Underneath

by AMD

UNDERNEATH

BY AMD

"Jesus fuck me!" she'd screamed when she slammed the door of her car on the middle finger of her right hand.

She had no idea how right on the money that statement was.

Right away the nail blackened with blood about halfway up, starting at the cuticle. Hurts like a fucker, she thought, cradling it against her chest into the house where she put the biggest bandaid she could find around it. It was one of those newfangled flesh colored things that didn't have a gauze pad, it was just sticky all over.

Supposed to absorb the seepage from the wound, the package said.

Christ, gross, she thought. It hurt so bad that she hunched over the bathroom sink awhile, picking up her right foot and wagging it around for a distraction. After that, she held it up in front of her and went looking for some sympathy.

Her husband looked at it out of slit and slightly slanted blue Norwegian eyes and grunted, "Yeah. Hurts" around a mouthful of mint Skoal. Typical Minnesota Lutheran response: in other words, suck it up. He had always been practical, level-headed, non-superstitious, able to hunt, gut, field-dress, and skin his game effortlessly. When she'd first seen him do it she was impressed, even in the midst of her own retching, with his ability to get any job done with no whining.

He was also almost always not subjected to nightmares. Or the waking memory of them, anyway.

Peeling off that new age bandaid the next day was more revolting but less painful than she'd thought it'd be. She peeled off the sides first, since they both came together at the fleshy part of her fingertip opposite the nail. The sides stuck out like wings. She chose the side closest to the nail she wanted to take off first, going slow so she wouldn't rip off the blackened part of it.

She needn't have bothered.

A sliver of it came off at the cuticle anyway, lifting off with sickening ease to reveal the barest hint of glistening pink meat underneath. She deliberately dragged her eyes away for a moment, swallowing with a thick wet sound she imagined was very like the sound of that nail peeling from the flesh underneath there.

Not that that could be heard, of course. By human ears.

Over the next couple days the nail started to peel up at the open sliver. She had never been good with those most fuckity of twins, gory and gross. "That's why I'm not a nurse," she reminded her husband when he wanted her to watch some bloody, vengeful war movie. She had fallen asleep once while watching Hamburger Hill and had one of the worst nightmares of her life.

She finally admitted to herself that she had to man up and clip the peeled-up part of that nail before it caught on something, a sleeve, the bedcovers, and caused some real fuckery. It took a day of convincing herself before she could do it. Should she ask Jeff? Well, he would be as kind as he could be, but she'd seen him clean out deep cuts of his own by scraping them with the business end of a kitchen scrubbie. Fuck that.

She waited 'til after she'd had a shower; she figured the nail would be slightly softer, easier to cut. She left her glasses off so she could see good up close, then set to work.

She began tentatively, making little snips around the edges closest to the cuticle. It doesn't hurt, she thought, getting braver. She snipped a slice of nail and dried blood off, revealing another little bit of herself that should be covered up. Oh, rancid, she though, and had to quit.

The rest of the evening her mind circled the nail situation uneasily. While watching their favorite show together she decided not to put another bandaid on it. That would cause moisture buildup, wouldn't it? That couldn't be good.

"Anna," Jeff interrupted her obsessing, "watcha gonna do 'bout that nail?"

"Shut up and let Larry David talk," she snapped, shutting the door on further nail conversation.

She went to bed with her hand hanging outside the covers.

At work the next day she noticed a vague ache, sometimes made worse by the necessary use of her right hand. At times the black blood under the nail caught her attention as it flashed by, on its way with the other fingers to pick up papers, answer the phone, type. On the way home she noticed just the first breath of an itch underneath, but the slightest touch hurt the slightest bit, offering no relief from the itch.

Jeff cooked that night. Anna stayed around to make sure he didn't slip any venison or bear meat, both of which they were recently gifted with by a friend and fellow hunter, into the stir-fry. He had respect for her tendency to be disgusted easily, but they liked to tease back and forth about it. Lightly.

"Lemme look at that finger," he growled after supper. "Looks like you're tryin' like hell not to scratch the damn thing!" Since he had that scrub-the-open-wound-with-the-harsh-side-of-a-Brillo look, she made a beeline for the bathroom and shut the door in such a way as to indicate that his further investigation into her nail health was unnecessary.

She sat down on the toilet and held her finger up to get a good look.

She steeled herself against the utter disgust she knew she'd feel and held her finger at a 90 degree angle, pointing it directly away from herself at the shower, so she could see what there was to see.

Nothing could have prepared Anna Farthing for what she...thought... she saw.

There seemed to be a tiny...moving...hair...under there. She held her breath so as not to be the moving factor for the hair, if that's what it was.

She wasn't.

The hair moved tentatively, the little bit she could see seemed to be, well, searching the air. She watched it a second more as it withdrew to the underneath again, and the ghostly itching began forthwith.

She awoke after fainting to see Jeff standing over her, concern in those usually flinty blue eyes, trying to help her up and asking if she was OK, y'okay? Anna looked around to see the bathroom from this new angle, suddenly aware of all the filthy bathroom germs that were probably stalking her every available orifice. Did the 5-second rule apply to people on the floor or just food?

She got up quickly, overwhelmed with the need to be alone, to examine this " this - latest development without outside influence.

Maybe it's nothing, maybe it's nothing, she gibbered to herself. "I have to pee," she said abruptly, shooing Jeff out the door. He went reluctantly, hovering outside the door, asking if she'd hit her head.

After half an hour of looking at, blowing on, tapping at and finally pushing on the nail, nothing else happened. "What the fuck?" Jeff asked through the door, angry because he was scared by her odd behavior, scared too because she wouldn't let him in the bathroom and he thought she'd hit her head and really hurt herself.

She emerged with four bandaids tightly wrapped around the nail, the aim being not to allow air exposure. "You should loosen those bandaids," he advised when he saw what she had done. He was right; after ten minutes the tip of her finger was purple and now the nail bed hurt.

Anna didn't get to sleep until after midnight. Jeff set his alarm for 2 am and 4:30 am, waking her both times to insist upon looking at her pupils with a flashlight and asking her semi-retarded questions like how many fingers am I holding up and who is the president of the United States.

"E. Coli Diddlefuck," she growled. "I need some frigging sleep."

The next morning she was getting ready for work, putting in her contacts, applying makeup. In a flash of the mascara brush, she thought she saw the fucking hair again. She dropped the brush and pointed her finger again, trying to calm what felt like a Holyfield fight within her chest and get a good look at the underneath of that nail.

The nail was peeling up again, the bottom half black and continuing to separate, the top half pink and firmly secured to the nail bed. Not allowing herself to think, she pawed through the top drawer of the bathroom cabinet past razors, toothpaste, detritus of a supposedly normal life, until she found the nail clipper. She clipped off an eighth of an inch of nail and dried blood, frantic to see if what she thought she saw was really what she saw.

She pointed her finger in the now-familiar direction, holding her breath again. Now just about a quarter-inch of her nail, starting at the cuticle, was cut off to expose the gnarled and misshapen new pink growth. As she watched, the hair made its way out from under there, seeming to sniff at the air. With its disappearance came the blasted itching.

This time, the hair appeared to be making inroads in the dried blood of the underneath, tiny lines of white indicating that the blood was being scraped away.

And...and...she was sure she saw two bright, pupilless eyes, no bigger than pinpricks, looking out from underneath. This made her understand now that whatever-it-was had been turning around.

Her last thought before fainting: What is it eating?

Anna awoke in what turned out to be United Hospital's ER, leads attached to her heart, a nurse glancing at the machines that were tattling on her condition and tapping the pilfered results into a computer hooked to the wall.

"Jesus Christ," Anna muttered, forgetting about the nail for a moment. Jeff's face came into view, real worry raising his brows and widening his eyes. "Howarya?" he asked. Another face, this one female and wearing glasses, took a position beside Jeff's. "Yeah, howarya?" she asked kindly. Her nametag said Dr. Bradenton. Anna sat up and allowed as how she was fine.

"Your husband said you've fainted a couple times in the last few days," she opined with concern.

"I guess I did," Anna said, trying to sound nonchalant, in fact sounding worried to death. Jeff and the doctor exchanged glances; they both heard the worry in her voice. They don't know what about, her mind whispered. They talked about more tests and finally the doctor said she could go home tomorrow if the results were good.

"Do you have any other concerns, Anna?" Dr. Bradenton asked kindly. For a minute she wanted to spill her guts: fuckright I do there's something under my nail that itches and moves around and I am sane but this sounds crazy like trailerparkers talking about alien abduction and if I really tell you all this I'll be in the psych ward heavily medicated with that...what the fuck ever... thing under my nail...just a hair bigger before I get out.

She shifted her right hand under the covers, saying no such thing.

"You might look at that finger nail that's 'bout to fall off," Jeff said, unknowingly traitorous. "No thanks, they won't knock you out for that," Anna joked nervously, thinking, I ain't saying SHIT. Doctor Bradenton smiled at the joke.

"What about your feet? They're always peeling," Jeff remarked. Glad to have attention diverted from her finger, Anna dutifully drew back the covers and let her feet be seen. "They are cracked and flaking," Dr. B said. "Use Crack Crme, that's the actual name of the product, and get a podiatrist to shave the skin down to minimize the cracking," she smiled down at Anna. "Take care. We'll talk when I get those results." And with that she was gone.

"Toldja," Jeff said mildly. "Shave your feet. Saw it on Oprah."

She passed the night uneventfully and went home the next day to find flowers from her job on the coffee table, beautiful multi-colored Tulips in a simple blue vase.

Jeff went to work. Home alone to investigate the nail situation freely, she thought about it awhile before commencing a plan. She knew she absolutely had to see, had to know, what was going on under there. It occurred to her that this was similar to being pregnant with a child you have been told will be born with atrocious defects: there was just no way to get away from it.

She again found herself in the bathroom, middle finger pointed, looking for - whatever.

The first thing she noticed was the itching. That hardly-there-maddeningly-faint-christless itching. She knew when it started that there had to be something coming. Her hand trembled as she pointed. Can't faint can't faint she near-prayed, looking around, comforted by the normalcy of her own bathroom.

Breath left her body silently as she stared at her fingernail.

A tiny creature resembling the product of an unhappy marriage between a shrimp and a louse struggled wetly to come halfway out from underneath. Its loathsome body was pallid, chalky, sickly looking, vilely segmented, with a fleshy looking hood partially covering its eyes. It had two small claws on the ends of shortened stubs protruding from the sides of its head. Although it had the appearance of having a hard carapace, Anna knew it had to be pliable to fit, to move around, underneath.

The worst part about it was that her mind was somehow convinced that she could hear thick kissing sounds, ever so faintly, as it moved.

That, and the hairs.

Several pairs of white hairs grew across the top of its hateful head, seeming to have their own animating force, search-moving, gathering information to allow for its own parasitic well-being. She let out her breath and the creature froze.

It began to turn its ungainly body around in a decidedly hurried fashion, exposing dozens of pairs of legs, each a gossamer thread. It was as though it knew it may be in jeopardy. The front part of its body seemed to descend, as if into a heretofore unknown hole in her flesh, underneath.

Irrespective of the fuckity twins, she decided that the finger had to come off.

An odd clarity dropped in front of her eyes. As she made her way around her husband's tools in the garage she understood her aim. Small wire cutters, rolls of solder and a handsaw, along with other things she could not use, slid past her field of vision smoothly. Her nail bed set to itching again as the abhorrent fleshflea hid itself away in the vulnerable pink meat underneath there.

The itching hurried her movements. At one point she thought she would give in to panic, the thought of wet sounds and excavations into the soft tissue of her finger made her eyes water and her palms tingle with adrenaline. Where else in my body could that creature go? She cast about for something she could really use.

Spying the pruning tool she took it down from its peg, disgust helping her feet to fly into the house where she could take care of business.

The handles of this tool are long; if you've ever used a pruner you know that you need to reach tree branches possibly. As soon as she and the tool were in the house she understood that some finagling would be necessary. She debated trying to use the kitchen table, decided that she would have to bring the cutting handle down onto her finger by kneeling on it to get enough pressure to make the cut, understood that the table was too high, went into the bathroom to see if it could be done there.

Holding the pruner in one hand, holding her other hand out in front of her (like that would put the fleshflea farther away), she glanced around to see where it could be done. The sink, like the kitchen table, was too high. The floor was her only option.

She knelt on the floor with her hand palm up, setting the pruner on the floor while maneuvering the business end around next to her hand. She saw right away that she would not be able to kneel on the handle and keep her hand in the requisite spot. Bitchfuck! She was getting desperate now; time was getting short because Jeff would be home soon.

She ran back out to the garage, frantic to find something, a sharp screwdriver, a blowtorch, anything to find some relief from the idea of the invading fleshflea feasting on her white and red blood cells, the animal protein, within her finger.

Finding nothing, she dashed back into the house, almost skidding to a stop upon seeing the knife rack. She knew they were sharp; Jeff was attracted to gimmicks and had a whole set of sharpeners at his disposal, using them frequently enough to be exasperating. "You never know when you're gonna need a sharp knife," he'd say in the face of her irritation.

Hella right, sharp knives she thought triumphantly. Taking one she could handle easily, she again sought the protective environs of the bathroom and the shut door. She held her finger up, standing in front of the mirror. This time thoughts of how horrendous this would be nearly gagged her. Fucking blood. Hers.

Hand shaking slightly, she brought the tip of the knife to her finger. The pain wasn't nearly as bad as the thought of the alien residing in, feasting on, her flesh. She cut deep, to the bone, screaming once. Her mind skittered away from the pain and focused on the fleshflea.

She could not bring herself to cut again. She opened the original cut with the knife, seeing the striations in the muscle, seeing veins and yellow fat bubble out of the widening opening. She dropped the knife, the pain much worse now, left hand shaking badly as she used it to peel flesh from bone.

Tears clouded her vision, but not enough to obscure the sight of the city the creatures had carved out of her muscle tissue. With the bone sticking straight up, undressed, the finger tissue was clearly visible as it depended down backward from the bone. There were at least several hundred of them busily living lives: crawling, eating, shitting, tending to larvae.

Jeff came home to find Anna, his wife of ten years, trying to staunch the flow of blood coming from her wrist, where she had, after all, found a way to use the pruner to cut off her hand.

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