Another biting rip (it hurt that time).
Usually, the skin peeled as effortlessly as string from rotten fruit.
Locked onto the edge of his throbbing thumb, his eyes traced the deep paths of old and new lacerations. His skin split like fissures in the earth: every wound as delicately sculpted as the last. Using the dirt-lodged nail of his middle finger, the boy continued to scrape away the flaking skin which travelled down to the curve of his hand and up his index finger. Each greying follicle fell like frost onto the empty plate in front of him.
Sitting alone at the kitchen table, he fought the hollow twang which echoed through the chambers of his empty stomach. Ignoring its contemptuous calls, the boy only admired the new bloodied crevice carved into his thumb which glistened with a crimson complexion. The brightness of the red contradicted with the deathly-pale outskirts of his flesh which clung to life. To appease the rumbling which erupted from his stomach – a sound which often antagonised his parents – he sank his front teeth into a fresh piece of skin and chewed the slice between his molars. He was starving.
Wailing warily, the extractor fan above the oven spun with his mother’s worry while she methodically stirred the boiling pot on the stove. He struggled to hear anything over it; not that it mattered much. Dinners had become a quiet affair: consisting of cutlery clinking, chairs creaking, words whispered. To put it simply, dinner had become torturous for the boy.
That was, apart from the odd night his father decided to arrive in one of his ‘good moods’ which often came and went as quickly as the mealtimes the boy dreaded. However, in recent months, these occasions had become somewhat of a rarity in the household. So, he waited wishfully with his pacing mother who also considered which version of her husband she would be greeted by today. It was difficult not to pity her. Yet, the boy had always held a soft spot for his mother: always more consistent, more kind, more patient.
Always more tolerant of his ‘challenges’.
Unlike his father.
Glancing through his thick fringe, the boy frowned at the passing time: 6.47pm. Far past their usual mealtime. While the pangs of hunger still tweaked in his insides, the delay of his father’s arrival sparked a small flame of hope that he would bring something edible home. Not another heaped plate of bland food which mirrored the room around him.
Everything in the deteriorating kitchen was the same moulding colour of beige – apart from the faintly green cupboards which faded from their once-vibrant colour like bruises. Grime coated the walls and congealed itself into every nook the kitchen dared to have. Patches of rust flourished like stubborn warts and embellished the exposed pipes like spiralling ivy. On the side of the sink, dishes lay abandoned (some splattered in stains, some chipped and cracked, others merely forgotten). Half-full take-away boxes sprawled over the counters and attracted tiny insistent flies which doubled each day. Their bumbling and lurching movements mocked his parents who danced around each other – using the fat-filled food as a bargaining tool. It was the home that made him sick.
Between his teeth, he held a fragile piece of skin he noticed sticking up like a broken nail in wood from his finger and tugged it backwards – revealing the scarlet flesh beneath. It took a second before the pain kicked in. His nerves pulsed with persistent pleas before numbing to the intensity of the raw pain. Accustomed to this ritual, the boy barely reacted to the feeling. It was his body that pled; not him. There were worse things going on.
His mother heard it too.
Even the fan struggled to mute the sound.
Instinctively, the boy’s eyes fell on the basement door which always sat on the other side of the room to him (where he liked it). He wanted to keep watch on it. Its allusiveness seemed to loom over the mother and son as they waited for his father. What lay behind the door pounded with the same intensity as the pain in the boy’s fingers. It beckoned the boy to open it – something he had still not had the courage to do. Regardless of how much he wanted to, he knew the punishment from his father would trump his curiosity. He swallowed the lump in his throat which slid down to create a tight knot in his stomach.
Breaking his stare, he looked for reassurance from his mother who seemed to either be waiting for another noise, or in a hypnotic trance. The yellowing fabric acting as curtains floated around her like spectres from the open window. With a bolt-tight jaw which highlighted the stiffness throughout the rest of her body, she gazed out into the garden. Eyes haunted and somewhere else. Both mother and son knew what that noise meant.
His father would join them soon.
Removing another layer of ghostly skin, the boy winced as the flesh fought against his pull. With one more tug, it released its stubborn grasp and landed on the table in front of him. In triumph, he almost smiled as the red liquid began to flood the empty space his skin once situated. Wrapping his parted lips around the wound, he devoured the metallic taste which reminded him of old coins, copper, and the end of pencils he chewed at school.
More quickly than expected, the scraping of a rusted bolt bounced the boy’s gaze back to the basement door. A chain rattled against the old wooden door (the splinters dug into his skin just thinking about it). As the final lock clicked open, either anxiety or excitement dropped deeply in the boy’s stomach. It felt as though the floor had been pulled from under his feet. There was no way to be sure of which version of his father he would get today. He crossed his nipping fingers beneath the table.
As the door creaked open with a wince, only his father’s face exited the basement.
Feeling his shoulders drop, his father looked skinnier than the boy had noticed before, his cheeks curved into his skull. Exhaustion nestled deeply into the layers of his skin, making him look permanently bruised. Avoiding the boy’s stare completely, his father searched for the comfort of his wife’s eyes. Turning her head over her shoulder, she met her husband’s purposeful gaze and a silent word passed between them. The boy thought that this may have been the only thing he had in common with his father – they both preferred his mother. As his brow softened, fragments of pale skin accentuated the outline of his frown which he almost permanently wore.
Sliding out the door to deter the watchful eyes of his son, the man’s body appeared section by section as he shut the door behind him. Locking the door with his key (that he always kept in his front pocket), his hand shook as he tried to remove it from the starving mouth of the lock. Finally ripping it from the lock’s teeth, he steadied his breathing while shifting the rattling chains to fully secure the door. Clearing his throat before he turned to face his family, he forced a fabricated smile on the bottom half of his face which didn’t reach his eyes. Hanging from him like cobwebs, his white sleeveless shirt seemed more tattered than usual. Bringing the back of his wrist to his forehead, he only smeared the charcoal dirt which clumped on his face where his sweat gathered.
“Son,” he nodded to the boy and greeted him with a ruffle of his hair before he turned to kiss his wife on the shoulder while she cooked.
A waft of air carried a sweet staleness which permanently exuded from his father after he had been down in the basement. In the beginning, he would quickly excuse himself for a shower to cleanse himself of the stench, but as the visits became more regular, he quickly gave this ritual up. Mostly, the boy had become accustomed to this, and it was still better than the scent of the food being cooked.
The sulfuric smell of broccoli was beginning to make the boy feel ill imaging the cold, watery vegetable that would no doubt be overcooked into a deflated mush. Soon, it would be splattered on his plate by a harsh spoon and would ruin his pile of frosted skin. He swallowed the warm saliva that gathered in the sides of his cheeks in preparation for him to vomit.
Opening the fridge door with a stubborn slurp, his father was illuminated by a mustard light and pulled out a lukewarm beer. Without a flinch, he opened it with his teeth and the glass bottle hissed against him. Holding the neck of the bottle by his index and middle finger, he took a seat at the opposite side of the table from his son. In doing so, he blocked the boy’s view of the basement door which made him divert his gaze back to his plate. Observing him carefully, his father lifted a napkin from the table and opened it to lay neatly on his lap. He always made this kind of show when preparing to eat – and yet, this performance had still never encouraged him to stomach his food.
Leaning over them, his mother plated each of their dinners in front of them. Despite his father’s encouraging hum which indicated his excitement for the meal – all the boy saw was slop. The watery gravy infiltrated the zones where his vegetables and potatoes were positioned. Ruining them before he even had the chance to refuse the food. The boy noticed that at school, the other children watched the steam dance from their inviting plates with wide eyes, but at home, the heavy air of the kitchen only seemed to oppress it.
“He’s not eaten anything today – or spoken. I think it’s getting worse,” his mother informed her husband like it was a bad school report.
While he could feel the thunderous frown of his father above him, he did not remove his inquisitive stare from his thumb which he hid beneath the table. Sitting beside them, the boy could tell his mother was silently pressing his father to say something to fix the situation. Having such a miniscule success rate, the boy wondered why she bothered. Letting out a defeated sigh, his father put down his fork and knife and finished his mouthful.
Each loud chew made the boy’s stomach churn.
“Look at me, son,” his father managed.
Forcing his eyes up, he waited. Rubbing the protruding spikes of his beard, it was obvious the conversation made him uncomfortable. His grey eyes rounder and more worried.
“Is it the dreams again? The ones with the basement?”
The word made the boy’s hands tingle.
He wanted to
but he couldn’t.
Not in front of his father.
The emptiness in his stomach had started to make him feel light-headed – a wave of nausea vibrated through him. Around him, the room started to spin slightly. Beads of sweat began to form around his neck and shoulders and roll down his back.
Moving closer to her son, his mother lifted the fringe from his eyes to feel his clammy forehead. Panic already in her eyes, she looked to her husband for his aid. She held his face between her two hands to make him focus on her turned up eyebrows and wide eyes.
“Does he look okay to you, David? Look at him – he’s starving himself sick. Please, son, why don’t you just try to have a bit of your dinner? Like your dad says.”
Forcing himself out of his dizziness, the boy sipped the water in front of him and shook his head of the spell he was under. Whilst he did not answer, he looked towards his father who was framed by the basement door. The boy knew he was starving, and so did his father.
To appease his parents who watched contentiously, he planted a fork into his mash potatoes. Butter escaped like blood from a stab wound. Inserting the fork into his mouth, it did not take long for it to make the boy physically wretch as the texture hit the back of his throat. The amalgamation of his harsh coughs, his teary eyes, and his hand to his throat caused his mother to jump up from her seat to his aid. He spat the food out onto a napkin.
“Oh David, can’t we please just get him something he’ll eat? Look at him!”
As the father and son locked eyes, his father swelled with rage at the disobedience which danced across his son’s eyes.
“God damn it, no!” He slammed his fist on the table which made the two bounce simultaneously. “He will eat what we make him. He cannot control this whole house!”
A scratching interrupted his father’s outburst.
Despite trying not to, he watched as his mother darted her eyes towards the basement door.
The three paused – breaths held tightly.
It was light, but it was still there.
Looking down at his hands which had made their own way back onto the table, the boy realised that the sound was his. His fingers dug deeply into his skin, scraping vigorously like mice in the walls.
Before he had the chance to stop, he caught the burning stare of his father who scowled at the boy’s thumb which was as red as a stop light. He had tried everything: plasters, gloves, tape, coating his fingers in a clear liquid that tasted like nail polish remover. Nothing worked.
A tight fist found itself around his wrist.
The boy looked at it as if it was completely alien to him.
His father had never done this before.
“That hurts?” His father’s eyes became overwhelmed by a thick wave of tears that he gulped down – the whites of his eyes gaining a pink glow. He tightened his grip. “That hurts?”
His glare turned on his wife – the hair on his eyebrows now hackles.
The laboured breaths in his chest caused his whole to expand and deflate. As if she had pressed a button, he unclasped his grip and let his hand linger over his son’s delicate wrist. Feeling the painful ring that was left, the boy fought the urge to hold onto his wrist and sooth himself.
“I’m just hungry, Dad.”
The words hung like black clouds.
A beat passed between his mother and father.
“We don’t have enough left,” his father spoke to his mother, his voice meek.
“He’s not eaten in days, David.”
“We promised we would try,” his father hissed. “Like I said, we don’t have enough. Look – son – this is fine.”
He shovelled a loaded mouthful from his fork and swallowed despite the lump that was even evident through his throat. His Adam’s apple bobbed.
“Try some,” his father swerved the fork around to his son’s face. The mountainous slop that jiggled made him recoil. He was going to be sick.
He was going to be sick.
Before he had the chance to think, his hand – with more strength that he realised – batted the fork away from him. It flew across the air and to the opposite side of the room.
Clattering with a cacophonous crash, the fork skipped across the tile flooring as if it was running for its escape.
His father’s eyes did not leave the fork that eventually lay as silent as a corpse.
He would regret that.
He knew he was going to regret that.
His mother gave out a deep exhale. Plucking the napkin from her lap and throwing it onto the table, she leaned back in her seat and rubbed her face with her palms.
“You need to get more, David” she said plainly.
Bringing his jaw around to look at her directly, his father sat back down from the previously large stance he took over his son. He watched his throat vibrate with the same intensity as his hands. Running his fingers through his once jet-black hair that had now receded and aged to a speckled grey, the father gripped it with such strength he felt his scalp pull painfully. It was his eyes that made the boy realise he was close.
“I’m hungry,” The boy looked at him with onyx black eyes that glistened with betrayal. His father gazed back as if he was in some kind of trance. He couldn’t help but notice the way his son’s cheeks dipped in like his to show the outline of his skull.
“You can’t let me die.”
Another beat that was louder than the last – without the extractor fan, they were left with only the three pathways of thought between them. Watching intently, the boy smiled slightly as his mother wrapped her fingers around his father’s decimated, working hands.
Forcing the edges of his mouth back up from their shaking pout, his father nodded.
There was no hope in fighting.
He was only waiting for the words which were catching up on him.
“We can use the last of her,” his mother prompted. “Then we can get another one. Like the last time.”
Wiping his mouth with disgust, his father scraped each of the four legs on his seat along the kitchen tiles which screamed with the friction.
“God help us,” he forced from his throat as he lifted the key from his pocket and dragged his feet across the kitchen to the basement door.
Instead of shifting in shyly, his father left the door wide open.
Light flooded the stairs down into the room – a white leg appeared from the darkness.
He licked his lips. So did his mother.
The boy had always liked his mother better.
R. J. Morgan is a dedicated writer who loves reading – and watching – horror. She is a graduate of the University of Glasgow where she studied English Literature & History. While her focus is on writing short stories, she is currently working on her debut novel: Where They Take Us.
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