“Under Skin”: A Haunted Passages Short Story by Val Killpack

 

I LIFTED THE VEIL AND saw ten-thousand writhing maggots. I had found an old, white sheep lying on her side. I pulled her up and dragged her through the overgrown field and up the driveway toward the barn. She collapsed on the pavement. This was the first incident. My chest convulsed, and I downed the taste of vomit.
I took the garden hose, my thumb half over the opening, and sprayed the swirling, squirming maggots off the old sheep. They streamed down the steep asphalt. I kept hosing until the repulsive larvae were gone and all that was left was a limp pile of wool.

#

I never really understood why, but my parents paid an orthodontist to install a cage in my mouth—I think they were embarrassed that I often stuck out my tongue. He attached silver-colored, metal wire to my top teeth. This cage reached down from the front of my mouth like overgrown buckteeth. I could no longer stick my tongue out. I drank my meals through a straw—I blended everything into mush, a singular consistency for all food, and sucked it in, held it in my throat, feeling nothing but blue and empty, and then I swallowed. Eventually, though, I did figure out how to reach my tongue past the whole contraption and out of my body.
“We’re going to a church function. We want you to come,” my mother had said. “Just get in the car. You don’t need to bring anything.”
I hung my head and drooped my way to the garage. I knew I had been tricked when we exited the highway early. The turnoff went to the same office I’d been taken to before. After we parked I just sat in the backseat. My father opened the door. I shook my head and grunted. He grabbed my wrist and pulled until I was forced to stand.
The orthodontist, dressed all in white, saw my twisted face and said, “We’re just going to attach some extra pieces to this. It won’t hurt. This will help with your little problem and make everything better. I don’t anticipate this taking too long.”
The orthodontist soldered sharp wire spikes onto the inside of the cage. These were meant to keep my tongue deep in my mouth. I was given a large dosage of nitrous which thoroughly sedated me.
“Okay, my boy, you are good to go,” the orthodontist said. I stood and fought back tears; I dropped my eyes to the floor and kept my mouth closed.
I stopped speaking after that. It had already been over two years of nothing but the occasional grunt when I found that first maggoty sheep. I carried a paper notepad and wrote down any essential communication. After the sheep I didn’t even grunt. Total silence.
I spent an entire Saturday making a ladder out of coiled tan rope I found in the hayloft. Going to bed early, I set my alarm quiet for midnight and snuck out. I tied the ladder to a leg of my brass bed and dropped it out the window then crept across the lawn and down the country road. I snuck into the dairy farm next door and checked over all the cows: I pressed my hands into their bellies and everything felt firm and solid, no movement. I made my way down the ladder night after night, checked the neighbors’ horses, a few local housecats, another neighbor’s dog. Never finding any maggots, though, I always returned at dawn.
I visited more farms. I checked backyards. I set traps in the hills—I bought several Havahart cages and scattered them through the forest. I baited them with cheese or peanut butter, but I only caught rodents, which I then killed and used for bait. After that I caught wild dogs, a weasel, and a wild barn cat. All of these beasts were made of flesh. I tested them thoroughly, cut them open and peaked inside, before disposing of them.
I’d crawled out my window just at dark, late midsummer, maybe nine o’clock. I packed a bag with a jacket, a flashlight, water, a few knives, and a small hatchet. I entered the dark forest. The night settled with an uncanny stillness, no moon shining. I walked for a mile or so until the trees grew thicker and the hill turned to mountain. I knew my way through these trees. I found the large juniper tree that marked my path, and I turned and followed a stream down the gully to my trap. I heard whining and shrieking before I got within seeing distance. A banging of muscle against metal. I switched on my flashlight and saw the stimulating reflection of caged animal eyes.
A bundle of white fur squealed and darted as I approached. I could smell it before I could see it: rotting sauerkraut, rancid litterbox, meat left out too long. I put on a raincoat and some dish gloves. I strapped on an old pair of ski goggles. The trees blocked any starlight—darkness as black as death. My flashlight felt like the last hold of the living. Look at you. Little squirrelly snow-cat, bundle of white fuzz, I thought, and darkness.
I knew by the smell and sound that this specimen would verify my theory that this creature was something else, more than it appeared. I approached the cage trap, and the critter nipped and hissed. I spotted one maggot just outside the cage. It burrowed into the soil and disappeared. I dug in my backpack and pulled out a heavy, burlap tarp. I threw it over the cage, wrapped it tight, and secured it with bungees and a chain.
I’d left home and moved into a large tent a few months earlier, just about to turn eighteen, and no longer able to bear the gaze of my parents—they did not seem to care that I left. Heading to my new home, I hiked up the lake trail and turned into the woods by a large Douglas fir tree. I always left the main trail at slightly different points to avoid creating visible tracks to my camp. After lugging the cage down the long ravine to my setup, I retired for a short nap, which went all night. I woke just after sunrise. The bungees came off easily; I unhooked the chain; I peeled off the burlap tarp. A bundle of white fur sat in a corner of the cage. About ten or twelve maggots squirmed and twisted. I brought my head closer to the metal wire. Each maggot seemed to have one large eyeball bulging out of its head, followed by a long, slimy tail. As I got closer, they wriggled faster and moved away. I opened one end of the cage trap and the small, vile creatures darted for the earth and disappeared into the soil. I picked up the cage, turned it sideways, and dumped out the fur—a light thud barely registered in the air. I used a stick to pick up the dirty, white fur. On the ground was a tan collar with a metal tag. I put on dish gloves and carefully lifted the collar and tag. It read “Wuoton” and listed a phone number.

#

I touched my tongue to the spikes in my mouth. I enjoyed the sensation, the salty acid of blood leaking out.

#

Town reminded me of family, family reminded me of school, and school reminded me of church. I had been forced to go to church every Sunday until I left home and moved into my tent. One Sunday I walked into the lobby of the stark, steepled building; there were whispers all around. Sideways glances and crooked smirks. I stared straight at her—the dowdy woman mumbling to her fellow church sister. I stared at the women she whispered to, another do-good pilgrim. A clean-cut, suited man—looking like he sold insurance, ill-fitted in off-the-rack synthetic—held my gaze. “Can I help you, son?” I gawked back at the frowzy church brother for a full breath, and then I looked down at the carpet. I let the hiss of murmur answer for me.

#

I took the bundle of white fur, the collar, and the tag to town. I sat on a bench, just before the park, and held my notepad. I wrote:
Do you have a phone? Can you call a number for me and find out who it is? I have this person’s cat.
I scrawled out the phone number on a second sheet of paper.
Conveniently, the bench was adjacent to a popular bar. The first person I handed the paper to read it, handed it back, walked off without a word, and entered the bar. The next five gave one excuse or another. “I’m actually in a hurry” or “I don’t have my phone on me.” Couples and groups left muttering and whispering.
A grade-school-aged girl came over to see what the fuss was about, and I hissed at her. I smiled too late for her to see that it was a joke. The girl’s mother came over and read my hurried scribble. I looked up and smiled at her.
“You look in pain with that grimace.”
I smiled again, not showing the cage behind my teeth.
“I’ll call for you.”
I handed her the second sheet of paper with the number on it. She dialed on a huge cell phone the size of a tablet computer.
“Hello? … Yes. Hi, Freyia …. Some young man asked me to call you …. Yes, he’s right here …. He says he has your cat.”
I wrote, Tell her I’ll bring it to her. Find out where she lives.
She repeated this into the phone.
She turned and spoke to me: “She wants to know if you’re holding it for ransom or need a reward.” I smiled again.
“Well, he doesn’t speak much. He just grimaces, but I think he’s holding it for ransom. … Oh, we’re in front of The Goatherd. You know, the bar? … Yes, right downtown.”
I stood and vigorously shook my head and stamped my feet on the sidewalk. I grabbed my pen and opened to a fresh page in my notebook.
“Okay, sure. I’ll let him know.” She hung up and put the oversized phone in her purse.
She turned to me again: “She said to wait here. She’ll be right down.”
I sat back down on the bench, exasperated, and wrote THANK YOU on the pad. I begrudgingly held it up for the mother to see.

#

Freyia walked directly for me like she already knew who I was. She was tall and thin, shoulder-length pure-white hair. I quickly stood; she towered over me. She held her shoulders hunched forward like her chest was caving in.
“Where the fuck’s my cat?”
I looked at her questioningly and grabbed my pen to write on my pad. She blinked and shook her wispy, albino hair. I looked past her toward the horizon and shuddered.
“Did you kidnap my cat?”
Her voice echoed in my head. I heard my mind repeating her words several times before I replied. I wrote on the notepad, Did I kidnap your cat? and held it up.
I knew nothing of the world anymore. I began to think that maybe I had kidnapped her cat. It seemed like a valid question. I pointed to the notepad I had held up as if to repeat myself.
“Yes, motherfucker. Did you kidnap my cat?!”
I reached in my backpack on the bench and removed a large zip lock bag filled with white fur. I gestured to show her it was diseased and not to touch it—to show her how vile it was. She clenched her jaw and opened her eyes so wide I thought her eyeballs might pop out and shoot toward me. I handed her the bag, and then I reached for the collar and its attached tag and handed that to her too. I slowly zipped up my bag and put it on my back.
Just as it looked like she was about to speak, or perhaps attack, I turned and bolted. I sprinted for the trees. I ran like my hair was on fire, like I was being chased by local cops, like a monster was on my heels. After a few minutes in the woods, I got winded and slowed.
I stopped and looked around. All was quiet. No sign of anything. I sat and leaned against a tree. After my breathing slowed, I dug through my backpack. I pulled out the hatchet and held it in my right hand. Ready for action, I rose to my feet.
Three or four steps. A metal pipe came for my head. Everything went dizzy and swoony. I held out my hand, dropped the hatchet in the dirt. Everything folded in and went black.
I woke strapped to a bed, my eyes blurring the room into shades of color. I finally focused in the half light and lifted my head. My ankles and wrists were bound to a steel bedframe with what looked like leather belts. The room was odd-shaped, no corners, maybe a cave. I rested in the quiet and let my head continue to thud and throb. I closed my eyes and felt electricity pulse through my body—the vibration that meant I wasn’t dead.
After hours of silence, I heard the sound of someone chewing. I carefully raised my head and squinted across the cave. Freyia leaned over a stainless sink and slurped. She ravenously stuffed squirming wormlike devils into her mouth. A gangle of dogs stood around her. I could see dangling, worming noodles dancing from their underbellies. I stared, transfixed, until I could see only one dog, disappearing and reappearing in different locations.
“Quark, sit still,” she commanded.
Freyia led Quark out of the room and into the dusk. After all went dark and quiet, I wrenched and strained in the bed: I twisted, pulled, slowly working free. I was a rat. I could survive anything. I would chew my way out if necessary. I yanked my hands with all my strength. I broke my left thumb by folding it into my palm and finally cranked my hand loose deep in the night. I used this ruptured, liberated hand to let myself out of the trap. I crept around the perimeter of the dungeon. I handled an assortment of unknown objects until I felt what must be a large safe. I opened the tall, heavy door and reached in. Three rifles. A shotgun, which I took. I moved my hand to the bottom and found a box of loaded shells.
The night slithered on and on. I hid behind a large, log pillar near the entrance, sweating and twitching in fear, anticipation. I heard a howl in the distance. Maybe a wolf. Sounds of insects. Chirps. Squeaks. Clicks. I crawled out of the mouth of the cave. I hid behind a boulder for hours. Light rose, slowly, everything still in the barely-glowing shadow of night.
Freyia and Quark emerged from the wood. I slid back and made sure the shotgun was loaded. I readied more ammunition. They inched their way forward. I wrote IT’S OVER in giant letters on my notepad. I stood and stepped from the shadow. Freyia froze. Quark growled. I held up the sign.
The dog leapt toward me. I dropped the pad and fired off a shot. Maggots exploded everywhere. Freyia raised her hand and said, “Wait.” I held her eyes in mine and reloaded. I raised the gun again. “Wait,” she said. I fired into her chest. First there was a giant hole. I could see through where her heart would have been. Everything began to collapse.
Worms fell from her neck, dropping through the empty chest cavity. Her legs turned to maggots. Her body fell all at once. I stepped toward the wrathful mess. Countless thrashing larvae, each grub’s diamond eye looking into me. I slowly backed away. I kept my gaze steady toward the squirming pile that used to be Freyia. Their eyeballs continued to hold mine, then they turned and burrowed into the soil and were gone in an instant. I dropped my gaping eyes and stood alone, breathing, shaking.
I reentered the cave. I felt ravenous and disheveled. I found a bathroom of sorts and went to wash up. I stood before the sink and looked into the mirror. I felt the blood drain from my head, first, before I really understood. Everything squirmed. My tongue wriggled. I opened the cage of my mouth and spoke for the first time in years. I yelled the name of the devil as loud as I could.

 

 

Val Killpack is interested in how narrative, story, and myth can function as mediums for interrogation and apprehension in a complex, nuanced, and ever-changing world. He is a PhD student in creative writing at Binghamton University in upstate New York. He was awarded a six-month writing residency at the Robert Whyte House. He has an MFA in writing and poetics from Naropa University and a BA in English literature from the University of Colorado. He has taught writing at Binghamton University, Adams State University, Colorado Mountain College, and Breckenridge Creative Arts.

Image: jooin.com

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1 Comment

  1. Macabre. Maggots are fascinating creatures. I recall reading about a country witch doctor in Appalachia using maggots to clean out gangrenous wounds.

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