Mark Towse

Originally published in The Toilet Zone, Hellbound Books

Joe sighs loudly and turns onto his back after kicking the freshly washed duvet from the bed. He studies his fingernails for blood and skin, but the only blood he finds is dry from where he bit the nails down yesterday. The fresh cool territory of the bottom sheet provides temporary relief for his back, but the unreachable prickling soon makes its presence known again. He digs his fingers into his chest to gouge at the latest and most intensive itch, but he can’t fool the brain—they are like stumps—no sharpness at all.

He convinces himself there are thousands of tiny bugs crawling over his skin, and he can’t bear it anymore, so starts roughly scratching at his back again. It’s worse than yesterday, much worse. Images of them laying eggs and defecating on his skin fill his head, and he’s sure they must be breeding. For the second night in a row, he’s still awake past midnight, and on the verge of tears. His head begins to itch—that’s never happened before. They’re spreading fast. The fingers of his right hand provide momentary relief on his scalp, but he feels as though he is chasing the bugs around, and they’re constantly moving just out of reach. His back is getting worse, and the fingers of his left hand are doing nothing to stem the itch burrowing further into his flesh.

At work yesterday, he’d wanted to say something, but how do you begin to talk about a skin infection with work colleagues. Besides, it was year-end—people had called in sick, and everyone else looked stressed and too exhausted to care.

Later that evening, he’d phoned his parents. His dad had suggested it might be dermatitis, but right now, it seems much more serious than a simple skin allergy. The earliest the doctor could see him was next week; they were short-staffed and incredibly busy.

He feels as though his skin is alive—a hypersensitive composition of raw nerve endings randomly making their presence known.  The back of his neck is next, and he moves his right hand to chase that one down, but it quickly moves just out of reach again. He moves his left hand from his back and across to his right thigh as a new patch of skin cries for attention. There is yet another outbreak near his ankle and then the latest and worst of all, on the bottom of his foot. He begins hitting it with a closed fist, but it does nothing. There are new patches of torment everywhere, and Joe punches himself on the back of his neck, scalp, spine, and legs.

He assumes the bed is teeming with the microscopic bugs, so he jumps out, and in a frenzied state, starts brushing himself down.

There’s some relief to escape the sheets that must be a writhing landscape of infestation, but he can still feel them on him, and worse—in him. He throws his boxers and T-shirt into the bin next to his bed.

The remote control on the floor catches his eye, and he quickly grabs it, shakes it, then switches on the TV. The noise provides a brief slice of normality to proceedings but doesn’t detract from the escalating intensity of his itchy skin that is demanding his complete attention. Words fill the room, but most of them can’t be heard above the thoughts in his head, screaming at him to scratch some more. He hears something about the third day as he slides open the window and enjoys the hit of the cool breeze that caresses his body, but the relief is temporary as he starts to claw at his skin once again. The sound of sirens can be heard from all directions, and from his tenth-storey room, he sees the blur of lights against the backdrop of darkness.
He can hear the whir and chopping noise of the helicopters, and above the sirens, he thinks he can hear people screaming. And was that gunfire?

For just past the midnight hour, the night is abnormally explosive.

Every square inch of his body sings out in a chorus of irritation. He rushes towards the bathroom and catches the words “Emergency Broadcast” as they scroll across the bottom of the TV screen, but takes no heed and quickly steps into the shower and turns the tap. The immediate hit of cold water catches him off guard, but he welcomes the brief override of the maddening itch. He scrubs at his skin relentlessly with the sponge, but he can’t get deep enough.

The itch manifests in his eyes next, and he digs the balls of his hands firmly into his sockets—they squelch like marshy ground as he rubs frantically. He fumbles at the shower door and steps out of the water, watching himself in the bathroom mirror as he rakes at his chest and back. His skin is red and flared, his eyes bloodshot and puffy, underlined by huge dark circles. In frustration, he screams and punches the mirror. It fractures, sending shards to the floor. The sensation is unbearable and getting worse.  He picks up a piece of glass, and there is immediate relief as he runs the sharpness across his chest and back. But it’s not enough, and he can feel the inward retreat of the alien bodies inside him.

There’s a scream for help down the hallway, but Joe has other things on his mind, and he pushes the sharp edge of the glass into his chest. The skin concedes and a small lake of fresh crimson forms. He follows the itch around with the blade and buries it deeper. His reflection makes him feel sick, so he returns to his bedroom, working now on his wrist. They are definitely in there; he can feel them. As the blade digs in further, there is an explosion of pain. His overloaded nerves cause him to let out a piercing scream. His body vibrates with agony, and it is seconds before it stabilises to a dull, painful throb. They move again, and he stabs himself in the leg multiple times, then in the centre of his left hand. The TV is droning on about a terrorist attack and something, again, about the third day, but he needs to get out of the apartment into the cold night air. His skin is on fire.

He swings the door open and catches sight of a naked lady slumped against the far wall—multiple gashes and fresh glistening blood decorate her body. One of her eyes is leaking, and some implement remains buried in its corner.

There is a smeared line of blood across the elevator button. He presses it multiple times with his good hand, leaving his own bloody trace. A scream emerges from one of the rooms behind him, followed by a loud crashing noise against the door. He hears footsteps, then another thunderous smash, as though someone is throwing themselves against it, or someone else.

Finally, the lift arrives, and the doors open to reveal two more motionless and naked bodies—one half of a pen emerges from one of their necks.

As he steps in, the glass in the elevator reveals the full extent of the damage he has done to his body. Still, the intrusion marches on, and it feels as though something is gnawing at his spine.

The elevator door opens to a cacophony of screams and gunfire. There are naked and half-naked bodies everywhere strewn across the floor, each of them torn, bloody, and lifeless.

Near the reception desk, he sees two men mercilessly beating each other, but they are pleading to be hit. Their naked bodies are covered in red patches, their faces swollen and bloody.

Joe makes a run for it. He has no plan as he brings the glass into his right thigh but feels that if he can make it outside, there may be a chance of salvation. He sprints to the foyer door, thrusts it open, and gives himself to the coldness of the night in the hope it will somehow cleanse him.

As he stands naked with the shard of glass still sunk into his thigh, there’s a scream from an approaching soldier wearing a sinister-looking mask. “Get down on the floor!”

But Joe doesn’t get down to the floor. Instead, he breaks down in tears and screams at the top of his lungs for the soldier to shoot him. More gunfire punctures the air, and he closes his eyes, but the impact doesn’t come. The soldier with the gun is still aiming at his head.

The soldier looks down the scope. The order was to shoot on sight. He wasn’t trained to shoot innocent civilians; they should be going after the terrorists, not cleaning up their mess.

Their brief was so limited, just that people were going insane—killing themselves and each other. The scientists have no breakthrough yet.

The bleeding man before him is begging to be shot, but he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He wonders what his father would do or what his family would say if they knew he was aiming his weapon at the unarmed man.  He immediately releases his right hand from the gun to attend to a sudden itch and slakes his fingers across the back of his neck. As he does, he watches the man retrieve the glass from his leg and plunge it into his eye. He doesn’t stop there and continues to stab himself multiple times on all parts of his body. The screams are unbearable. The soldier places his hand back, steadies the gun and fires off a shot that is a direct hit between the man’s eyes. He watches as the man falls to the ground, still clutching the glass.

There is an immediate and intense itch on the soldier’s cheek, but he can’t get to it because of the gas mask. The night continues around him, but his part in it is over as he sits down in the middle of the road amid the chaos and begins to cry. The itch is driving him crazy, but he still dares not remove his mask in case of infection. He couldn’t bear to go like the man he’d just shot.

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