By Sean Patrick Hazlett
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
I collect skin. Ebony, alabaster, wrinkled pink with blotches. Color and texture matter not, so long as the flesh is warm and the soul is dark.
I waited at Montgomery Street station as scores of professionals passed by. At the edge of my vision, a fit white-haired woman lurked along the boundary of the bright yellow line demarcating the margin of safety between the platform and the train, and just beyond the notice of the working stiffs standing in line.
The cold rush of dry wind heralded the arrival of the oncoming BART train, a steel snake that conveyed unsuspecting prey through a murk of darkness beneath the San Francisco Bay.
Mrs. Tomlinson must have thought she was so clever, or at least cleverer than her fellow rule-bound travelers. She probably believed no one would notice what she meant to do.
When the train stopped, she merged with the crowd as if she'd been first in line all along. Her brazen entitlement drew me to her like a fly to feces.
No one seemed to notice that she'd cut in line. She'd probably gotten away with it before. She likely thought she was better than everyone else. Like she was special.
She was special all right. Special enough to attract my attention. I followed her onto the train. Because she'd broken the rules, she found a spot. Like clockwork, she chose a seat closest to the aisle in an empty row, blocking the path to the window seat. The hallmark of passive aggression, it was a way for the weak but arrogant to claim two seats for themselves.
"Excuse me," I said, gesturing to the vacant seat. Foiled, she suppressed a scowl as she rose to accommodate my request. I smiled, barely containing my joy at being so close to my quarry.
Mrs. Tomlinson pulled a late model iPhone out of her Gucci handbag, put in ear buds, and dialed a number. "Hi, Rodney," she said in an entitled lilt everyone on the noisy train couldn't miss. "Could you be a dear and send me the final report by five p.m.?"
She rolled her eyes at the man's response. "Well that was yesterday. I need to see the report today, not tomorrow."
Mrs. Tomlinson frowned. "Rodney. Rodney, stop. You've had two weeks to put the report together. I'm asking for it one day early." She put her hand on her brow, apparently exasperated with Rodney's inability to produce something a day before deadline with mere minutes notice. "Well, just send what you have," she said, and then hung up.
She turned to me. "Competent people are impossible to find these days."
She was perfect.
I extended my hand. "My name's Juniper Stanford."
She shook it tentatively. Her skin was tepid. She scrunched up her face. "Juniper? Isn't that a girl's name."
I smiled. "It's both a man and a woman's name. Which is why I chose it."
She looked at me as if I had a horn growing out of my forehead. "So that wasn't your birth name?"
I laughed so hard passengers began staring at me. "Oh, I wasn't born. I borrow."
Her face contorted into a rictus. She reeked of disgust with a trace of fear. I grinned. She rose, grabbed her handbag, and left, weaving through the press of sweaty passengers stacking the aisle. I got on my feet and followed her through the crowd.
She didn't seem to notice me until we reached West Oakland. She sat rigidly next to a black man. The smell of her discomfort wafted through the air. The scent was as strong as her soul was dark. When the man rose to get off at his stop, I stood by her seat and smiled at her. She shivered.
"Don't worry, Mrs. Tomlinson," I said. "You'll be a fine addition to my collection."
"How...how do you know my name?" she said, her voice quivering.
I chuckled. "I can smell it."
"You stay away from me, or so help me God, I'll scream." Mrs. Tomlinson was a paper tiger. She projected confidence, but stank of fear.
I giggled, raised my hands to signal retreat, and disappeared into the crowded aisle where I bided my time.
"Next stop, Lafayette," the intercom squawked. Mrs. Tomlinson straightened in her seat and checked her handbag. When the train screeched to a halt, she made her way off the train and onto the platform. I exited into the light of the dying sun, sprinting ahead of Mrs. Tomlinson and the crowd. I didn't need to follow her, for I already knew where she was going.
I waited for her at a late model BMW in the parking lot's handicapped section, where I stood patiently by the passenger's door. Dark souls will bend any rule for their convenience.
Consumed by her own trifles, she didn't notice me until her hand was on the BMW's door handle. When she did, her eyes went wide as coins.
I had little time. I would have to do it here. Now.
I removed my shirt and pulled out my knife. She howled, too shocked to get in her car. I began to carve off my skin in deft, yet broad, strokes, honed from millennia of experience. The pain was both intense and exquisite.
But Mrs. Tomlinson's reaction was more satisfying. She hugged her Gucci handbag tight and backed up against the silver Prius behind her as if to protect her precious belongings from being soiled with blood. She stopped screaming as though relieved I wasn't skinning her. Then she watched, as if riveted by the spectacle unfolding before her.
Passersby gawked at the scene. Several recorded it on their mobile phones. One or two dialed 911. But no one intervened.
By the time my arms and torso were stripped of skin and glistening with red sinew, the cops had arrived and were emerging from their cruiser.
But it was too late.
I was now inside crazy old Mrs. Tomlinson, collecting the warm and flayed flesh of a man who'd just slit his own throat. I drove away from the BART station in my late model BMW with the blood from strips of newly torn flesh pooling on the passenger's seat.
Soon, I would skin Mrs. Tomlinson after I found another human shell possessed by a dark soul.