Just a little over a week ago, I was awoken at seven in the morning by a startling phone call from my mother. She informed me that her sister had just passed away in the hospital. For three years my aunt was battling leukemia to little avail, and although I was distraught to hear of her death, I'd known that it was imminent.
My mom told me that the funeral was to be set a week later in their hometown of Heppner, Oregon, a rural little place that she claimed to be quaint. Unfortunately, most of my family couldn’t afford the airline tickets, and the drive would be much too far, so they simply apologized and sent their condolences.
I began to take great pity upon my mother—if I didn’t attend the funeral then she would have to go alone. I pictured her in front of a headstone, more inconsolable than she sounded on the phone. I knew I had to go or I would regret it.
Later that day my mom called again. Through sobs, I managed to hear her say that I was to stay a week with her in Heppner, beginning tomorrow, if at all possible. She was currently living in her deceased parents’ home that they had left my aunt in their will; she had moved in six months ago to be with my aunt for her last moments on Earth.
Their parents had passed away about a decade ago, within months of each other. I couldn’t let my mother toil away in the home where all her loved ones kept dying, so I made a vow to her that I would see her early the following morning. I could almost sense her smile at the sound of my words, and she said, “Do hurry,” dreamily. Then the crying resumed. I assured her that I’d be there before she knew it and that I loved her before hanging up.
I then gathered a bag of clothes and toiletries and proceeded to call the nearest airline, auspiciously snagging one of the last available spaces for the five AM departure. I groggily awoke the next morning long before I usually did on an average day. I grabbed my lone bag and drove down to the airport. As you’d assume, it was hectic there, even at four in the morning. I went through the basic procedures like the security check, and then I reluctantly left my personal belongings with utter strangers who I had no reason to rely on. Paranoid, I know, but I’ve always been at least a tad wary of everyone other than close friends and relatives; you can't trust everyone in this world.
At last I was on the plane. I took a vacant seat with a view—not that I’d need it. I used every minute of that two hour flight to try and catch up on sleep. The flight wasn’t as bad as I’d envisioned it to be, in spite of my contorted sleeping position. There were no delays, and I was in Heppner around eight AM, just as I had planned. I got a rental car and phoned my mother for directions. She was still barely audible through the tears. I thought that I had better do something to uplift her mood, so I decided to pick her up a nice bouquet on the way there. Thankfully, such a store was provided not even a mile from the rental car building. See, that’s the convenience of little towns like Heppner.
I arrived at my grandparents’ old house about twenty minutes later. I got out of the car with the flowers and was immediately appalled. Saying that the house was dilapidated would be an understatement; I would have guessed it to be condemned if I was just driving by. The fading yellow paint was beyond chipping—it was completely missing in some spots. Two windows were boarded up with a horrifying greenish wood. The grass was overgrown, the fence had fallen over, the roof had few shingles left—I could go on for days, but I just shook my head and started up the staircase to the door, which was missing two out of the three stairs, by the way. I tapped on the door and stood there for a moment, not sure what to do with myself. I checked myself in a nearby window to make sure I appeared decently composed because it had been at least six months since I had last seen my mother.
I peered down at my watch. Five minutes had passed. I was showered with tiny paint chips as I started to rap on the door. I stiffly presented myself in front of the door, feeling as if it would open at any second. I decided that I could retreat to the car to grab my cell phone, hoping that maybe she would answer the door if I called. I reached in my pocket for the keys to unlock the car, but the door suddenly rattled open almost violently, like my mother had waited until the last possible moment, almost as if she had to have been watching me.
I was immediately taken aback by my mother’s appearance. I hated thinking this, but she was in worse shape than the house. As she flung her arms around me, I saw sharp, deep wrinkles outlining her face. They were the oddest wrinkles I’d ever seen—in some areas they were stretched tight, close to baring bone, but in other areas her skin drooped, perhaps lower than natural, and the wrinkles hung very loosely. I’d never seen her with such terrible skin; it was as if she had some sort of botched surgery. And her complexion, far from the sun-kissed beauty I’d seen in fading photographs, was sickly. She was covered in pinkish-translucent flesh that had numerous collapsed veins apparent. It was so heartbreaking to see my mother in this state—she was even missing great sections of hair.
But I acted as though I had taken no recognition of her appearance, handed her the flowers, and said how much I had missed her. She invited me inside and gestured for me to take a seat on the couch while she prepared some tea. The living room was cave-like. Dark drapes prevented any hopeful ray of light coming in. Not only was the floor covered in a spectrum of dark stains on the worn chestnut wood, but the dirt on top of it formed a layer of… Earth, almost. The old-fashioned furniture was adorned with plastic covers, all except the couch I sat on, whose plastic cover laid haphazardly on the floor. It was as though they weren’t in use at all, which was anomalous to me. I don't intend to come off as disrespectful at all, but my mother simply did not live like this. She always kept the house pristine and I'd known her to be this way my entire life. I'd normally expect a mere image of a place like this to blind my mother if not horrify her into unrelenting oblivion. If she had been living here for six months, why was the house in such a bad condition?
Giving my best attempt to set everything aside, I suddenly felt the presence of something horrendous. It was a terrible smell, a combination of rotting and… burning. I was just... confounded. None of this made sense. I went to look for the source of the smell, flipping the couch cushions, looking under the coffee table, then I—
“Tea is ready, Evan!” my mother called from the kitchen.
Slightly bemused, I followed the sound of her voice, having never been in the house before. The awful smell subsided in the kitchen, but only to a degree. My tenuous mother, hands trembling, handed me a dirty teacup, and I had nothing to do but politely accept.
“Thanks for the flowers, they’re gorgeous,” she gushed.
“Oh no problem, I really wanted to get them for you,” I replied.
In response, she smiled, and drank a sip from her tea cup.
“So, mom,” I began, somewhat apprehensive, “I noticed that it’s a little dirty around here. I know you’ve been stressed, so I could clean if you want me to.”
She gave me a blank look. “Now, there’s no need for that.”
She then rose from her seat and went to the sink, now facing away from me. Her weak hands clumsily shuffled an assortment of random bottles and cups.
“Uh, are you sure? I really don’t mind at all and—“
She turned to me. “I insist, there’s just no need!” she stubbornly said with wide eyes, dropping one of the bottles she held.
It rolled towards me and the cap fell off. Immediately, a sweet smelling bright-green liquid drenched the floor. I picked up the bottle for her and went to hand it to her, catching a glimpse of the label.
“Engine coolant… mom, why’s there anti-freeze in your kitchen?” I asked, increasingly perplexed by the moment.
She took the still-dripping bottle. “Bought it for the car, of course, but I haven’t gotten around to using it. If you really want to help, you could do that for me.” She placed it next to a blue container that I assumed to be motor oil from the design of the label. The other containers either didn't have a label or were facing the opposite way.
“Ah, sure…” I said, retracing my memory to any other times before that my mother had acted so…eccentric. Nothing memorable came to mind.
“Well, thanks. How is your tea, Evan? I admit, it’s probably not the best this time around, I had to use a different brand of tea bags.”
My eyes darted down at the untouched cup. Little particles—of which I assumed to be flakes of tea leaves from a split bag—were floating around. I took a tiny sip and felt the gritty substance against my tongue.
“No, mom, it’s actually really good, I like it.” I pretended to take another sip but I actually just spit my first sip back into the cup.
“Hmm, well that’s good,” she responded very vaguely.
“So when exactly is the funeral?” I asked, trying to sound offhanded yet sympathetic.
“Six days from today,” she said a bit shortly.
“Oh. Okay, mom.”
My intuition told me that my mother was about to tear up, but oddly, she didn’t. Maybe she was just trying to hold it together now that she was in front of me, but all I could hope was that she would be back to a healthier state as soon as she could be.
“Hey, mom, would you mind if I took a shower? I’m sorry, but somehow I forgot to get one before the flight.”
“Oh sure, go ahead,” she said, and pointed upwards.
I presumed that she was referring to the staircase, but she could not be any more ambiguous. I went back into the living room and found a staircase a few feet away from the unfortunately aromatic couch I had just sat on. As I climbed the stairs I felt as though the wood was about to give way because it was just so flexible. At the top of the stairs I was immersed in total darkness. I scanned the narrow hallway for a light switch. As soon as I found one, a dim light bulb close by flickered.
The walls around me were covered wholly in hand-prints of blood that coated prominent scratch marks everywhere I looked. The deep indentations wore away the paneling, going inches and inches into the wood. I took a step back, stunned, but this sight could almost be disregarded and forgotten after what I saw at the end of the hallway. It was the most unnerving thing I had ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. One could say it resembled a human, although its flesh was ripped off obscenely, crimson muscles baring and practically pounding in what seemed to be the worst, agonizing pain. With the little skin that still clung to it, there were cuts everywhere that seemed to be from a sharp-clawed animal.
The marks on the creature left inflamed wounds far, far into the muscle, revealing bone at some angles. Its hair appeared to be yanked out, which left purplish scars behind. What was most disturbing were its eyes. It rubbed at its eyes, despite the fact that they had already been hollowed out. A bizarre thought struck me; I thought that the creature had to have clawed its own eyes out. It had to have, after seeing its own hideous, gruesomely disfigured body, as if the sight alone brought unhinging agony.
All of my thoughts seemed to happen at once. My heart felt like it was struggling to escape my body, as if it was trying to stop the utterly traumatized feeling I had. But I believe, moments later, my heart realized it simply couldn’t do it, so I fell to the floor.
A few minutes later, entirely dazed, I stood. There in front of me was a broken mirror, my plain reflection showing, aside from the tiny beads of sweat all over. It was just a mirror. What the hell I had seen, I don’t know. I was astounded at this vision I'd just had. Nothing was making any fucking sense. I could only conclude that my high anxiety was fabricating things out of thin air, that I wasn't in the right state of mind. Gathering myself back together, I spun around as the lights gave a feeble flicker lasting a millisecond, but the walls no longer bore the scratches or blood. In fact, there were no signs of the walls having any indentations or stains at all. I took in the old paneling for a good moment, assuring myself that this is reality.
I forced myself to shrug it off. I had a panic attack due to stress. Plus, I had barely slept. Going back to my original motive, to take a shower, I saw three doors in the hallway. I took a wild guess and grabbed the rusted doorknob of the middle door. I had guessed right. It was the bathroom, which was also ill-maintained. I could tell that it had once been a sterile-looking white room. There wasn’t a single window, but it was eerily bright, almost fluorescent. The white tiles on the floors and walls were tracked in dried mud. The small mirror over the sink was so grimy that I saw no reflection — and I was partially grateful for this. Unceasingly bewildered, I moved to the shower, which had no curtain. I quickly undressed and left my clothes in a bundle on top of the tile with the least amount of mud. I adjusted the rusty hot and cold knobs on the shower, attempting to find a nice balance, but no matter what I did, it was always a scalding hot.
While in the shower, I tried to sort out my mother’s unusual behaviors and why she lived in this savage-like house. I accounted it to her stress — surely she was in no condition to clean, and of course the death of another beloved family member would alter someone emotionally. I actually wondered if my aunt’s death had triggered my mother to become senile, but I promptly dismissed that thought. I knew that age was very cruel, leaving you to watch everyone you had ever known fall to the hand of death. She was just reacting the best she could to the situation, albeit that she needed more help than she could admit to.
As I switched off the water, I could have sworn that I saw an odd glimpse in the corner of my eye. It was a person, crouched and shaking madly. It caused a stitch in my heart once again, but I looked around in every direction to see mud. I knew I had not let my guard down yet from having that mini panic attack in the hallway, no matter how hard I was trying. The thoughts wouldn't leave my head and the images were now ingrained in my mind. I was a bundle of nerves, one half of my brain descending into hell while the other half did all it could to placate me.
I jumped at a knock on the door but I eased up when I heard that it was just my mother. Of course it was just my mother.
"Shit," I mumbled to myself, acknowledging that I really needed to relax.
“Evan, I just realized that there weren’t any towels in there!” she called.
I opened the door just wide enough to grab the towel she held out. As she passed it to me I noticed that her nails were manicured, long and a bit pointed at the edges. I hadn't seen her with her nails done in years. It struck me as strange that she would have the time to get a manicure or take the care to do one herself but had abandoned maintaining the house, something she had always took pride in. Shouldn't taking care of yourself coincide with taking care of where you live? I knew it was such a simple detail, but I didn't get it.
“Thanks, mom,” I called back as the door closed.
I looked down at the towel in my hand. It was a vibrant red; it was really refreshing to see at least one thing this clean and bright in the house. As I dried myself off, I saw a small corner of the towel that was white. It kinda looked like a bit of bleach, but wasn't really orange.
I wrapped the towel around me and picked up my crumpled suit, going back into the hallway. I was yet again caught off guard when I saw my mother. Hadn’t she left when she gave me the towel a few moments ago?
"You almost gave me a heart attack," I gave a weak laugh.
“That’s your room right there,” she pointed to the door that was nearest to the stairs and to the left of the bathroom.
I focused my attention back on her. Her gaze on me did not falter; then she said, “Please don’t go in my room, honey. An old lady such as myself needs a nap every here and then.”
I gave her a faint smile. “Oh stop,” I said as we each went off to our separate rooms.
I opened the door to my room, which was cleaner than the rest of the house, although quite bland. Thick brown drapes yet again hid all the daylight from this room. I pushed them aside, and, to my dismay, saw an even more basic, torpid street below, the street to the left of the house. There was nothing — no cars, no people, no clouds, not even a leaf blowing in the wind. Absolutely nothing. Nothing hopeful or reminiscent of daily, ordinary life to relieve me of my gut-wrenching, anxiety-addled feelings.
I sat down on the brown bedspread that smelled of moth balls. At least it didn’t reek of whatever was downstairs. I looked down at the floor and saw my bag. I was happy that my mother was considerate enough to bring them in for me — how nice of her to do that. Finally one positive thing from this day. I lay down on the bed and yawned. I was more tired than I realized and attributed my strange thoughts to this. Sleep deprivation is definitely nothing to fuck with. I closed my eyes. Perhaps I could use a nice nap, too. I could awake well-rested and spend some actual time with my mother. I thought of taking her out to dinner, away from this atrocity of a house. I drifted off further and further, emptying all thoughts from my mind, but one had managed to float back: I left the rental car keys in my suit pocket, which had been with me the whole time.
I awoke in the middle of the night. I got up as soon as I caught sight of a faded, dark flash. I squinted, and in the very back corner I saw a wrinkled face with beady eyes, her long fingernails outstretched towards me.
My mother advanced towards me, taking small steps, but each one thudded against the floor and reverberated against the wall. It mimicked a heartbeat. I closed my eyes, shaking in a cold sweat. The heartbeat she simulated was becoming slower and slower, but at last she had reached her destination. She leaned down next me and stared intently into my eyes. Her thick, long claws tore into my cheek, scraping the bone. This was so surreal, my mother couldn’t have done this to me, never…
And so I thought again when I awoke a second time — or was this my first time waking up? It wasn't dark. It was a bright day, according to the gap between the curtains. I suppose I had just dreamed that it was night. I wondered how long I was asleep for, intermingling thoughts of my anxiety induced nightmare. I didn't feel any pain in my face that would accompany such a vividly imagined gash. Once more a wave of shame came over me as I had again let my paranoia get the best of me. Cursing myself, I knew I should've tried much harder to shake my feelings before I fell asleep.
Maybe I'm acting crazy, I thought. Maybe I'm making something out of nothing and taking this way out of proportion. No need to worry. There was just absolutely no reason to worry. I let go of the dream and got dressed. I felt guilty for being so self-absorbed when I should be most concerned about my mother at this time... I realized that I should be directing all of my thoughts towards her and the time we had together for this visit. Yes, I should definitely convince her to go out to dinner tonight, I told myself. She needed someone to treat her, to take her away from the stress for even a brief time.
I stumbled down the rickety staircase and down into the living room. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of the living room somehow seemed so much more sullen than the previous day. I tried to shake it but the smell of burning — and some sort of rotting I couldn’t discern - was omnipresent. It was so strong that I could barely breathe; the tainted air was now strangling me out of nowhere. It took a hold of me before I had sufficient time to react... and I was suffocating...
The room was getting progressively darker and I began to fall as my mother tapped me.
“Evan, dinner is done.”
My surroundings immediately came back. I was standing near the bottom of the staircase. The wretched odor had significantly diminished and was now just unpleasant rather than noxious. There was nothing to prove what had just happened other than what I could retrieve from hazy memory and the overall fogginess in my mind that I was left with. It was hard to tell, but I was certain my reaction time was curbed as well... I suddenly felt an irritating, burning sensation across my cheek. Dazed, I lifted my arm up to feel a rough, fresh gash. The pain intensified as my fingers ran past the wound. Why had I not felt this when I woke up? Why hadn't I touched my cheek before... my disoriented thoughts floated around as I noticed that my mother was still in front of me.
“I don’t want whatever the fuck you’re making, lady.” I was stunned that I just said this.
My mother looked at me as if I hadn’t said anything that would possibly affront her.
“Are you all right? You were sleeping for a very long time, dear. I didn’t want to bug you.” Her face twisted into a concerned frown. I looked into the eyes of my mother, the very woman responsible for my life, and although I couldn't explain what was happening, I couldn't blame these strange occurrences on her... I was at such a loss... I was losing it... but I wanted to cling to the remainder of my sanity for her...I needed to keep myself together for her sake... I needed to force myself to focus...
“Oh my gosh,” I instantly felt remorse, “I’m so sorry, mom. You’re right. I have been a bit off... I don’t really know, though, I was tired yesterday, but not that tired. I just feel so weird,”
“It’s okay, Evan. I bet you just had a long, tiresome flight,” she said. “So,” she continued, “I’ve been kind of tired myself, so I just made light salad, I hope you don’t mind.”
I shook my head. No, I guess I didn’t mind. I sat down at the table and my mom presented me with a full plate and a glass of water. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast but I was much more ravenous than I expected myself to be. I ate the entire plate within five minutes and found myself asking if she had any extra. Gradually I was overtaken with the feeling that I might pass out again.
"I don't... feel quite right," I mumbled, swaying in my seat.
My vision was dimming and everything sounded like I had a cup to my ears. I felt very distant with my surroundings, a slight sensation at first that soon became overwhelming. I didn't know what was happening. I couldn't piece anything together. I was fading out of it... a dark film overlapped my vision, growing and growing... I had lost all control.
My vision became distorted; it was all just a crude blur. I was being tormented. The ugly, disheveled room was vanishing rapidly. All that was left was my unstable thoughts and the feeling of hands on me, which sent an abnormal pulse through me, steaming and frigid all at once. It was like my body couldn’t process it, it had failed me again, leaving me immersed once again into obscurity.
Some odd hours later, I came back into a groggy consciousness. I couldn’t bring myself to open my eyes; every time I did, they just left me with less time on my hands and more questions than answers. My brain told me, not yet, just a few more moments, and then you should open your eyes. I felt so betrayed by my own body, so why should I value its opinion anymore? I decided to open my eyes.
It was very dark but I could tell that I was in a very small room. I reached out to utilize my other senses; maybe it would finally shed me some light. I felt something — or, many things — hanging. In some areas, it was soft and smooth, but other areas... they were rough, coarse, and had jagged edges. No matter what the texture, it was freezing. Whatever this was, it was so familiar, I knew what it was; it was just that my hazy brain couldn’t form a connection.
I continued feeling this material, hoping to eventually figure out what it was. It was hanging everywhere. I couldn’t move my hand an inch without grazing it. I reached further up to feel two even slits. Mystified, I continued to navigate my hand over the material. Further down I touched a bit of the material dangling from the side. There were five pieces, each a different size, the one in the middle being the longest. It was thin and smooth, and seemed to have tiny little hairs... hairs…
In my hand I grasped another. The only difference was that this hand was de-boned. No muscle, no flesh, no nails. No bones. No. All around me was skin, touching me, lying next to me, hanging above me. I was enclosed in a room of skin, lying in here for hours… I trembled and shook, and it took me a few additional moments to recognize that the room became lighter — maybe because I was finally thrown back into my malicious reality. I was surrounded by skinned people, all cut brutally, the folds sagging inanimately... but only for a moment.
They detached themselves from the hook as I began to howl, heart thumping unbearably. The holes where their mouths once had been were hanging in a gap of horror, their eyebrows raised in alarm. A wave of heat washed over me. I was breathing so heavily, shaking so aggressively. Then the skinned people grabbed me. It was so surreal, almost impossible to visually comprehend. They weren’t strong; in actuality, they were delicate and frail. It didn’t feel like I was being touched — I could sense them, but their layer of skin was so thin that I hardly felt them at all. The skinned people opened the door of what I now knew was a closet. I shook uncontrollably and shrieked hysterically. I was so uncertain of what was real and what was not at this point.
I saw my mother in the distance, giving a flashy smirk as her skin began to peel off of her. She even tore portions of it off herself, all while holding her gleaming grin. I thought that the skins were carrying me away, but now they simply lay on the floor next to me, immobilized. They were now powerless, just as I was. I couldn’t get up. I tried repeatedly to launch myself in the air and flee, but I couldn’t. I was being held back by a relentless force. The last layer she pulled off was that of her face. She continued to smirk at me, now with her widened eyes that ridiculed my existence in but one stare. Her flesh appeared to be deeply, immeasurably irritated. It almost sizzled.
This was not my mother. This — thing — had lured my mother, just as it has lured me, and stolen her... this repugnant creature was never meant to live. I was filled with the merciless urge to strike it, to do anything I could to hurt it, to set it aflame and let it burn forever... but it seemed to already be doing that... and coping perfectly fine.
“This skin,” it spoke dreadfully in the voice of my mother, “is unfitting. I need new pieces.”
With its long demonic talons, it grabbed one of the folds on the floor beside me and draped it over its revolting flesh. “Too worn,” it groaned. Then it swooped down, inches from me, and grazed my face with the tip of the pointed nail that had slashed me. I truly felt where it had marked me now... it was no longer simply irritating but boundlessly grueling. It was deeper than I had thought. The creature leered at me, not blinking. The skin didn’t cling to it. It was like a terrible Halloween costume where the eyes showed too much, but instead of revealing the innocent eyes of a child, enormous singed-looking eyes bore through me while the skin hung off its face. I felt an excruciating sinking. My heart was in ice and I wanted nothing more but for this to stop.
I had no time to react when a quick slash cut down my body like a giant razor. The creature carried me into the hall and threw me down the stairs while keeping a firm grip on my skin, latching onto it from head to toe effortlessly with the giant, outstretched claws. I couldn’t even scream as I felt myself unravel from my ripped skin. I burned and ached everywhere as I lay at the bottom of the staircase near the couch. The creature took my skin and sprawled it over itself. It was sadistically pinching my skin to singe it together, happening so fast that it reminded me of a crude zipper. I saw myself leap down the stairs... the creature had transmogrified its bone structure to mine... how did it do that...
I was grabbed by my own mirror image. At its touch I was set ablaze — although I saw no fire. The creature wearing my skin lifted up the couch and threw me under next to four other bodies.
Well, to say the least, I think my complexion will never be as good as it used to be.