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Skin Crawl

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It was just the stroke of midnight when he finally heaves himself up onto his feet. He slides his hand backwards down the arm of the chair, feeling for the power button. Static trickles down his back and sets his whiskers on edge until his finger wedges into the circle, shutting off the many screens that surround him. The quiet drone of the machine slows until it eventually dies, signalling his work day had finally been completed.

His job isn’t special and could be done by anyone, but not many knew about it. He manages everyone silently behind screens, reporting any strange or unwanted activity in the area he was in charge of. It was simple and repetitive, but it paid. And this gave him connections to assure himself some more safety than the average person.

Buildings had risen out of what once was flourished with flora and fauna. Large, metal vehicles, came to roam in place of animals. Concrete covered what was once grass and plants. The city continued to spread, advance. Security of your house became activated just by a swipe over your phone screen, a route to your destination was just a simple voice command. Even children at the age of three most likely held some kind of machinery to toy with.

Everything was now interlaced with some sort of wifi connection, and that only gave the option to have more control over the mass of faceless people. A large, hidden society of people who had too much power for their own good controlled this, watching everyone carefully. They could make someone vanish without a trace. Nobody was safe. Nobody knew that.

He sighs, shaking his head to break free from his usual cynical thought process. The world was very depressing. These days rarely anyone could find themselves in a forest. Everything had become tall, bleached, buildings disappearing into a foggy sky. Everyone was someone, even him.

thump, thump.

He snaps his head in the direction of the muffled noise, shrugging it off soon after. He was a father of one, his wife now deceased, but this didn’t make him any less of a pawn to the faceless people he worked for.

Thump, thump, thump.

Thoughts halt as he looks back up again. His ear twitches as he tries to locate the faint sound, feeling sweat on his neck. Had he done something wrong? Was someone coming after him?

Thump, thump, thump, thump.

It was unmistakable. Footsteps grew louder as they advance towards him. He jerks himself out of his chair, backing up against a wall. Thoughts come rushing through his mind, nauseating him with thick rolls of anxiety. What about his son? What would they tell him? Would his death be a suicide? An accident?

He wasn’t even able to see the hand that came rushing towards him, the rest of the figure blurry in his panicked vision. He falls backwards onto the floor, the figure he could only comprehend as a shadow crawling over him. Claws don’t hesitate before digging into his forehead, slamming his head back into the wall. Something long and sharp pierces his temple, killing him instantly. The shadow doesn’t linger, leaving his body to crumple into a lifeless pile.

***

The forest is dark. Gentle moonlight filters in through the bare branches that claw towards the sky like boney fingers. A few stars twinkle in the dusk sky and a cool breeze ripples through his fur. He had only seen forests in picture books before and was amazed he was actually in one. Slowly, he creeps forward and savors the feeling of the fresh air, his heart settling in his chest comfortably.

Never before had he felt so content. Ever since he was a small kitten he had been raised in the depths of the city. He had never truly exited its boundaries, it was against common law to do that unless you had work outside. There were many times that he dreamed of growing up to travel what was left of the world.

Finally released of his normal restraints, he explores the forest eagerly, peering between trees into the mysterious mist tightly coiled around their trunks. Are forests normally like this? He thinks to himself. His brow furrows as he made his way deeper into the trees. They loom over him, casting a heavy judgement down onto the small feline.

The cat was small for his age, a scottish fold of about eleven years old. Downy curls of smoky coloured fur gave him a soft, round shape. Underneath he was actually quite skinny, even a bit underweight. Lop ears sit on top of his head, their tips turned inwards as if they were trying to touch. Bright ruby eyes eagerly survey their surroundings. Little round paws grapple for purchase over the uneven terrain.

His pupils tighten into slits, his timid gaze scanning the trees. The mist slowly begins to thicken, clouding around him until he feels like he might choke on it. But it wasn’t the mist that made him start to gag. A stench clogs his nostrils, the most foul thing he had ever inhaled. His eyes water as he takes a weak step forwards, ears swiveling to attention.

A noise causes his ears to twitch, his body flinching as his eyes set on what lay ahead of him. Skinned bodies. Millions. Decaying and melting together into an ocean of flesh before him. Steam rises between the hot muscles, blood still oozing over their horrified faces, staining everything they touched a deep, dark maroon. The smell was foul, and when he steps closer, he notices they were hot. Thin, watery membrane over the melded gore bubbles in the boiling heat. He nearly vomits. Suddenly a shadow looms over him, causing his head to jerk up from the grotesque scene.

It was his father. He stood on an island of pulsating meat, staring blankly down at him. “D-dad….wh-” He could barely begin before his father’s neck snapped backwards. His eyes bulge out of their sockets, blood beginning to drip from the side of his head. Suddenly, a crack broke the child’s stare and forces him to squeeze his eyes shut. All he could remember was the sound of spurting blood.

***

Cold sweat was already running down the sides of Noe’s head when his eyes flash open. He was sitting up in an instant, shuddering and whimpering under white sheets. Mom had told him to press a button she had placed at the side of his bed if he ever needed her. His paws fumble with the switch before he finally gets his shaking thumbs to press down. It glows red, gently highlighting his fur in the half darkened room. As if she were waiting outside, Mom enters the room, sporting her usual wolfish smile.

Mom was a gangly canine looming at around six feet tall. Messy brown hair blended with her ears, her fur was orange with white under marks that covered her stomach and prolonged limbs. Purple and lime green brightly tip her earms, legs, and long tail dragging behind her. The colours were so vibrant they almost glowed in the dark, but nothing could distract from her eyes. There were three of them behind her glasses, constantly swirling with spirals of pink and yellow. They were strangely soothing to gaze into.

“Oooh honey. Did you have another nightmare?” She croons gently, kneeling down and cupping Noe’s sweat covered cheek with the palm of her hand. Her eyes flicker to the side, scanning his trembling body.

“I...I…,” Noe stutters, his tail thudding against the mattress under his thin blankets. Mom shushes him gently, stroking his shoulder before running her hand down to his lower back. She pulls him closer, her grin stretching at the corners.

“My little Noe, Mommy’s here now, don’t you fret. Like I said, I’ll take gooood care of you…” She assures him.

Her pads press into his gown, fingers feeling at his back. As soothing as it was, horror still clenches Noe. Anxiety fills the boy to the brim. Strange thoughts begin to enter his mind. He had to get out of here, but why? This was the safest place he could possibly be, he’s been here forever. Noe’s mind raced until the door cracked open, a figure peering in.

“Another one?” It asks.

A white chinchilla with bloodshot pink eyes steps lightly into the room. Bent whiskers flicker around a twitching nose. Fur pointing wildly in all directions covers his body as if he was electrocuted. His tank top and boxers hung messily off of his body, signs of a headache etched on his groggy face. A lab coat was thrown over his shoulders haphazardly, but his disheveled appearance wasn’t an unusual sight. His name was Cedric, ever since the incident he had been living with them as their temporary counselor, often tending to Noe’s panic attacks.

“Mmm, yessss, the kitten had another one, ain’t that awfuuuul?” Mom spoke. “Lil ones should be dreamin of more wonderful, beautiful things….yessss....” Her hand strokes the back of his head steadily, a content purr rumbling from her as she holds him against her body protectively. Noe couldn’t help but to feel awkward.

“That’s enough, Miss Ryliss.” Cedric examines them while he rubs his chin with his paw.

Mom’s muzzle wrinkles, her wolfish teeth poking out of her jaw in annoyance. She gives Noe one last shoulder rub before withdrawing, straightening out her clothes. Cedric kneels next to Noe, his gaze serious but empathetic.

“Was it the same dream?” He asks. “The one about the forest?”

“Y-yes…” Noe stutters, shaken up by the memory of his nightmare. “E-everything was the same, b-but…I saw my dad,” He manages to speak. Anxiety weighs on his chest. He pauses before he continues.

“H…he was k-killed…,” His voice cracks, growing hoarse. “Th-the side of his head just caved in a-and…!” Cedric interrupts him with a gentle hush, laying his paw over his shoulder.

“It’s okay. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” He assures him. “For now, try to get some more rest. I’ll have Miss Ryliss stay by your side, just in case.” The corners of Mom’s maw turn upwards, her ears swiveling forwards as a pleased expression fell over her face.

***

Noe’s mind stirs, his skin crawling. He didn’t feel right. The scene in his dream was almost nostalgic, as if it was a faint, happy memory. His feelings began to disturb him. Ever since last night he hadn’t felt himself at all. It had gone on for a few weeks, but with his father’s death, everything felt unnatural. His thoughts felt like they were someone else's. The city loomed over him like a predator. He didn’t even feel comfortable in his own body. Mom had left a while ago to tend to other things, leaving him with a pat on his head and a sloppy kiss to his cheek.

“Goooood boy…” She had said to him, “You're doing a fabulous job. Just hang in there, you aren’t the only one.” Noe’s ears twitch at the memory. Mom was strange, but what she had said just felt...off.

Noe cracks his door open, peering down the long, empty hall. White walls rise over him, a polished tile floor spreading out between them. Countless doors stand in line next to his. Mom had assured them most rooms were vacant, but at night he could hear things. Scratching, crawling, groaning.

He wanders into the hall, closing his door gently behind him. The air around the kitten became pressuring, a shiver moving his skin making his fur rise. It felt as though he wasn’t meant to be here, like he was sneaking through some forbidden territory. Noe hadn’t been living in this home for long, but he was certainly used to these buildings.

Noe’s mind begins to ache as he travels down the hall, large windows pouring grey light in and around him. He glances out at the stretch of city before him. A vast cluster of tall, white buildings stretched out of the ground, seemingly endless. Noe feels his body stir again, the strange feelings once more beginning to bubble inside him. He hates it. He hates gazing out at the disgusting cluster of civilization. Anger rises in his chest, a shriveled, frustrated gasp escaping him

He runs recklessly down the hall. He didn’t care if anyone saw him, he just needed to get out. The white walls close in on him in the blur, making his heart beat quickly, anxiously, like a trapped animal. It all comes to an abrupt halt when Noe collides with a towering figure, falling back onto his rear. He viciously jerks his head up to face it, his tail puffing aggressively.

Cedric frowns down at the boy, his round ears turned backwards against his head. He kneels down next to Noe, a worried expression planted on his face. “Noe, what are you doing? Didn’t Miss Ryliss tell you to wait for me?” He asks. Noe’s chest rises and falls, squeezing out the last of his anxious breaths. Finally his eyes settle, pupils widening back from slits.

“C-cedric.I need help, I-I’m not me, I feel like…” Cedric shushes him, as he usually does, and pulls back to stand again.

“Come on, let’s get back to your room.” He says gently. Noe nods, but hesitates before raising himself off of the floor.

***

Noe was shaking, causing Cedric’s brow to crease with worry. He was getting worse, Cedric thought to himself, examining Noe’s tense body. His eyes were abnormal again, panic stricken. Cedric sighs, grasping for words in his mind.

“Noe, deep breaths, remember?” He reminds the boy. “In through your nose, out through your mouth.” When Noe doesn’t respond with the usual exercise, he runs his fingers through his hair, another sigh rolling from his lips.

Noe quivers, hugging himself in a fetal position. His claws dig into his limbs, eyes wide and alert. “St..stop it…” He wheezes, beads of perspiration weaving through his fur. Cedric furrows his brow, his head tilting.

“What is it? What are you feeling?” He asks. Today wasn’t normal. Noe’s anxiety was extreme, he almost seems delusional. Noe arches forwards suddenly, making Cedric jump a little.

“Noe…” He says. “Let’s try to calm down, okay?”

“M-my skin…!” Noe cries suddenly, shaking. “I-it’s crawling, i-it’s moving…” Cedric’s eyebrows curve in confusion, reaching out to put a hand on the boy’s arm. Noe hisses, spit flying from his mouth.

“D-don’t touch me! Something’s wrong, something's wrong! I-I’m not myself! Th-this isn’t right!” Noe cried. “N-nothing’s right, this world was ours!”

“N-noe…?” Cedric stammers, unable to hold back his fear any longer. He scoots his chair back away from the child, glancing towards the button used to call Dr.Ryliss.

“I-it’s not fair! Y-you selfish...s-selfish abominations...w-we...we made this….” Noe choked, his eyes going glassy.

Noe’s head slowly tilts forwards and Cedric leaps to catch him. Then he feels it. His skin is moving, bubbling with thousands of tiny shapes. Thousands of lumps crawl and writhe in his upper body and arms, rippling beneath his skin. They were insects. Insects were unheard of in a city, they had all been exterminated from the premises of it. Cedric, never having seen a living bug in his life, stares in horror. He was about to move, but it was too late. Noe’s head jerks upwards, mandibles springing from his mouth. His distorted eyes where the last thing Cedric saw before a sharp pain split the side of his head.

***

Miss Ryliss stands in the examination room, paws working diligently at the side of Cedric’s head.

“So the boy escaped, it’s a shame. I think he was the source of the infestation.” She purrs, oddly relaxed for the situation. “The other kids seem to be less infested than him. My children, I hope I can do better with the others. If only little Noe was less of a case, he could’ve been dissected today. We could have found out so much. Silly boy.”

The doctor was always strange in referring to her patients as children and encouraging them to call her Mom. She insisted it was to make them feel more at home. Cedric’s eyes roll upwards, his body twitching as she picks at the gauze on the side of his head.

“You’re lucky he didn’t hit your temple, I guess the lil’ kitty was more set on escaping. Heh, poooor kitten… he’ll neveeer remember he killed his father.”

Cedric doesn’t respond, gazing past the doctor’s shoulders through the open door and out the window. He adjusts himself on Noe’s old stretcher and looks harder. The way the buildings rose in the hazy light seemed… out of place. He never paid much attention to them before, but he realizes now just how angry it made him. How unfair it was of their species, who thought they were higher than others, to take over what they all once worked on nurturing together. Nature, mother nature, was being destroyed, and he hadn’t even cared. Nobody did.

His skin crawls.