Skin, by C. H. Newell

Jacob is not who he used to be. His eyes, his voice, even his breath smells the same, somehow. But he’s not my husband. Not anymore.

Looking out at the garden, I find he’s more like an ornament. A tall, slender lawn decoration. A grownup gnome. The sun shines over his skin and you can almost see through him.

When we have sex I don’t feel the love, so much as I feel a foreign object prodding around inside me. He doesn’t even sweat anymore. He looks wet, but isn’t at all. Jacob fucks me and our bodies skids together; the sleek creases in the curves of mine rub against his cold rubbery skin. The friction leaves raw, red patches on all around my breasts, down my stomach. Though, he rarely notices.

He didn’t come back until after Noah went to university. Or, well, I didn’t bring him back until then. I just felt it was easier. If he came back before, maybe Noah wouldn’t have gone. He’d be too happy to leave. Then again, after awhile I’m sure he’d figure it all out. Our son isn’t stupid.

The air felt like electricity the night Jacob came home. Someone from the hospital dropped him off. I met him in the driveway. He hugged me into his chest. Things felt normal for the first time in so long. We spent the rest of the evening lying in bed. For a second time in the matter of a day, my head rested on his chest. But in the moment I didn’t bother to listen; not hard enough, anyways.

I started noticing strange behavior about a week after he first came back. At first, it was only his missing smile. Later, things got weirder.

I caught Jacob in the kitchen one night, on his knees and head first into our refrigerator. Half of his body disappeared inside, as if it swallowed him up. Instead of asking what he was doing, I thought it’d be funny to watch him. Then I saw him pull back from the fridge. He held up a fistful of cold cuts: some thin sliced turkey, a few strips of roast beef, all balled in his palms. And he was feeling them, squeezing the chilly meats and looking down into his hands. A weird smile spread across his face.

I felt a little sick. The beef and turkey swelled between each finger, ballooning slightly out from the crevasses. It reminded me of being fifteen again, swimming in a friend’s pool without sunscreen and walking away with a bubbly, blistering second-degree sunburn. Watching my husband with the meat in his hands it looked like seeing an ape touch soft shaven skin for the first time.

I didn’t tell Jacob what I saw. The next day I found myself straying from his touch. He pulled me in and cupped my breast, then put a hand around the nape of my neck to brush away some hair. All I saw was my sunburned teenage skin like those pieces of meat, popping out around his clenched knuckles. The image felt tattooed across the hemispheres of my brain. It wouldn’t leave. Those were the moments I began to feel the strange otherness of his skin.

“Did I do something?” Jacob’s eyes had the look of a child who’d hurt someone for the first time. He didn’t try holding on and backed away from me.

“No. It’s just… well, honey, it’s strange.”

“What’s that?”

“Having you here”

“Oh,” his voice trailed off. His eyes glazed over briefly and stared out into space. He came back after a moment then said: “I can go, if you’d rather that.”

“I didn’t say I want you to go, Jake.”

“You haven’t said you don’t, either.”

I hesitated, wondering whether or not I ought to bring up the refrigerator, what I’d caught him doing. “What were you doing last night? Late, after we’d gone to bed. I heard you doing something downstairs.”

“I was getting a glass of water,” he said. His eyes flickered, as if their color changed in an instant.

Exchanging glances, Jacob and I stood looking at each other like two strangers. “You could’ve just grabbed your glass from the bathroom.”

His eyes moved again, strangely. They were like the eyes of a lizard, darting back, forth. One rolled upwards, twitching and jittery against its socket. Like a cue ball rattling around in the corner pocket of a pool table before disappearing.

“Jesus, Jake – are you okay?”

“I’m fine!” His voice came out deeper than ever, bellowing and guttural. As if someone else wore his skin hiding underneath, accidentally slipping out of character.

With that, he ran up to the bathroom off our bedroom.

“Jake,” I called out but my own voice cracked and nearly evaporated.

His voice drifted down from upstairs: “Don’t worry about it. Just got something in my eye.”

Moving up the stairs, I went slowly. I pressed my toes down first, then my heel, all without a bit of noise. When I reached the landing I tiptoed towards our room. The soft pads of my feet punctuated my sneakiness, lightly sticking with every step on the hardwood floor. I made it to the bedroom. A small sliver of light escaped the bathroom through the door’s crack.

And inside, Jacob – the man who used to be my husband – was pushing his fingers up under the skin around his jawline. I looked on in horror, as his index and middle finger both poked up through his cheek. The rubber-like flesh didn’t change color, it didn’t go white as it stretched. Neither did his face look flushed.

I finally saw who’s been hiding under there once Jacob hauled the skin up, uncovering those plastic tubes and the stitched together meat. Is that still his skeleton? I wondered. Or did they have to use a different one? The outer layer of flesh rested up over his forehead, like a Halloween mask. I watched him gently pick a piece of lint off his eyeball, stuck at the corner up under the bone of his eye socket.

As he folded the oddly colored skin back down over his face, I quietly went back to the stairs, down to the living room. I thought about calling them back to say I wasn’t comfortable anymore, not after seeing what’s under the hood. But I never bothered. Not sure why.

Maybe having him here like this is better than not having him at all. Maybe the feeling of his elastic skin against mine is better than nothing.

That night, after we went to bed, I let Jacob spoon me. His bare torso touched my naked back. I tried not to let the feeling overcome me. Finally, once I fell asleep, all I could dream of was Jacob laying next to me.

Except I wasn’t me. I was a pile of cold, sliced meat. Jacob ran his fingers through the folds of the meat, snuggling it close. And his smile, it came back. Not the big Cheshire grin I’d seen him with at the refrigerator. It was his old smile.

When I woke up during the middle of the night, sweaty and warm, he wasn’t smiling. There was only my slippery, wet skin pinching against his artificial body.

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