her winter ski cap with earflaps hid the worst of her hairlessness, but she tugged it down further over her forehead.
She paid for the room with one of the two hundreds she kept stashed behind her insurance card in her wallet. Emergency cash. The clerk absent mindedly handed Cat the key, and she headed straight to her room.
The moment the door closed, Cat collapsed in the darkness and bawled.
She had vowed never to sleep again. She had meant it when she promised it to herself and Jules’s ghost and the world she kept dreaming of destroying. She had guzzled cheap coffee from the cruddy pot next to the bathroom sink and called the front desk clerk to bring her more grounds when she’d gone through the two already in the room. She had even driven to the nearby convenience store and bought as many trucker uppers as she dared take in one night. She’d tried. God, she had tried to stay awake.
The local news kept running footage of Jules’s lab, discussing the grisly details of his murder. She learned he had been beaten and stabbed and, finally, sliced across the femoral artery. By her, she knew in her gut. Or rather, by her body. She had been asleep in her bed, but her body had been murdering the only man she had ever loved. She watched his body being wheeled out on a gurney, stared at his smiling picture. Cat doubted she would ever sleep again. She didn’t think it possible.
But she had been wrong.
She sat straight up in a chair, her eyes wide open, her bloodstream swimming with stimulants—till just before four in the morning. The conscious part of her brain shut down, and after a few moments, her body slumped in the chair. Then, it lost all balance and tumbled—
Until her body caught itself with hands on the floor and pushed itself to its feet.
Morning glared down. Her bald, unprotected scalp pulled tight in the cold wind. She recognized the alley in which she stood from her most recent dream. She recognized the Others like her now. They were all bald. Latex skin bald. No eyebrows.
She recognized the latex man, still standing directly across from her. His mouth yawned, a monstrous hole in an otherwise human face.
Her companions’ jaws jumped and joggled. An uneven string of pops filled the air as their mandibles unhinged from their faces.
She realized her jaw was doing the same. Her jaw waggled and wobbled, her teeth wiggling in their sockets, her tongue huge in her mouth.
Pain raked through her skull. Warm fluid tickled the folds of her ears. Her jaw dropped, an anchor yanking at the flesh of her face. Her cheeks stretched until she could hear the distress in the tissue.
Her throat contorted and twisted in strange speech. On her furthest taste buds, she sensed the metal of rent flesh. She talked to him, the latex man. This time, she could understand the horrible sounds her body made: Terminal 23847, present.
Each of the Others around her squawked a similar report. The latex man spoke last: The appointed time has come.
The Others filed out of the alley in a line. When they emerged into the morning rush hour foot traffic, they parted to the right and left. Across the street, another group of Others with bald, shiny heads filed from the mouth of another alley, also splitting to the right and left
She followed the latex man, and another followed her, and so on, until the latex man stopped walking. She realized she stopped in the exact spot on the exact street as in her first dream. In that dream, the people around her had acted as though she was invisible. This time, though, they saw her. Avoided her. Ran from her.
This was no dream.
A half block up, the latex man turned, and the Others followed. He sniffed the air a few times and inhaled deeply. The Others followed. His chest expanded and his shirt popped open at the buttons. Then, he shrieked. The Others outmatched him. Deep inside, within a capsule that retreated downward, Cat tasted lemon and felt the cramp in the cheek of a too-happy grin.
The sounds that escaped her pulsed the very air around her. The oxygen and nitrogen and carbon dioxide and monoxide molecules became a million invisible fists that pummeled every inch of the world. Ordinary people around her collapsed to the ground en masse, their agony inaudible beneath the onslaught of the Others’ voice. But she could see the blood pool beneath the bodies, black and red fluid leak from eyes and noses and pores and plumbing. Cars in the streets collided and stopped, each still and quiet until a wave of red splashed the inside of the window glass. In seconds, nothing moved.
But still, the latex man shrieked, as did they all. The body that held her began to collapse. She could feel the fire as her viscera melted, oozed out of her, crept up her throat and dripped down her lolling tongue.
And still, she screamed.
Until the glass in the windows and doors shattered, she screamed. Until the buildings around her tumbled, she screamed. Until the cement beneath her feet cracked and buckled, she screamed. Until the ground opened up and swallowed the world whole. Then she was no longer left to scream.
Dona McCormack is a disabled writer living with her devoted partner and service-human, Michael, in northeast Ohio. She earned her Creative Writing MA at Southern New Hampshire University. She writes realism and weird/new weird and her publishing credits include The Saturday Evening Post’s Friday Fiction Series, Tahoma Literary Review, Bourbon Penn, Fabula Argentea, New Reader Magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and TERSE. Journal. She placed third in Reflex Fiction’s Summer 2019 Flash Fiction Contest. Find Dona at https://DonaMcCormack1.wixsite.com/donawrites and on Instagram @DonaWritesInsta.