Many people tell you that they're your friend
You believe them
You need them
He looked in the mirror for the umpteenth time. Haggard, he thought. It hadn't been a good month, but he'd put his accustomed weight back on, and he watched the muscles ripple a moment before considering himself again.
A month out of hospital and he was almost back to normal. Most of his injuries had healed during the coma, and he'd spent some time building his strength up. The cuts on his face were almost a memory now, the stitches in his head were out and he could see that he wouldn't scar too badly.
His eyes were still a little swollen from the crying and lack of sleep. Amazing, he thought, how you get so used to having someone next to you at night. Surprising what you miss, and how much you can miss it.
He washed his face and went back to the kitchen to clear away the remains of his bachelor meal. After putting everything away, he massaged the hand cream (her hand cream) into his hands, and slipped the ring back on his finger. The scent caught him, and he blinked the tears away.
He really should start getting out again, it seemed. Life has to go on, his mother kept telling him. He sighed. Mothers know.
He went into the bedroom, looked at the clock. Eight-thirty, too early for bed, as though he'd sleep. He knew he'd only miss her gentle breathing, the little whimpers as she slipped into her rest. But she'd slipped into a deeper repose after the accident, and he'd never again be able to reach out and tangle his fingers gently in her auburn locks. It hurt. He picked up her crucifix from the bedside table, held it to his forehead, wanting so hard to believe.
He'd started hating Saturdays, they'd become hard work. Too much time to think. At least on Sunday the priest might come round after lunch for a whisky, or for dinner in the evening. He would have wept again had the phone not rung. Startled, he sat down and picked it up.
"Tony? It's 'Manda, we were wondering if you fancied coming out tonight? We're going for a drink and a late film!
"Oh, Hi!" Amanda was his boss's wife, and both of them had been good to him since the accident. "I'd love to, but..."
She coughed, loudly and theatrically. "Sorry, I didn't hear that! We'll swing by in half an hour? We'll get a taxi into town so we can have a bevy or two, how's that?"
He chuckled. "I'll get showered and dressed, see you later"
"Mmmwuah!" was all he heard, as she blew him a kiss down the phone.
He loved the bathroom. He and Sue had spent a lot of time getting it right. She'd wanted full-length mirrors, he'd wanted tiles. They'd compromised as they always did. Mirrored tiles.
As he stepped out of the shower, he paused, posed, flexed his muscles and allowed himself a rare smile. He watched as the tattoo on his left bicep seemed to shimmy and wriggle. He stroked the figure, ran his fingertip down its hair. And stopped. The artist had captured that cheeky, elfin grin perfectly. He shook himself. This was no time for tears. A deep breath was all it took, and he toweled off.
Amanda rang the doorbell. She always did, leaving poor Andy in the car. Andy and Amanda. Strange couple. He was always the "boss" at work, she was definitely boss at home. She kissed his cheek.
"Well, you look ready!" as she took his hand and started dragging him outside.
"Thanks." He still wasn't sure about going out, but they had been helping him out of his depression these past few weeks, and he was certain they were right, and that he was ready to face a little more of the world.
She waited for him as he locked the door, and led him down the short path to the car. As he got into the front seat, he felt Andy's hand on his shoulder. The trademark pat, which said so much. "Hello" or "It's okay", or just "Thank you". A man of few words, our Andy.
They drove off, Amanda reeling off the films they might see, commenting on the cast or giving an excerpt from the trailer dialogue. She was almost childlike in her enthusiastic love of cinema, ever ready to discuss film with whoever she met. Tony slipped into quietness, and half-listened to her as she chose the evening's entertainment.
The pub itself was nondescript, the drinks weren't. They did have good whiskies, he had to admit, and Sue had always liked the cocktails... Sue would have loved Amanda's choice of film too, he thought, even if she'd never liked Amanda herself. Period drama, the wonderful sets, the gorgeous clothes. He nursed his drink.
Andy was waxing lyrical about his own single malt, the Talisker, telling him about a visit he and Amanda had made to the distillery the year before. Amanda corrected some details as the tale was told, and eventually finished the story, as Andy finished his drink and bought the next round.
An hour later, Tony felt good. It was better to drink in company, he thought. Amanda was making "let's go" body language, and even Andy was becoming more energetic. They each made their final trips to the loo, and were stepping out into the chill autumn air when Andy's mobile rang. He looked at the number, cursed under his breath, and answered the call. A few muttered responses and verbals nods later, he put the phone back in his pocket and pulled a face.
He didn't need to say anything. All present knew that there was some problem with the network, and that meant someone had to be there. Tony knew the feeling - mixed annoyance and disappointment.
"One of the servers has gone tits-up. We'll have to replace it, restore from tape, and bring it up again, which is a bit of a bugger. Sorry, Tony but I've got to leave you. 'Manda, look after the lad. Have fun."
His face said it all as he patted Tony on the back and kissed Amanda on the cheek. He was more characteristically quiet as he walked off to find a taxi.
"So, Tony, it's you and me." She smiled, then giggled as she continued down the street. "I've promised to get you out for so long, and Andy said we should carry on if he did get called out."
Sue would have enjoyed this film, he thought as he sat in the cinema twilight. They had both enjoyed this sort of thing - she liked the visual impact, the costumes, and he the cinematography and the acting. Andy would call it a chick flick, but there was a lot more to it than that.
Tony settled back a little more, relaxing as he immersed himself a little more in the fantasy, and removed himself from harsh reality. Absorbing the whole spectacle, allowing the music to wash over him, mellowing and feeling almost at home as the whisky warmed his soul.
Suddenly he felt Sue's hand - no, not Sue's, Amanda's - brush his leg as she picked up her drink from the floor. He realised he was holding his breath. He shook himself slightly, as real life flooded back. He took one - deep - breath. He could smell her hair, her perfume... The filmlight flickered over his eyes, but there stopped; from that point it never stood a chance of getting through to his conscious mind.
He was painfully aware that it was Amanda there, not Sue. Not the woman he'd loved for so long. He realised that this was the first time he'd been alone with a woman for ten years. At least like this, on a date. Since he'd had the tattoo, in fact. He'd had that done on a whim, and was surprised when the tattoo artist turned out to be his last date before he'd started seeing Sue.
Sue hadn't liked the tattoo at first. She hadn't liked who had done it, either. It took time for her to realise that the tattoo meant a lot to Tony, and to overcome her little jealousy. It had hurt, he told her, and it proved his love for her, to bear the pain, willingly.
"That's the last woman you'll be alone with", she'd said, laughing with faux menace, "or I'll teach you suffering!"
"I swear I'll never look at another woman again!"
"I'd rip your heart out if you did", and smiled that smile.
And they'd laughed their way to bed. In the night, he'd felt her stroking the skin around the forming scab. He'd not slept much. It had itched all night.
It itched a little now, and he rubbed at it for a moment in the darkness.
The film finished. Around him, the audience rose to its feet. He had to stand for the flux of people, and started as each one brushed past him. Force of habit, he thought. Normally he'd stay to watch the credits, listen to the music die down, get the full effect. He picked up his coat and joined them, pausing only to make sure that Amanda was close by, took her arm and led her out of the cinema. Her perfume again!Absently, he scratched the tattoo through his sleeve, imagining that it itched again.
He was quiet again in the taxi. Amanda watched him for some minutes, then slipped her arm under his, squeezed his hand in hers. He looked up at her. Her eyes. He realised again he was holding his breath.
Her skin was soft. No, he thought, no.
"It's okay, Tony, I'm just worried about you." She kissed his cheek. Damn, she smells good. She patted his hand, drew away. He became aware of his breath and forced himself to look away. He looked at the ring on his finger. And held his breath again.
Funny how a fifteen-minute journey can wear you out. Time does funny things sometimes. Then she'd wanted to come in "for a nightcap". No. So she'd simply kissed him goodnight, a kiss on the corner of his mouth, not the cheek, and more lingering than usual, perhaps. Or did he imagine it? Her parting hug was longer than usual, her hands played longer on his back. Was time playing tricks again, or had he just wanted it to be?
He had a nightcap after she'd gone. He was tired, the day had been a long one. He put the glass in the kitchen, drank a large glass of water and went to the bathroom to wash his face. He could smell 'Manda's perfume still.
His reflection in the mirror over the sink mocked him. Haggard. He looked more drawn than earlier, he was certain. And maybe he was still skinnier than before. He examined his body closely. Yes, maybe he'd not put on that much weight. Pale. He could tell - the tattoo of Susanne seemed to be sharper, bolder against the paleness. Irritated by this thought, he rinsed his mouth under the tap in lieu of proper dental hygiene, and threw his clothes in the hamper before heading to bed.
His eyes were heavy tonight. Maybe social drinking was more conducive to good sleep than drinking alone. He stretched out, scratched the itch on his left arm (strange, that) and closed his eyes.
He could smell her still. Suddenly he remembered again the touch of her skin. Her skin? Whose skin? Susanne's? Amanda's? No. No more. Sleep, Tony. He turned over. Her eyes. Amanda's eyes. Clear, blue. Her skin... He felt a slight stirring in his loins, hugged the pillow to him and sighed. whimpering slightly as he slipped into gentle slumber.
He sat bolt upright in bed, the last thin tendrils of a dream dragging across his consciousness. His shoulder hurt. He'd been sleeping in an odd position, perhaps.
No, not that, he felt cold. And his body was slick with sweat. He was trembling slightly. Must have been some nightmare, he thought. He caught his breath. It was hard to do. His arm hurt, and it itched. He twisted to look at it. The tattoo, her smile...different. No, he was just tired, he decided, and upset. He scratched his bicep, flexed his fingers. Something still hurt, something still troubled him.
The dream! What was the dream? A woman, coming toward him through water. Her mouth bloody and wide, teeth bared, eyes cold and flat like a shark's, her skin pale. Something...just on the razor's edge of memory. Something else.
He'd had too much excitement and possibly a little too much to drink. He felt flushed and nauseous. Water. A glass of water. He reached for the glass on the bedside table, knew it was empty as he raised it. I forgot to fill it, he thought. And slowly swung his legs out of bed. His head felt strange as he got up. The dream! His legs felt strange as he walked to the en-suite. She held something in her hand... His mouth felt strange as he sipped at the water. His arm hurt and itched. He kneaded the muscles and looked at it. Something alive...
Definitely too much to drink. He felt a burning in his upper arm, looked in the mirror and the tattoo was wrong, somehow. Her face was twisted. Anger? No, this had to be a dream, still. He looked again. Now, her head was turned away, she was looking into his arm rather than out of it. He pressed his palms over his eyes until he saw the red and orange of phosphenes. Looked again. Her back was definitely turned. She was moving.
Sitting on the toilet seat he sipped more water and glanced at his reflection in the mirror. He looked terrible. His breathing seemed harder than ever. Why can't I wake up? The tattoo...it was wrong. Her head was gone. He felt a sudden tearing in his shoulder and chest, gritted his teeth. As his arm tensed, the movement of the bicep shifted, and her shoulders seemed to wriggle into the skin. Where was her other arm? He could feel a tightening in his chest, as though someone were squeezing the life from him.
He tried to stand, but his arm hurt too much to brace himself. And his shoulder. And his chest. He felt a gnawing pain inside. In the mirrored tiles, he saw his naked arm through a red haze. Where was the tattoo? What was she holding in the dream? Why was he hallucinating like this? I'm awake now, am I? Why did he feel so awful, why was his mouth so dry?
He raised the glass to his lips, his breathing ragged. One sip was all he could manage before his seemingly nerveless fingers twitched and let slip the glass. He watched as it tumbled in slow-motion to the floor. Just like in the films.
The film. 'Manda touching him. No.The taxi, her breath. It had dripped, bled. He clutched his chest, his body shuddered as something hit him hard in the middle of his back. Or was it his chest? Why was the light so bright?
The floor came up to meet him. Just as it did in the films.
"Heart attack. Without a doubt". The doctor stood up and apologised to the priest, who he'd nearly knocked over doing so. "Shame, he was just beginning to get back on his feet after his wife's death".
The priest nodded. "Poor Tony. Still..." He sighed. "I hope they're together now". He looked closely at the tattoo. "Look at Susanne. She's happy, too, just look at how hard she's laughing".
Your emotions are frayed
And your nerves are starting to creep
Just remember the days
As long as the time that you keep
Brother you better watch out for the Skin Deep
Written for They Hunger For Nodes: An e2 Halloween Scary Story Quest
Thanks to the people who made it happen, and helped it form.
Personal note: the idea has been in my head for 20 years.
Thanks to The Stranglers for the node title.