House of Skin

Tim Curran



Although there were any number of beginnings to what came to pass, Lisa would later be certain that it began the night she left Chowchilla and picked up a rider.

It was one of those nights cribbed from a Gothic novel: a whipping, wind-driven rain was falling from the black, lonesome sky and lightning flashed on the horizon, limning the prison buildings in ghostly, strobing phosphorescence. Thunder roared and the wind screamed. She had felt the storm coming all day as she could feel her period sneaking up on her late in the month sometimes. This was Mother Nature’s menstrual cycle; this was how she cleansed herself. Not with a flow of blood but with an acrid fall of rain, an ozone stink of lightning, and a roar of thunder. Out with the bad and in with the good.

“Christ in Heaven,” Lisa said under her breath.

It was a bad one.

That was just great.

She had a big day ahead of her tomorrow and if the storm raged through the night, she’d get no sleep. It was an affliction she’d suffered with since childhood: a mortal fear of storms. Rain and wind filled her with a creeping sense of foreboding that was completely inexplicable. When a storm raged, she’d cower on the sofa, stare blindly at the Weather Channel, hoping for a sign of relief, an indication that the tempest would pass quickly. When it didn’t, she would start drinking cognac, the only liquor she could stomach for some reason. At first just in a glass with ice. Then, as her nerves frayed with every boom and flash and her reserve went to pieces with them, straight from the bottle.


Thunder. Wind.

She thought: I can’t take another night of it. I’ll lose my mind this time.

She climbed behind the wheel of her SUV and drove to the gates. The guard waved her through. The storm was gathering quickly, intent on destroying her peace of mind. She had to get home as quickly as possible.

The traffic was heavy, of course. Every idiot with a set of wheels was out on the streets tonight. It would take a good thirty minutes, if not more, to get home to the relative safety that awaited her there. Her knuckles were white as she gripped the wheel for dear life. Perspiration was running down her temples. A stink of fear came off her skin—salty and hot.

It took her no less than three-quarters of an hour to make it to her lonely little house outside Modesto. By that time the rain was cascading down in sheets, the night world shuddering with the rumble of thunder. Lightning flashed at regular intervals, the countryside exploding with blinding light. The wind lashed at the car, trying to force it into the ditch.

Not far now, she told herself, just hang on.

Finally, her driveway. She pulled in and killed the engine. Her fingers trembled so badly, she dropped her keys. It took two hands to pick them up: one to steady the other.

The wind slammed into the car.

She reached for the door handle and something shifted behind her.

Someone’s in the back seat

But she never finished that thought. There was a blur of motion and then a loop of wire encircled her throat. Tightly, but not tight enough to kill. Not yet. Her heart thudded in her chest, her breath rasping in her lungs.

So dark, so terribly dark. She could see nothing in the rearview mirror, just a black shape. Her hands were clutched on those that held the wire. They felt cool, damp even, but feminine.

“Who are you?” she managed.

There was a smacking sound. Someone licking their lips.

“Please. Who are you? What do you want?” she gasped. “I… I have money.”

“It’s not enough, Dr. Lisa,” the voice answered.

Lightning flashed and the car was flooded with light. She saw her attacker. It was one of the patients from the prison hospital. Cherry Hill. Cherry, of all possible inmates. There were a lot of bad ones at Chowchilla, but Cherry was somehow worse. During one of their sessions, Cherry had told her that she could smell death on herself, that it clung to her like a sewer stink clings to a buried pipe. It could not be sanitized or washed away, she claimed, because it oozed from her pores like sweat. It was on her skin, it was in her hair, she could smell it on her fingers and taste it on her tongue. Every morning in Ad-Seg, solitary, she tried to cleanse herself of it: she stood in the hot shower soaping herself with foam and gel and body wash, she scrubbed and scrubbed until her skin was red and hurting. She washed her hair again and again until it smelled like green apples and it was so clean it squeaked.

It was a psychosis, of course. Cherry had murdered many people, even members of her own family, so it wasn’t that surprising.

As difficult as it was, Lisa tried to keep her composure. “Cherry. Listen to me. Can you do that? Will you listen to my words?”

“No.” Flat denial. When she was in that mood, there was no talking to her. It was best to keep quiet and let her begin, if she would begin at all.

Cherry had many obsessions as most killers did, but her favorite was evil. The nature of it, the politics of it, the way it contaminated minds like some toxic contagion. She considered it a natural force like wind or rain. Evil (she had said) not only turned minds black with hate and turned cities into graveyards, but it spread like a virus, jumping body to body in a ceaseless, remorseless circle of infection. Evil existed to destroy the human race. Its goal was to strip you bare at your most primal level. It did this by invading your body until your body was no longer your own, but a vessel for itself. Once it had you, it would kill and maim everything you loved, it would rape your soul and enslave your mind and force you into the most diabolic acts, shitting on your morals and ethics and pissing all over your belief system until you could only believe in evil itself and nothing more.

“Death is leaking from me, Dr. Lisa. Can you smell it?” she said.

The insane thing was for just a moment, Lisa almost could.


“Cherry’s dead.” The voice was flat, emotionless.

“Please, Cherry… please…”

“That’s what they always say, isn’t it?” the voice said. “Please.”

“What do you want?”

But she wouldn’t say.

Cherry believed not only that evil was a force of nature, an elemental, but that death itself was a parasite. It entered you in the larval stage when you were weakened from abuse and despair. Then it crawled up your spine and attached itself to your brain stem where it grew, lengthening and thickening, filling itself with eggs until it was ready to burst with spawn.

“That’s when you kill,” she had said during one of the sessions. “It controls your mind and makes you. Do you know why?”

“Why, Cherry?”

“Because… that is its life cycle. When you kill, it plants its eggs in your victim and infests other hosts.”

Lisa gasped as the wire cut a bit deeper.

She knew Cherry was expert with it. The garrote. She’d killed several people with it out in society and murdered an inmate at Chowchilla, nearly taking her head off. Lisa could not have been in a more dangerous situation. Cherry was deluded, paranoid, schizophrenic, and psychotic. She was housed in the criminally insane wing of the hospital. How she had gotten out was open to conjecture. The fact remained: she was out.

The wire constricted and Lisa’s eyes bulged like egg yolks. Her fingers fought and tore at the wire, but it was hopeless. The wire had severed her skin now, cutting into meat, going deeper where no fingers could find it. Her head pounded and her lungs ached, but it was her throat that knew the real pain. She started to wish she’d left the hospital at a normal time, came home and stretched out the sofa. A glass of wine, a little TV…

The thoughts in her mind were spiraling now from lack of oxygen. They were spinning around and around, faster and faster. There was no focus or cohesion. She trembled on the edge of consciousness.

She opened her eyes. She had blacked out, but just for a moment or two. The wire was still around her throat. Cherry had her face very close. Lisa could feel her hot breath in her ear. “I love your hair, Dr. Lisa. It’s soft. It’s the color of wheat. I want to shave your head. I want to wear your scalp and dance in the rain.”

The wire had loosened. “What do you want, Cherry?” Lisa said, her voice dry and gritty. “Tell me.”

The wire tightened and tightened.

A thousand thoughts and memories converged on her drifting, oxygen-starved mind as she saw static, gray glittering specks, and everything was washed away and she fell into darkness.

And a coo of a voice said, “Not yet, Doctor. It won’t be that easy for you…”


There are places death goes.

A multitude of dead-ends and vacant quarters that it inhabits and calls its own. Abandoned cemeteries and forgotten crossroads where the night winds play and whisper in the tongues of lost souls. Dusty crematoria and dank crypt, prison, madhouse, and morgue. Cancer wards and slaughterhouses where the reek and scream of tortured life cling like grave mold or a child’s echoing ...

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