Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
Douglas Stewart possessed enough sense to avoid the weekly advertisement pamphlet shoved inside his mailbox marked 1712, the box painted a crisp white at the end of his private drive. On most every morning, Douglas swept the junk mail from one crisp container to a second, also well-groomed, receptacle without a second glance at the promise for a reduction on lamb legs. Said garbage receptacle, painted a dark green intended to blend its edges and lines in with the surrounding trees, puffed open dutifully today, as it always did each morning, the yawning mouth ready to receive its expected intake of vulgar vitamins these ad pamphlets produced.
Douglas flashed the sheethe of papers toward the garbage receptacle, then paused, a gesture which had lost his competitors hundreds of television sales but had never been in the vocabulary of Douglas Stewart, or any of the Stewart’s before him. To pause was to question. To hesitate was as final as scars on skin. Yet here he stood, as uncertain as a field mouse after watching its family shredded by a barn cat.
Douglas Stewart did not let go of the papers. A splotch of harsh words, surely a misprint missed by the lazy editor, swam in and out of focus just near the bottom of the sheet. He mouthed the six syllables a dozen times before they bubbled into a coherent string of text.
Without thinking, Douglas tugged his coat more tightly around his midriff. At the same moment, sweat combed through his scalp and began the wilting process that accompanies hair gel products. His fingers shone at their tips, still squeezing the advertisement papers as if fearful a strong gust of wind might eat them out of existence.
“What nonsense,” Douglas muttered. He shook the papers, bringing them closer to his nose. His fingertips winked white like light beams from a search party. “Do they really think they can fool Douglas Stewart? I know what these people are after,” he said, his nose an inch from the black print. “Always another swipe at the purse strings, always another vendor with their teeth sticking from their gum lines and their palms out grubbing for another add-on service. Starving bastards, just wait until I find the varmint who printed this filth and dared placing it within fifty miles of my property.”
Douglas, though, did not throw the paper for skin insurance in the green receptacle. Instead, his eyes traveled over the short pitch scrawled underneath those six detestable syllables, the ones that kept drawing his eyes back again and again. Skin Insurance:
Bruised, battered, or burned– Skin matters here.
(The first is on the house!)
Call to book an appointment today.
A phone number, surely hooked to the local loony bin, closed out the ad’s six lines.
Lunacy, debauchery, the antithesis of acceptable behavior propagated by a man too stupid to understand the line seperating hilarity and outright absurdity. Douglas thought all of these things with a kind of hot hate that only the extremely sick and extremely young can claim. He wanted nothing more than to rid himself of these childish deliriums. What nonsense this surely was.
Yet his eyes traveled through the six lines of text: scanning, searching, scrubbing the splotches of black ink like a poor sap huddled over a muddy embankment, combing his fingers through centuries of muck in the hopes of overturning a lost wedding ring. Douglas felt himself sucked into the advertisement, unable to detach his eyes (or thoughts) from the pamphlet’s promise.
“‘The first is on the house,’” Douglas said, his eyes moving madly over the words as if looking for an appendix and further explanation. There was, of course, none of the sort, only a dash of numbers at the end of the advertisement which surely brought callers to a sterile silence, a mute end to this entire wheelhouse axiom of fantasy. Nobody, not a single voice lived at the opposite end of the numbers pasted to the bottom of the advertisement. A crock of shit only stinks if you wilfully open the lid, that’s the truth of it.
With this decided, Douglas reached his free hand into the pocket of his chinos and pulled out a battered phone. A snapshot of his ex-wife flooded the phone’s background for a moment before shifting into a column of numbers. Douglas’s fingers (his traitorous fingers) punched eleven digits and clicked the green call button.
You are green and green trash goes into the green garbage, Douglas thought for no reason at all.
The man who spoke in exclamation points answered on the third click.
“Hello! Hi! Yes! Is this Douglas Stewart of 1712 Pine Lane, the house tucked discreetly back in the Whitewater Woods? I knew you’d call eventually! I mean, hey! We all call eventually! Ha-ha-ha! Oh, how delicious of me!”
Douglas stood frozen in front of his mailbox, one hand clutching a sheet of papers while the other buzzed painfully at the side of his ear. Viewed from afar, a passerby might mistake him for a man receiving a letter from a scorned lover, or news of a lost child claimed by that uncaring god humans call War. Neither was true, yet Douglas’s heart beat as fast as any soul who has glimpsed under the hood of death.
“Hello! Mr. Stewart! Are you still alive and with us?”
A wheeze of air lodged itself in his chest before exploding outward in a torrent of outlandish vowels.
“Ah, ah, uhh, uuou?” Douglas heard himself sputter into the receiver. The polished mirror of the phone caught and balanced his spit like flower petals enduring a summer thunderstorm. Hawking a wad of gunk out of his mouth, he tried again: “I said, yes, this is Souglas Dewart. I-I mean, D-Douglas Stewart. How did you get this number? Who are you?” A small hiccup of silence followed his questions.
It reminded Douglas of a computer program he and Jax Stonick designed together during their undergraduate time as roommates (over forty years ago, Douglas realized with a dawning sense of horror) where you spoke into a microphone and asked the program a list of simple questions, such as “How old was John F. Kennedy on the day of his assasination?” or “When was the Geneva Convention enacted?” Though he and his roommate Jax had never elevated the program past rudimentary dates, it had been a marginal success, with most of their third floor dormitory neighbors plopping into their room between classes in order to cram for their next course. You might ask, “How many days does it take for the moon to complete its cycle?” and the computer would chuff and whir, spitting out a spoonful of silence before finally reciting:
“Twenty-seven and one-third days.”
Now, forty years later, Douglas felt another chuff of hot air emit from this faceless voice on the other end of the line. A slab of silence sawed away the seconds before, finally, a response: “Mr. Stewart…You called us! Yes, I have it here that on 9:33 a.m. of Monday, February 3rd, you called about a Skin Inquiry! This is Mr. Douglas Stewart, is it not?” For the first time, the man who talked in exclamation points sounded vexed. “You do intend to follow through with the promise, Mr. Stewart. Correct?”
“Y-yes, I mean, what promise? I only wanted to get to the bottom of this nonsense,” Douglas said from the end of his private drive, his eyes pivoting from poplar tree to tree, his eyes pacing inside their sockets like an animal suddenly condemned to confinement. Back and forth and back and forth and up and down and–
“Delicious! As soon as I stepped in today I knew there was something special waiting to happen! It was like feasting on a meteor shower! Did you feel that same spectacle waking up today, Mr. Stewart? No, I assume not quite yet, not with all those rashes you keep up with,” the man continued, cutting off the retort poised on Douglas’s tongue. He plunged forward with an eagerness found in most all salesmen who are readying for their best, most exclusive-limited-time-offer: “No, you couldn’t possibly understand how I felt because you haven’t been measured yet! Tut-tut, naughty boy! Ha-ha-ha! I only joke, of course! The first is on the house, not that concern for line of credit is an issue with your account! As they say, the hounds have been howling on your back porch this entire time!”
The little dweeb employs a barbarian shock factor to get his foot in the door, Douglas thought, his eyes still scurrying inside their sockets like wounded rats: but I know a salesman when I smell one. And this sucker stin–
“Can you really smell me, Mr. Stewart? How delicious! Do I stink of apricots? I fear so. I had to bury them both under an apricot tree, there simply wasn’t a better spot to put them with that nosy Mrs. Perkins always poking around out front, but I do worry about the amount of foot traffic their graves receive. I mean, fallen fruit is a spoil all beasts of the wild can enjoy, isn’t that what the Bible says? They probably don’t mind all those apricots though, correct? Dust to dust and all that fairy tale magic!”
Once more Douglas opened his mouth to respond.
Once more the man at the other end of the line blasted through this single second of silence.
“I really don’t need much more information from you, Mr. Stewart, we’ve been keeping a close eye on your account ever since that delicious business with your wife. Delicious, delicious indeed! At any rate, what we need from–”
Perhaps it was the man’s incessant jovial pitch, which ended all of his sentences in a frenzied fashion, a type of plastic radiance you would expect to screech out of the lips of a baby’s play doll. I love you!, I love you!, I love you!, I love you!, I love you!, I love…!
Perhaps it was the lack of two-way conversation taking place, as if both men drove side-by-side on a speeding highway, with the Skin Salesman refusing to allow Douglas an opportunity to merge into the open lanes. Everything was congested, swarming, impassable, stuck.
Most likely, Douglas Stewart’s ban of silence broke due to the Skin Salesman’s unwavering sense of knowing who he, Douglas Stewart, truly was. The dweeb acted as if he had three-ring binders full of Douglas’s life, from his birthplace in the Kenosha County Hospital all the way to the worrisome mole Dr. Wallace had lopped off last fall.
Nobody, not a single living person assumed the role of Douglas Stewart’s shepherd, that’s the truth of it.
“Now just wait one Goddamn moment, pal,” Douglas heard himself say. His lips were numb cones of red jelly, his eyes rabid ferrets. “I’ve entertained your sales pitch for long enough. I don’t know who you think you are talking to–”
“But!” Douglas swerved headlong into the flow of conversational traffic: “I have established and maintained, for nearly three decades, the nation’s preferred choice for television brands. Hundreds of thousands (thousands, I said!) of stores are operating under the Stewart franchise this very second, servicing televisions in Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon and every city in between! Do you hear me, dweeb? Douglas Stewart is not the fuck you want to man with!” he screamed into the cell phone, holding the piece of plastic with both hands (the pamphlet of papers flashed white against the impending sunlight then flapped to the ground, sticking to one of the tires on the green trash receptacle) throttling the phone as if holding it responsible for this disastrous morning.
Silence fell, with only the scatter of squirrel paws on the poplar trees making any noise in the sterile February air. It felt like Douglas waited for the earth to hitch its breath. His own breath blared from his chest.
“Mr. Stewart?” That same frenzied voice from before slithered through the phone’s speakers: “You already paid! All we need is a confirmation for one of our technicians to be out to your establishment this afternoon between noon and three o’clock. Can you confirm?” Douglas heard himself say: “I need to see you, dweeb. In the flesh.” A final slice of squirrel paws padded against frozen wood. Then:
“Mr. Stewart, how delicious of you, how very delicious, indeed! In the flesh, ha-ha-ha, there is no better way to phrase it! I do love a sadist!”
An empty dial tone greeted Douglas’s ear like an old friend.
Douglas waited as his laptop rebooted from its latest software update, glaring at the bar on the computer screen to inch faster toward completion, as if his eyes could bully the software into picking up the pace.
It had been fifteen minutes since his talk with the Skin Salesman and already the entire scenario played back like a swollen, cancerous dream. Had he not received a phone call (last week? two weeks?) from Dr. Wallace about another patch of skin around his right wrist that needed to be checked? Wasn’t it possible (plausible was the word, really) that he had woken up this morning, found the computer lost in the land of software updates, went outside to check the morning mail and had become lost in his own land of futuristic upgrades involving people who peddled in sleek new skin? Sure, it all checked the boxes.
Douglas drummed his fingers against the base of the computer, mentally pinching himself (in all his most sensitive spots) for forgetting to plug-in the laptop last night after it had died. A fresh mug of Jack and Coke gurgled next to him, untouched and with brown bubbles of fizz poking around the glass.
I’m not sure about the police, he thought rather glumly, taking a swig if only to give his body something to do: but life’s greatest truth is you never have internet service when the Boogeyman shows up on your front porch.
Almost instinctively, Douglas’s head shot toward the door of his office, closed and locked. The back of the door was covered in ticket stubs from shows Vic and he had gone too before…before…but Douglas couldn’t pull himself to think more about it.
The cocktail weighed heavy in his mouth, like sucking on a sock full of pennys. Less than an inch separated the update bar on his computer from finalization. For what felt like the hundredth time, Douglas glanced at the cell phone perched on the shelf next to his desk. He could have had his answer over ten minutes ago. Yet as soon as he had finished talking to-to-to
(The Skin Salesman, his mind choked up) to that monster on the phone, the desire to simply chuck the seven-hundred dollar device
into the woods had overtaken him. Not strong enough to actually rid himself of it (Douglas had been close, his hand cocked halfway back, ready to launch the phone into a robin’s nest) but enough to ensure he’d have enough screen time for the rest of today. He’d check more thoroughly into this skin dweeb (this make-believe skin dweeb) on the computer and then lay down, maybe try to scratch his way through the thin scrim of webbing which separates the sleeping from the living. God knows a nap would not kill him, not after the kind of morning he suffered. Come to think of it, hadn’t Dr. Wallace advised he turn the dial down a notch from his business affairs for the time being: stop traveling across the country, store to store, one dweeby manager to the next, prodding and correcting and motivating the beatnik hippies that operated the business he had cultivated from nothing? Stop throwing himself against that great, never-ending tarmac carpet of America, the sullen highways and compact airports where not even a fart goes undetected and traced back to its owner. Hadn’t Dr. Wallace said something about an abundance of stress negatively affecting the body’s overall ability to mend?
“B-better take t-things easy, bub,” Douglas said. His words had a slushy quality to them, snow cone syllables. He wasn’t surprised to find his eyes fighting to keep watch from their twin turrets.
A yawn punched out of his chest.
Before the creases of his mouth could even smooth back over, Douglas Stewart fell fast asleep.
It was a dreamless stretch of five hours.
Tendrils of spit seeped from the sleeping man’s lips, shining silver in the glow thrown from his office lamplight. For the last time in his life, Douglas looked almost peaceful, with his chin tucked against the protruding collarbone of his chest, fingers stitched together like large gray moths in the base of his lap. Even the rashes outlining both of his arms (as well as the new batch on his legs) looked less menacing in this light, almost like lightning bolt streaks instead of the red blobs they had become over the last few weeks.
The laptop, completely updated for another six hours or so, flashed the time against a background of a woman standing on the tip of a canoe with a pencil-shaped fish in both hands. Her face was all teeth in the photo, her eyes fastened to the creature (a northern pike, though Vic would always refer to that catch as a northern piranha, as if she had wrangled a man-eater from the depths of upper-Wisconsin) as she proudly showcased her prize catch to the man behind the camera. The camera can’t capture how the pike flopped inside the grip of her palms, or how she screamed, “Doug, what the hell do I do now?” but the man sleeping, though dreamless, can certainly still hear those long dead sounds of a time much happier spent with a woman he loved more than he loved himself.
2:59 p.m., written in tight white letters, bounced all around the photo. The clock seemed restless, expectant. It skirted from the bow of the ship, skipped across frozen-glass water and shot up to the clouds. You would need a lasso and a dead-aim cowboy if you ever hoped to tie the clock down.
3:00 p.m. the clock warned, and its white letters sizzled through the string of the forgotten fishing pole at the woman’s feet.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Douglas sprang out of his chair, his knees wacking the underside of the computer desk. His laptop pinged to his home screen, demanding a password and proper clearance. Douglas, though, had his head cocked to the door. Had he imagined those nois–
There it was again, as clear as high definition television on an NFL Sunday, a knocking sound from the front door. Even through the muffled padding of his lair, Douglas could hear the person readying their fist for another pound at the oak finishing of his front door. The expensive oak finishing of his front door.
“WHO IS IT?” he roared, pawing open the lock of the office before heading down the hallway. For a reason he attributed to poor digestion, his stomach ached and there was a sharp pain on the left side of his torso with every step he made. What had he been doing today, anyway? The entire spectrum of the day’s events seemed garbled and fuzzy, as if his life was being broadcasted on one of those Baywood pieces of crap his company had stopped selling twenty years ago, back when the television business actually tasted sweet in his mouth. Now all he tasted was a sock full of pennys.
The knockings were even fiercer this close to the entrance. The individual glass frames, outlining the front door in a halo fashion, rattled from the force of the dweeb’s blows. Said dweeb was about to get a face-full of Douglas Stew–
On his front porch, one hand shielding his face from the sun, stood Carmen Stromboni, his lawyer and sole confidant.
“Carmen,” Douglas said, peering over the lawyer’s shoulder to see if a second stood just out of sight. There was only Carmen’s briefcase, a clunky old leather thing, but nothing more.
“Carmen, where the hell did you come from?”
“Can I come in? I would rather not conduct business right here,” Carmen said. His voice had a reedy quality to it, high pitched and strained. He sounded as if he needed a puff on an inhaler.
“Sure, sure, come in, pal. You would not believe the morning I’ve had. Some dweeb has been prank calling me. Me,” Douglas repeated, snapping the front door behind them. “Can you believe the nerve of–”
“Is there anywhere in this house that does not have windows? We really can’t do this here. A fresh sample will not take, I’m afraid.” Carmen shook his head at the display of glass aligning the living room, bringing forth a waterfall of afternoon sunlight. He adjusted the square spectacles on his face, scanning the floor plan for a more ideal setting. A splotch of black dirt clung to Carmen’s cheek.
“A room without windows? What does that mean? And why are you so dirty, Carm? It’s freaking February, for God sakes–what kind of gardening happens in the winter?”
“Is there a room without windows or not?” Carmen asked, his eyes fastened to the hallway leading to Douglas’s office. “We really need to get this on you before it sours. Where does this hall branch off to?” Carmen drifted down the way Douglas had only just come, his leather briefcase dragging behind him, cutting thick grooves into the carpet. Douglas followed behind him.
He entered the room just in time to witness Carmen lugging the suitcase, now with two hands, halfway across the office’s carpet. He stopped, panting, his spectacles dangling from the tip of his nose. A dark patch of sweat stained the crack of his beige slacks; more swipes of black dirt were also visible on the man’s ass.
Douglas skirted around his desk and sat down. He swept his hand at the opposite chair across from his desk, but Carmen returned to the door, whisking it closed and then studying the ticket stubs pasted to its back. Names like AC/DC, Nirvana, Tool, Buckcherry screamed out in beetlejuice black and red.
“You really struck gold with Vic, didn’t you?” Carmen said. His back was still turned to Douglas, making it impossible to read his expression. “A school teacher and a metal head. Who would have thought such a combo existed? Man, she was something special. Like I told you five years ago, only a hero like Vic would have stepped in front o–”
“Hey, Carm, why don’t you take a seat, huh?” Douglas rushed in. At some point he had sprung to his feet, the both of them standing across a great chunk of room. “I need to tell you about my morning. I think I’m going to press charges for false advertisement. This dweeb selling–”
“Skin insurance?” Carmen said, his voice silky and low, more of an animal’s purr than mankind’s natural bark.
He spun away from the door of ticket stubs.
“You know, Doug, I have some friends of my own. Other lawyers in the trade, you know? And, believe it or not, as twisted as it sounds, I chum with a woman who represents a family with a very similar circumstance to yours. Even lawyers need to vent about their cases sometimes. No, listen to me, Doug, it’s the same story but with opposite spouses: A husband drives happily to his job at the school house each morning, only one morning the schoolhouse converts into a combat zone and the husband forgot his flak jacket at home. All he has in his desk is a sticker that tells him how much he matters, and so he tries to live up to that motto. He runs left when everyone flees right. Does this sound familiar, Doug? Any bells ringing? Ding-ding-ding, Douglas is tardy to first hour and now he gets to serve detention up in the gunner’s nest–pow!”
“Leave,” Douglas said. Throughout their conversation, Douglas’s arms blazed as if a family of ticks infested them; his skin burned a crisp red. Now he itched all parts of his exposed skin, scratching and tearing at the flesh. “I want you to get the house out of my fuck right now. I mean now right, Carmen!”
But Carmen carried on, his voice no longer sodden like damp tissue––it scorched.
“Except this husband, this noble school teacher who takes a shell casing right between the eyes, well, shoot, Doug, his family can’t have an open casket like yours, now can they?” The lawyer shoveled a step closer to the bulging briefcase in the middle of Douglas’s office. “It’s not as if the husband took the bullet in the stomach, not like our Vic, right? A little hole in the stomach can be plugged; an entire chunk of a forehead is kind of a deal breaker. Shoot, Doug, I bet that husband’s family would kill to feel his face a final time. Don’t you think so? Well, I do. I did five years ago, too, back when I saw an opportunity to stretch out time a little longer for you, as any good lawyer will attempt to do. A lifetime warranty, how does that sound, Douglas? I just hope it still fits after five years of being on the shelf. Or under the shelf, if I want to be more precise. Six feet under the shelf,” he laughed. “Oh, how delicious I can be!”
All the humanity had been sucked from the man’s voice, leaving a husk, a shell, a voiceless operator requesting more quarters, more money, more time to sand into pebbles.
“What does any of this have to do with Vic?” Douglas gasped.
Shreds of Douglas’s skin flew in the yellow light thrown from the lamp, his nails chewing and still demanding further sustenance. Carmen looked on hungrily as if hopeful a fleck would float his way.
“The skin, Mr. Stewart, the skin! Who lays claim to our skin after we die? Those damn forsaken worms? Hell no!” Carmen roared.
Suddenly his eyes molted pure white, like a blossomed flower without a stigma in the middle, no iris, no cornea, only a tarp of white that looked soft as pudding, like newborn baby tissue.
Madness dribbled from the lawyer’s lips:
“It is man who plants skin under a strawberry moon, and it will be man who reaps its fleshy harvest each fall. Really, Douglas, it’s not all too hard to preserve if you know what you are doing. Plus, you gave me permission. There was a clause in the death certificate I drafted for Vic that you signed across the dotted line. Now her skin belongs to you. Isn’t that what you wanted on the day she died and you said you’d give anything to be with her one final time? I certainly thought you meant it, as any good lawyer will.” The strange creature paused, cocking his head to the wall like a trained canine. “What other options do you possess, man? You will scratch until there’s nothing left. At least my way sees you living for as long as this Vic model lasts. We can discuss the next viable donor once we are finished today. I’m afraid I haven’t worked all the kinks out quite yet, but the first is always on the house…as long as you aren’t the first to buy a ticket to the graveyard station! Now get over here: the payment has been processed for years, you damn fool. This will curdle like pancake batter if we leave it alone for too much longer,” the Skin Salesman finished, giving the leather case a kick.
Art by Trevor Markwart
As if on a hospital gurnee, Douglas felt his body lift away from the safe confines of his office desk. The computer still demanded a password in order for research to be conducted on the fishy ad promising a new lease on body armor, but Douglas had his answer in front of him.
Up this close, he could see the case contracting, breathing, a cancerous lung swollen with an excess of carcinogens. A far away whispering persisted, like a television turned down to a single bar of volume, from inside the leather bag.
“Does it hurt?” Douglas paused, then asked the question he really wanted answered:
“Will she be there, too? Inside of the skin, I mean? Will I be able to talk to her?”
The creature laughed deep in its throat, a gargoyle screech. In between its legs, the case wriggled in the yellow lamp light like an infectious egg.
“If you close your eyes and listen, well, sure––you can hear something rattling inside of there. It almost sounds like her voice. Come on, Doug. You do want to feel her wrapped around you again, right?”
The Skin Salesman unclasped the case’s metallic hinges, stepping away at the same instant.
“More than anything,” Douglas whispered, stepping closer to gaze into the depths of the case. A stitching of tissue oozed from the open hole, puddling onto the floor in great vanilla folds. Minuscule brown hairs dotted the tissue as if a tarantula had rolled around inside.
“But how does it work?” Douglas asked. He bent closer to inspect the puddle, his fingertips reaching for the mass of white spew.
“Touch it,” the creature advised. “Give it a swirl. I can tell it’s eager to engulf you, Doug.
Can you hear her yet? She screams for your touch.”
Douglas’s fingers grazed the cold curtain of skin and he realized he could indeed hear her throttling out in panic, reeling, Vic’s good-natured voice shrieking for help, help with this northern-maneater, this agent of hell, this stealer of skin, help me Douglas Stewart, burn me the fuck up, what are you doing don’t touch me it’s poison get away you don’t under–
“Good,” the creature cooed. “Let it envelop you now. It’s pointless to thrash once it has its taste. Besides,” the thing said, watching the body’s largest organ devour Douglas Stewart, churning him into a new man much the same way God does, forming minions from His endless yarn of organic string. “Consider this your honeymoon phase as the fresh skin uploads. Really,
Douglas, true love hurts like hell the second time around.”
And the Skin Salesman cackled as the massive mound took flesh.