It started with a streak of black on her face. Her husband noticed it first. Helen, not willing to believe it, had to check in the mirror. And there it was: a dark blotch smeared over the apple of her right cheek.
“There’s something black on my face,” she sounded surprised.
“That’s what I said,” Patrick replied, indignant.
“But how did it get there?”
“I don’t know,” he defended himself.
“Maybe it’s my mascara, or…” Helen’s voice faded, listing in her head all the things it might be. Eyeliner, eyeshadow, shoe polish – all of them were plausible but didn’t quite make sense. She brushed the spot with her hand and watched it smear. The mark seemed to grow. She looked down at her hands.
“It’s all over me. Look at this!” She rushed out of the bathroom and thrust her hands under Patrick’s nose. Her left hand looked as though she had just been fingerprinted, the tips tinted in various shades of black. Her right hand showed a scattering of black freckles in her palm; like tiny hollows bored into her skin. Patrick shrugged. Helen stomped to the sink.
As the water warmed, she stared at the rogue stains. The smudges and streaks had the airiness of powder, but it was sticking to her like paste. “Where did it come from?” she whispered to the running tap, before grabbing the tiny hotel soap. It frothed up white at first and slowly faded to a soft, streaky grey. The water bled the stains from her skin and she carefully examined the whispers of smoky liquid until they had completely disappeared down the tap. Her next mission was her face. With the care one would give a wounded animal she dampened a towel and cautiously dabbed at the blotch on her face. When all shades of black had transferred to the fluffy surface, she breathed in. How long had she been holding her breath?
Her question remained unanswered. Patrick reminded her they were late and they hurried to the hotel bar for a drink. One cocktail and a glass of wine into the evening any thoughts of the mystery marks had faded from her mind. She had come here to relax and for a few shining hours that evening she actually did. All the blots of imperfection in her life left her mind. The tangles of delays at work, the debt in her bank account, the constant stream of maintenance on their flat, and that inexplicable smudge – all of which mocked her keen sense of order in life – were left behind. She even managed to fall asleep.
In the morning, when Helen lifted her head from the pillow, the rush of anxious ill returned. She hurled the offending object to the floor in a violent attack of disgust. She howled, jerking Patrick awake.
“What?” his voice was alert, even when his eyes were barely open. It was not the first time she’d woken him screaming. But this time it wasn’t a nightmare.
“There’s something disgusting all over the pillows!” Helen screeched pointing at the pillow on the floor. It had conveniently fallen with the marks facing the carpet and Patrick saw nothing. Half-awake he looked at his own pillows, then the sheets, and finally at Helen.
“There’s nothing here. Go back to bed.” She knew that look in his eyes. He didn’t believe her. And he was exhausted. Not just from being woken, but from everything. It had been almost three months since she slept through the night. This had been the first time she woke up after sunrise. Isn’t that what they had gone away for? A chance to unwind. To finally sleep through the night. But it had turned out to be more of the same. Patrick clearly thought so. To him, her outburst had been one in a long line. Another nightmare, another scream, or violent kick, or howl that kept him from any chance at peace. They were her nightmares, but he suffered to. And he was clearly getting sick of it. The guilt of it crawled over her skin with a million invisible legs. But in her stomach, something curdled.
She had been apologising since the first night – when she jumped out of bed with a howl taking the duvet with her. She had been apologising ever since. For waking him. For scaring him. But no one had apologised to her. She had felt the crack in her chest of a hot hammer crushing her ribcage. She had been thrown off a building and felt her back crack against the unforgiving sidewalk. And after each horrific disaster destroyed her body, she awoke. Sweating but cold. The echo of the pain in her limbs, but not a scratch on her. Her voice hoarse from yowling. She could see in his eyes that he resented her waking him. Yet again. Yet this time it wasn’t a dream.
Helen leapt out of bed, picked up her pillow and crushed it in his face. “Look! Just look at it! That disgusting black stuff! It’s mould all over my pillow.” She could feel the bile of months of injustice fill her with heat and energy. She had to hold herself back from smothering him.
“Don’t hold it so close.” Patrick grabbed the pillow to free his lungs. But when he examined it, a familiar smug expression crept across his face. “It looks like mascara.” He curled his lips into a half smile; mocking her. She went cold. Patrick looked up at Helen. Her hair was matted, her face was flushed, and on the very top of her right cheek was a black and grey mark. “Yup,” he pointed, “panda eyes.”
Helen leapt into the bathroom. She looked in the mirror with a murmur of ‘impossible’. Nonetheless, there it was, gaping back at her like an inky wound. He was right.
But he couldn’t be. She went over the evening in her mind. When they came back from dinner, despite feeling woozy from the drinks, she diligently went to the mirror and removed her makeup and washed her face. She was never one to be sloppy. She opened the bin to check that the small cotton rounds were there. They confirmed she had taken great care in removing every last trace of mascara. Still, the mirror taunted her by pointing out the defiant black under eyes.
A jolt of adrenaline suddenly rushed through her, waking her more thoroughly than any cup of coffee. There was only one smudge and was too far from her eyes to be mascara. It was really on her cheek, possibly in the exact same spot it had been yesterday. Like a deep-seated rot, wiping it away had only improved the surface, allowing the deeper stain to return. She shook the idea out of her head. What person’s skin could rot? She cautiously rubbed at it to see what it could be. The streak transferred to her finger in a feathery stroke.
“I think this is powder,” she called to her now-sleeping husband. There would be no reply. It didn’t seem like mould, but it wasn’t behaving like any other substance she knew of. She rubbed her fingers together and spread like paint, multiplying rather than becoming thinner with each stroke. It sent a shiver down her spine. This seemed unnatural.
A snore from Patrick interrupted her thoughts. She was tired, she reminded herself forcefully. It was just mascara, and anything else was all in her head. She just needed to relax. That’s what this weekend away was for. How many times had she reminded herself of that? With a deep breath in and out – just as her therapist had showed her – she returned to bed.
The next time she saw the black mark it was in grubby lines on the bedsheets. This time she didn’t say anything. Patrick wouldn’t want to know about it. Silently she checked her body to see where the marks had come from, and slipped into the shower to watch it flow off her legs and down the drain. It appeared again, when they went for a stroll around the quaint town. This time it was a smear on the back of her hand. She shoved it in her pocket and smiled at Patrick, who was saying how proud he was that she had slept through the night. On the third morning it appeared on her check as before. She closed the door to the bathroom and silently wept, turning the shower on to disguise any sound of sobs.
Her secret hope was that the mystery substance lived in the hotel room. It was the only way she could get through the four-day weekend. When they got home, she carefully cleaned everything in her makeup case, every shampoo bottle, razor, and brush. Then she threw all of the clothes in the wash. If Patrick thought it was strange, he didn’t say anything. To her relief, that evening passed without another sighting. Helen began to breathe deeply again.
The next morning, she did not make her usual pass at the mirror before jumping in the shower. She refused to notice the tiny splotches of grey that appeared on the soap. And how the water seemed to run touch darker than usual. Instead, she got ready and went to work; happy to let numbers knock anything else from her brain.
By the end of the day, Helen had almost relaxed. That is, until she noticed a mark on the sofa. It was hard to tell what colour it was against the dark blue of the cushion, but it left a grey mark on the dishtowel she used to whip it off.
An aching cold filled her stomach and spread out to her body. She felt suspended in time as she stared down at the towel. Her senses immediately dulled. She could barely feel the material in her hands; barely hear the murmur of television in the room. All she could see was the dark smudge on the towel.
“What’s up?” Patrick looked up from his phone.
“Nothing. Just spilled something on the sofa.” Even her own voice stopped sounding real.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” he shrugged. Those casual words had always plagued her. Don’t worry about it. Advice as useless as asking her to breathe underwater. But now they seemed cutting in their cruelty. He would never believe her. He would never understand. She had to face this – whatever it was – alone.
As she put the dishtowel back, she noticed the back smears on her hands. Had they come from her or the towel? She scrubbed her skin until it was pink.
For another week or two, that’s how it happened. As she moved through the house, morning or night, Helen would notice a streak on a pillow, a scuff on her thigh, or a grey river running along her leg in the shower. She was certain, even when she saw it on surfaces in the house, that it had come from her. In the depths of the night she dreamed she could feel the black mould growing on her body. Her skin became prickly and flushed with scrubbing. And yet she always found another mark of black.
The trick was to avoid Patrick’s notice. He seemed happy for the first time in too long. He kept telling her how proud he of her. She seemed to be getting better. How could she break that glowing hope? At least one of them deserved to be happy. And he hadn’t seen a single black smudge since they returned, or he hadn’t mentioned them. But it began to make her sick to see him smile. There was no way to tell him. It wasn’t purely that she wanted him to be happy. Because even if she did tell him, she knew in her bones how he would respond. He would have told her it was nothing; not to worry. The problem would still be hers, but if she told him, it would also be her failure. So she hand-washed towels in the middle of the night and avoided any suspicion.
Relief came in the form of Patrick’s work trip. He would only be gone for three days, but that would be enough. She ordered industrial strength cleaning supplies. The ones that require a permit if you get them anywhere but online. She added to her order enough glycolic acid peel to cover her entire body. Twice. She outlined her plan to the sound of Patrick’s snoring. Every inch of the house would be cleaned so there was nowhere for the blackness to hide. She would begin with her shower, then a chemical peel over her entire body taking away the entire top layer of her skin to fall to the bathroom floor. Then she would unwrap entirely new cleaning supplies – nothing that had been in the house before could be used. She would start in the bathroom, cornering even the inside of the shower and the depths of the drain. Then work her way out to the rest of the flat. Anywhere that the blackness could hide would be attacked vigorously.
The day he left, they both went off to work, but Helen snuck home with a ‘migraine’ and began with the laundry. All the towels with stains of grey and black went in together so there was no chance of contamination. She jammed them on the hottest wash with the hotel recommended cleaner and an extra quarter cup of bleach, just in case. Seeing the washing machine whirr to life felt like freedom.
The systematic cleaning of her body brought a burning to her skin she hadn’t expected. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes as she counted the fifteen minutes until she could stop the pain under the shower. Her skin was patchy and red. Fresh. Not even the slightest hint of shadow. It tingled in the air and ached against the towel. It was the most beautiful feeling in the world.
In a snowfall of plastic she unwrapped her tools and set to work. After each room was finished, she closed the door carefully to seal it from any errant debris that might blow from room to room. She debated coating the doors with clingfilm but there simply wasn’t enough in the house. Otherwise, she was willing to risk nothing. It was her only chance to rid herself of the blackness without Patrick knowing anything. Her back ached. The skin on her hands came loose and blistered under the humidity of the thick gloves. She was forced to stop when little trickles of blood made their way along her wrist and on to the floor.
The smell of chemicals burnt her nose and throat and exhaustion made her eyes fog over, but she refused to give up. If she stopped, it only gave the smudges time to spread, to grow, to reappear. Infecting her newly cleaned space. This was the only way. She repeated it to herself until it took on a hypnotic resonance, keeping her brain from feeling her body as it groaned against the hours of labour.
At last she backed herself into the front door and turned to wipe it with bleach. Every inch was done and her body gave way. She fell asleep by the door, not even wondering if she had remembered to put the caps back on the enormous jugs of cleaner that formed a nest beside her. She slept dreamless hours, but in the edge of the day, sun just hitting her closed lids, and brain slowly awakening, she was pulled back to a dream. She saw herself awaken to her flat, perfectly shining white. She moved along the hallway, the carpet glistening and the walls nearly reflective with a smooth glow of sterility. She opened a door to the glistening countertops, and snowy-white plastic of the washing machine. The light caught across the small window made her heart spasm. Her chest heaved as she doubled over clutching the pain in her chest. She looked up for only a moment, and a cry crept out of her lips. There before her the machine was working, water sloshing like ink, bending and twisting black towels like slipper ropes of tar. The image made her throat spasm.
She collapsed to the floor focusing on the lines and colours that made the linoleum a charade of wood. It couldn’t be happening. Everything was clean. She had put nearly as much bleach in the machine as water. At the edge of this panic, she was reminded this was a dream. That part of her aware of the closed eyes against the sunlight and coarse carpet digging into her raw skin took over the dream. This was not real. She just needed to see it through. The dream-Helen crawled across the floor and peered to the machine. With a cheerful ping the water settled and the machine stopped. Hands shaking, she gripped the edge of the door jam. One breath in, and one out. She opened her eyes and pulled on the door all at once.
Whatever happened jolted her awake. The shudder in her body knocked over the nearest jug of cleaner leaking it onto the floor. Helen quickly righted it and then looked down the hall. She needed to face whatever was at the end of it.
In a stride she was up and half-way down the hall, body insensible to the chemicals burning the already savaged skin on her legs. The walk to the washing machine only took a moment. To the door, even less. She didn’t feel or see her hands move. The catch on the machine clicked as the door unlocked. In a moment of terror, her mind filled with the image of black water oozing out from the washing machine door like blood.
And yet nothing happened.
The door opened smoothly. The towels where a clean knot of white. Two of the towels had been mottled by the bleach, but as she hung them all out to dry around her, she was thrilled with the poof that they were clean. She was overtaken by laughter. It coursed through her, as though coming up from the floorboards or down from heaven, passing through her body in an involuntary twitch. Relief came next. And then her senses. With a shout she ran to the sink to wash her calf of the chemicals. She had a small burn, but it was worth it. The house was clean. She, at long last, was clean.
In a joyous haze she moved from room to room inspecting the perfect cleanliness round her. Not a flake of dust, not a smudge or streak or blotch or smear. She skipped to the bathroom and turned on the shower, her lips in a long-lost smile. As the water heated up, she glanced in the mirror. She screamed.
It was there. Despite the lingering scent of bleach in the air, her cheek was scarred by a long black cut spreading out to her hear. The screaming seemed to come from beyond her and deep within her. Piercing and strong she couldn’t get it to stop. Her mind frantically tried to gain control over her voice and her body, but she stood there in a pathetic parody of a painting, screaming with the purity of a wraith.
Nothing in particular stopped it. Her mind screamed desperately for so long that she was bored at the lack of her body’s movement. She felt like a doll, trapped behind her eyes. Then, a syllable burst out. The word – no – broke through her lips in a sharp shot that shattered her unearthly scream. And after it came silence.
She could move again. Her hands went to her face and tore at the mark, black falling into her fingernails as she scratched the surface. It smeared against her hands. The skin was thin enough to break and rivulets of blood turned murky as they seeped into the smudges. She turned the tap and plunged her hands in to the water, splashing teardrops of grey along the surface of the sink. She dipped her hands in the water and felt a pleasant sting and threw it violently to her face. Her eyes opened and saw the halo of black and grey water that fell on the counter and the tiled floor. It was spreading. It was everywhere.
That is when everything stopped.
Time, light, the world, the water. It ended. And there she was. Hands smeared; face cut with fingernails dividing up that gaping smudge. Black as night. As space. As nothing. Helen didn’t scream. She didn’t laugh. Her heart no longer battered against the cage of her chest. She no longer felt the unsettling rush of adrenaline stream into her chest and her head. And just as suddenly, it started again.
The room spun with nausea. Her skin burned with heat. She refused to vomit. Instinct took over, animal and swift. She jerked her body back to the hall, to the jugs lined up like pins. She grabbed one, two, four. She flew to the kitchen – the largest sink in the house – and tipped them into the glowing white surface. She saw the thick clear bleach mix with the smoky white of the other two in a whirlpool spotted with the occasional drop of her blood. The chemicals seemed to consume it until it disappeared in the sour-smelling mist. Jugs empty they fell to the floor. She breathed in the acrid smell, setting fire to her lungs. It was pure. It was clean. It was right.
She shoved her hands into the misty white liquid and felt the burn of the bleach and the water in her hands. Her face came next, a warm stinging burn spread over her face slowly until she was forced to come up for breath. The world around her lit up in circles of fireworks every colour. Green and red and yellow and blue. They overcame the room around her. It was beautiful. It was bliss. And the smell, no longer cruel and burning at the hairs in her nose, it was stable and simple. It had overcome everything. She sunk to the floor, cocooned by the thick greasy chemical slug flowing down form her face along her neck and into her body. Caressing her.
A jug touched her leg. Blindly, she gripped it to her chest. Cap removed she could feel the gaping mouth sticky with the sweetness of bleach. In her mind she could see it again: the clean white perfection of the plastic, lined inside thick outline of clear purity. What was inside her? Was that where the blackness was hiding? Seeping out of her day after day. If only she could wash it all away. From the inside out.
Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition. Her first non-fiction book, Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror, is coming out with Strange Attractor Press in October 2021.