PEELING
A short story by Jirat Prasertsup

1

Even the rainy seasons brought no rain, ever since I began peeling off my own skin.

 

Just three weeks ago, I sent a message to my brother - a dermatologist - asking if a person could survive if he had no skin left.

“Besides the conjunctiva in our eyes and oral mucosa in our mouths, we’re constantly shedding skin from our bodies. Why would you ask?”

I texted “Thanks a lot!” in reply, deliberately avoiding his question.

 

As I placed my phone on the bed, I was already moving towards the makeup table. 

 

It was early September when I plucked all the hairs from my head and body. The weather was cold and dry, right before I scraped the hairs from head to toe using the same razor I shaved my brows with; a moment of cosmic harmony, as if the town itself was suspended over the mountaintops. 

There was never a more fitting time for a peeling.

 

The act of skinning one’s self isn’t as painful as it sounds. Lizards, snakes, spiders, centipedes, or even crickets all shed the skins from their body regularly, even casually, as they do not possess any sense of beauty. The mirror, once used to reflect and admire my appearance for the sake of vanity, has been changed into a tool for checking whether I had thoroughly shed my skin. But then again, the pain of skinning myself is nothing in comparison to accepting what I was becoming every time I looked in the mirror. I spent quite a few days before I got over that.  

But even more painful than waking in the morning to look in the mirror, having to greet the chrysalis child within, is the reason that drove me to do all of this in the first place.

Perhaps I shouldn’t begin the story just three weeks ago, since the entire tale began farther back than that.
 

2

Fifteen years; about a fifth of the average human’s lifespan, as I found out on the internet.

Once, I had hoped that I was older, so I could look back upon those times as but a fragment of everything that happened. But the truth was frighteningly simple. I began one fifth of my entire life at 18 years old, when he was two years older than me. We separated when I was 33, him 35. Thinking about it now, we were quite young. But it seems I have realized that time may have been my entire life, and I despaired so much to think that I might not live as long as the average human lifespan. 

I began with discarding everything related to him, abandoning stuffs, moving homes, even changing jobs (he would come visit me often at the chair across from my desk, in front of the elevator, or on the fire escape staircase leading to the parking lot - even after so many months, I still see him everywhere). And when I realized that dormant memories still linger across so many corners of this city, I ultimately moved away, starting again in a city I knew nearly nothing about, and no one… I just wanted to live.

I tried looking up the average amount of time it takes for us to forget a lover, but found nothing on the internet. I desperately wondered when we could ever have a new relationship while we couldn’t forget our last one. I had never needed anyone else, only him. And even though I’ve left behind everything around me that connected to him, it’s been three years of this new life in this new city, new job, and new colleagues, and my life has still gone nowhere. 

Until one morning when I woke up to look in the mirror, only to realize that since our world lacked the technology to erase memories, if I ever wanted to move on without any leftover ties to him, another thing I could do is peel off everything covering my body:

All the hair he touched.

The lips he kissed.

All the skin that still holds memories of him.

 

3

The morning I finished peeling all of my skin, the rain poured, almost as if in celebration of my rebirth. I observed my own reflection in the mirror, an ugly sight like a fish without its scales, and cried just as hard as the storming deluge outside.

Looking at the scattered remnants of my own past: flecks of skin and hair, piled together in the trash bin beside the makeup table. The bin held nothing else besides all the skin and hair I had collected since the first day of the flaying. It’s strange really - I’d thought there should’ve been more. But it was all condensed into a mound of matter, just enough to fill the shin-height trash bin.

I turned on music to compete with the rain’s sound, casually getting up to prepare coffee and breakfast for myself. How many years since I’ve hummed in the kitchen like this? Hopefully the rain lets up in the afternoon, as I wanted to drive through the cold dew somewhere so I can burn the bin containing my discarded flesh. After which I will look up to admire the sky after the storm.

But things didn’t happen that way, and the rain showed no signs of relenting. That afternoon, I could only browse through websites about skincare and rejuvenation, as well as any job postings. Then I called to order food from a delivery service, even tipping the driver extra for braving the rain to service me. I finally turned in early, dreaming of the sunny skies that must await me tomorrow.

I woke up in the middle of the night, noticing that the air in the room was unusually warm. The storm must have knocked out the electricity. I grabbed my cellphone to check the time, hoping to rely on its light, only to find the phone equally dead. I had forgotten to charge it before I went to bed. Opening the bedside drawer, I fetched some matches to light the large fragrance candle near the phone, the candle I would light every time I had trouble sleeping.

As I got up to crack the window open for ventilation, I heard movement from the corner of the room, where the trash bin containing my skin was next to the makeup table. It was as if a rat or something was scurrying around inside. The newly-grown hairs on my body stiffened, my hand trembling slightly as it held the candle aloft, heading towards the source of the sound. I could instinctively tell that the noise was being created by the movement of something that was alive.

The candlelight slowly revealed the features of the creature that slowly crawled free from the trash bin before her. In the gloom, my tears flowed unimpeded, as the thing that came out of the little bin holding the remnants of my body is only too familiar to me.

It was his uncovered body.
 

4

The rain continued to pour all throughout the week. During that time, we did nothing but had sex, stopped for meals, had sex some more, then sleep.

   

We made love with all the lust and passion of animals in heat. I allowed him to penetrate my every orifice regardless of the pain, in ways I had never done before, thinking everything was but a dream. But after a day and a night, after checking my computer and phone for news only to discover the world still turning beneath the rain, did I become sure that everything I’m experiencing is real.

The naked visitor was like him in every conceivable way - his face, his skin, his height, and his hair (the same hair he had when we lived together, up until the break), not to mention all the blemishes on his body I was so familiar with. The only difference was that this man had no memories of his own. He didn’t know me or himself, not even the words to speak, nothing. It was like he was a mindless clone.

His appearance only served as a reminder that, even though I had left behind my life, even after I had peeled the skin from my body to remove any trace of him, I could never forget him. Because even though I am sure that the naked man in front of me is not the man I loved, I was still the one that initiated first…

Perhaps this is a new chapter in my life, a gift from the divine upon a woman who had suffered and lost everything, from her career, way of life, even her body, for the sake of forgetting.
 

5

It was like caring for an infant in the body of a grown man, but it was also an overwhelming happiness I hadn’t felt all these years since we’ve broken up.  

I taught him to speak, to communicate. I cooked and clothed him. I kept him inside my house, protecting him from the outside world by locking the door every time I left for work. We made love every day, and I spent every second in my home by his side. I made sure he knew he wasn’t just my lover, but also my treasure, mine and mine alone.

I’ve never been a mother, but I felt the struggles of a mother who had to deal with a child that grew up every day, with their own feelings, thoughts, and personality, which brought them further from your embrace little by little. Only a year after that day during the storm, the man who manifested from the skin of my body was able to speak, think, and question like any human could.

One evening after I arrived home from work, I found the front windows broken, with the metal railings bent open from the inside. And when I walked through the front door, I never saw him again. 

 

6

It was hot tonight, so the man turned up the air conditioner more than usual. 

He was getting ready for bed after having finished Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight. 

He closed the book, turned off the night light, tucked himself into the blanket, and closed his eyes.

An hour had passed. Even though the man should be in some dream world somewhere, he was still awake under eyelids. There weren’t any distracting thoughts keeping him up, but sleep eluded him all the same. After some time spent turning around in bed, he sat up and listened to the sounds of the old air conditioner, the familiar droning of the machine. Tonight, though, something was different. The man looked around into the 35-square meters of walled room, and finally realized that he wasn’t alone.

On a chair of the desk at the foot of the bed, the silhouette of a person blended into the surrounding darkness.

Stared at the silhouette, making sure he wasn’t imagining things… he wasn’t. Someone had snuck into the home. As soon as the dark figure realized he was aware of them, it leapt at him, pushing down onto the bed, hands strangling his throat with immense strength. The house’s owner fought with his entire being, but was unable to free himself from the phantom intruder’s clutches. He was so scared, he thought he’d peed himself.

His throat burned. But before he lost consciousness, the rumpled sheets from the recent struggle slid against the bed’s plastic wrapping underneath. The sheets were slippery enough for him to slide himself down from the bed, falling with a long crash. The shadow figure came with him, but he rolled out from under the invader and quickly stood up. The man took the chance and kicked the invader on the chin with all his strength, feeling as if the bones in his own toes would break from the impact. But it worked, and the figure went still. 

The house’s owner backed away towards the light switch. White neon light painted the room. Any pain he felt was completely forgotten in the moment. Almost 40 years of life, and he had never felt such horror.

It was him.

 

The shadow figure who almost strangled him to death, who he had just knocked out with a kick to the jaw, was himself…

His knees gave out as he hyperventilated. He tried to calm down, to examine the mysterious man before him, whose face, skin, height, and hair were identical to his own, even down to the moles and blemishes on his body - not even identical twins could be so alike.

   

The house’s owner sat there staring at the body with confusion. He was still out cold beside the bed. The man had no idea what to do next, partly because he believed this could just be a dream, one he would wake up from before long.

But this was no dream. He was still here, with this stranger who had his exact face and body.

As his brain failed to process what was real, and what wasn’t, the invader woke up. When the invader saw that the house’s owner was watching, it quickly jumped up and headbutted in his face.

Another tussle ensued, only this time he was being cornered. He tried to stand his ground, but wasn’t able to avoid any of the attacks. The invader struck him in the face, before grabbing his head and ramming it into the wall. Another rain of blows into his torso, then it grabbed a metal chair and began beating him again and again.

In what little consciousness was left to him, he tasted the blood filling his mouth. One of his eyes had swollen shut. He felt broken bones somewhere, felt the internal organs battered and bruised. He had never been hurt this bad in the whole life. He tried to speak, but no sound came out. His remaining eye still saw it… the other him, relentlessly beating him to death with the chair.

Seeing the house’s owner lying still in a pool of blood, the invader finally put down the chair. As if remembering something, it left the room and went downstairs. The house’s owner heard noises while he searched in the kitchen. Less than five minutes later, it returned with a large knife, the one the house’s owner used to butcher meat. He had never used it to cut anything since he bought it, though he was quite sure it will be used to butcher himself by the other him in the next few minutes. 

 

The man was not sure how long he was unconscious. But when he came to once more, he could still hear the familiar drone of the air conditioner, the sky outside the window still pitch black, though the white neon lights still shone bright. He prayed for everything that just happened to be a dream, but no. He was still barely breathing where he lay, crimson liquid pooling on the floor even thicker than before. His entire body felt numb as he turned to his right, where his arm had already been hacked off.

He saw the other him voraciously gnaw at the meat of his severed right arm, sucking and slurping on the caked blood with glee. Tears streamed down his face just as vigorously as the blood pumping away from what was left of him.

The house’s owner was dying, with his final sight being a stranger with a frightening resemblance to himself, consuming himself.

As if hearing the sobbing in his throat, the stranger stopped his eating, turning around to stare at the man’s maimed body. With only one cloudy eye left, coupled with his delirious mind, he was sure it looking down at him was himself.

 

7

I drove all over town. I went to the police to file a missing persons report, though I couldn’t tell them everything that happened. The officers duly filed my report, to no avail. I tried hiring an investigator, but even he couldn’t help me, as besides the familiar features, I had almost no clues or ideas on where he could be. 

I’ve never felt this worried, perhaps even more than the first time I lost my lover. Once again, I was compelled to put work aside to dedicate my time to two things in life: searching and waiting for him to return home.

A year went by, with me waking up with hope in the morning, only to have it die when I closed my eyes to sleep. I was adrit, floating back and forth between waiting and forgetting, until I was finally forced to accept that he had left me once more, with no farewell.

 

If the average lifespan of a human was 75 years, I’ve realized that I’ve spent almost half of it uselessly and foolishly for just one man… or perhaps two men who were like the same person. Alas, when I woke up one pleasant morning, my 38-year-old self came to the profound realization that I had forgotten these two men from my life, once and for all.

I packed my bags and moved away again. It was a smaller town than the first two, a town that no longer had any trace of memories connected to him.

It was a dry and cold evening, as if the entire town was suspended above a mountaintop. After I had finished arranging things in my new home, I showered, dried myself, and stood naked in front of the mirror.

Once again, I used the same razor I shaved my brow with to peel the skin from my body, little by little.