By Jamie L. Forrest
The first time I saw him, he was sat on the floor of an old freight train, his knees pulled up to his chest, sliding a rusty penknife under his toenails. He would slide the blade as far down as it would travel under the nail, then smash a hammer fist to the base of the penknife, forcing it further until the toenail popped off and shimmied across the floor. His expression did not change, and I saw no pain in his face.
I was a stowaway. I had boarded the train at the last second, waiting to see which would depart from the yard first. I had no preference of direction in which to travel. I positioned myself behind two large trashcans which were next to a row of silo tankers, presumably awaiting to be lifted. Time crawled – I sat in the shadows it cast and waited. I held back, squatting and simultaneously dipping my head down to avoid detection, and waited for any sign of departure. I tried to remain as small and still as possible, feeling like a small hedgehog who sensed a threat, curling into a tight ball, hoping any predator would pass by without a second thought. There was suddenly movement from my right, and – out of the corner of my eye – I could see other attempting to seek refuge on a train as it began to move. They headed to the last few carriages, clambering over each other and using the people around them as leverage. My legs became coiled springs, and with that I leapt forward like a runner hearing a starting pistol. I deviated from the pack and took haven in a carriage towards the middle, lifting myself up and crawling inside hoping to avoid detection. I did not look behind me to see the carnage that had ensued outside at the rear of the train, nor did I search the carriage for any signs of other guests. I scrambled into the corner, cowering under old hessian sacks. I believed I was alone in the carriage.
After a few hours hiding in the corner of the carriage, under what I discovered were potato sacks, I was confident I had not been seen. My stomach would no longer be supressed and came to life, urging me to search for food. The sacks offered up one medium sized spud, which hid in the corner of one of the bags. I couldn’t help but see parallels between myself and the dirty, hidden potato – the bags providing sanctuary for us both. I kept my eyes closed and recreated the actions when enjoying a fresh, crisp apple – making every effort to trick my mind. I brushed the starchy tuber against my shirt to loosen and remove some of the soil which encrusted it, then I raised it to my mouth, grasping it tightly, and took a large bite. It was firmer than I had expected, and the rawness and bitterness was tough to get down, but finally it went down and stayed down. I had not seen him enter the carriage, and I heard no sound up to that point.
I believe he was trying to retain his anonymity. I walked the perimeter and found him sat behind crates of textiles. He did not acknowledge my presence at first, he just continued to work on his toes. I watched him for a few moments at a distance, fixated. He was wiry and dirty and naked. Even in his sitting fetal position, I could tell he was huge, easily 6’5” or 6’6”. His body was covered in tattoos, indistinguishable from one another, with most blending together forming multiple Rorschach’s over his body. I took a few steps forward unconsciously, willing to test myself. Apparently, he was aware of my position and my movements.
His voice had not been what I was expecting. It had a booming quality, a deep commanding tone that dared non-compliance. I did not take another step forward. It was only then I took stock of his actions. When I looked down, my initial thought was that he was using the blade to scrape the dirt from his cuticles, or even to trim the nail’s overgrowth. It was only when I saw him hammering a closed fist onto the end of the tool, and blood started rising in droplets onto the surface of the toe that I realised my error. He had completed the extraction of all the nails on his left foot. Without missing a beat, he moved his attention to his right foot and removing the nails.
“What are you doing?”, I said without even realising, and still staring at the man.
“Why are you removing the nails from your toes? That’s… fucked up, man!”
He did not reply right away.
The gore continued with his feet. And then I noticed his hands. He had also removed all the nails from his fingers on both hands, and blood was trickling down his fingers. It seemed he had acted with more recklessness when he had detached these. The skin underneath had multiple lacerations and was showing severe hematomas already. Once he had removed the final nails from his toes, he placed the penknife down by his side, and looked at me for the first time. He had no expression on his face, and the blankness completely unsettled me. The pigment of his eyes seemed to flicker between multiple colours like they could not decide where to rest. The only way I could describe it would be like a stained-glass window flickering so many shades all at once, which upon reflection is odd as there was clearly no light shining from within him.
“Removing the nails is necessary. They are like small vices clamping down, holding all in place. If the nails were not removed, how else would you expect me to remove the skin?”
I was overwhelmed by a sense of urgency to escape the train. I did not feel in any danger but the need for adventure which I had felt prior was suddenly doused with cold water, and it surged through my body. I needed to leave. But my feet did not move. My mind was firing all the signals to them; frantically begging them to begin moving, but they would not listen.
His eyes left me. He wiped his hands on a disused sack at his side, then picked up the penknife and wiped the blade. The blade made its way back down towards his feet and, without warning, he arched it downwards with speed. The sound was part thud and part skewered pig. I looked down. The penknife had penetrated the man’s right leg near the ankle. He removed his hand from the handle and left it suspended there for a moment while he adjusted his seating position, spreading his legs for an alternate perspective. I’m certain he glanced at me with a wry smile. He took hold of the handle at a different angle, this time like he was wielding a fork, and began moving the blade around the base of his ankle. The knife sailed through with little resistance – a medium rare steak, perfectly prepared. Once the circumference of the leg had been cut, he made two long slits either side of his calf, both ending at the side of his knee. He wiped the knife on the sack again and brought it back to the leg. He slipped the tip of the blade under the skin facing upwards towards his knee and began moving it back and forth working its way up from the cut he had made, like he was filleting a fish. He worked his way up around a third of the way up his leg, then placed the penknife back on the floor. Both of his hands took a grip of the loose skin and he began peeling it back, exposing vermilion muscles, nervous and connective tissue. When he reached his knee with the flap, he pulled the skin taut and held it with one hand, reaching for the penknife with the other and sliced off the slack of skin. He tossed the trinket of flesh onto the carriage floor between us and began work on the skin at the front of his leg, following the same routine.
But still, my feet did not move. My mind was invested more in the man than his actions. Why was he removing his skin? Why did he show no pain? Was this a dream? Was this his dream or my own? As if reading my mind, he spoke once more.
“First time, this is not. There has been a necessity to discard my skin before. I have completed this act several times, though this will be the last. “
As he spoke, he continued to strip away at his skin. Now, both legs were void of any visible skin, and he had peeled back that from his feet like old worn socks.
“I wake and search my frame for new text. I do not know who is behind the words, and I do not know how they are inked upon my body, my only comprehension is that it will be there. It is always a name. A day or two may go by, with my body left unmarked, but as sure as the sun will rise, a new name will be branded.”
His words take a second to register. I look down at the first castaway piece of skin he tossed in my direction. It contained three visible names; Clive Burton and Jane Allen, both in black with a line etched across each individually, as if in completion, and Raul Gimenez, this time inked in red, but again with a line scored through. Behind and around these names was indecipherable, but there was clearly more text that time had gotten its teeth into until it all bled into one another.
“My name has not been spoken in many moons, so I cannot give it to you. I have limited knowledge of who I am, but that is not of any importance. The only thing of value is my assignment. I am a Prowler. It is my position, and that is who I am. I stay hidden in plain sight, and act according to the words passed down. I receive a name, and then I must act. If the name is in black, then I must help. If the name is in red, I must kill.”
I again glance down at the flesh at my feet and notice the colour difference for each name. Recognition must appear on my face and I take a step backwards. My back foot hits a crate, and I stumble slightly, but I never take my eyes from his face.
“I do not have your name on my body. I give this information freely for your understanding. I have spent too long keeping my silence regarding who I am and what I have done. I have been fortunate enough in the last eighty years to have received names of those unfamiliar, though this is not my doing. The purpose I serve is a punishment. Punishment for a crime I did not commit.”
Eighty years? In the last eighty years? I studied his face. Despite his size, his face was fresh and showed none of the signs of age. I would have estimated he was in his mid-twenties. What did he mean by “in the last eighty years”? And the purpose he serves is a punishment? A Punishment for what?
“There is a higher power at work. They live amongst you, but you are ignorant to which you do not understand. You refuse to see that which is not at face value, but they are blessed with affluent knowledge. They could be the grocer or farmer, they could be the homeless man you pass every night, but you would be unaware. Unless they dress elegantly or appear to be educated, you discard them as lesser – which could not be further from the truth. They only make their presence known when necessary, time for them is not linear -they perceive it as a whole.”
He finally placed the knife down. I felt a sigh of relief leave my body. My shoulders relaxed slightly and for some reason I felt very comfortable in his presence, but the sight of the penknife in his hand – even more so dripping with blood – made me feel nervous. I stepped back and lent against the crate behind me. Was this what he wanted? Did he want me to let me guard down? Had he lied, and my name actually was on his person? He reached to his side and picked up a tattered sack and held it against his now skinless stomach and pressed. The blood instantly began to seep through, saturating the material. It went from an old, beige potato sack to a brilliantly blushed cherry picker’s receptacle.
“I was approached by a man on a beach. I remember I was alone and reading a book that had been handed down to me, but little else about that day, apart from our interaction. His appearance initially struck me as odd. It was hot, I’d estimate 31/32 degrees and he was wearing a large navy-blue wool jumper paired with chestnut corduroy trousers. His feet were bare, and upon his head was a midnight blue trilby. I took little more notice of him until he was a few feet away from me. He had stopped, removed his hat and held it against his chest. He waited until our eyes met, and then he asked if he could sit. The man face was non-descript. I cannot even tell you the colour of his eyes, or the shape of his nose. He had a face that seemed to house every other face I had ever seen. He did little in the way of small talk. He sat beside me and he spoke…”
The train began to slow. An initial jerk startled me, and my arms arched back like wings and gripped the top of the crate and steadied myself as to not topple over. The sudden shift had stopped the words from flowing, but he did not pause in panic like I did; he removed the sack from his waist, now fully sodden and showing none of the original colour. He picked up the penknife from the dusty, carriage floor, and noticed the blade was covered in dark red flecks of dried blood. He lifted it to his face and licked both sides of the blade, turning it in his hand a couple of times, leaving excess saliva dripping down. He then spat out the loosened blood onto the floor, wiping the blade against the crimson sack. He checked the blade again, and seemingly happy, he sat upright and angled the tip under his left pectoral muscle and began to separate it from the surrounding skin.
Just like his story, the train’s momentum had stopped. I took haven behind the crate that I had been leaning against, hoping that this was just a routine stop to load or unload some carriages, and not one for inspective purposes. Neither me or the man spoke another word and, soon after, the train again jerked and began to increase its speed. Confident that it would not stop again, I reappeared from behind the crate, but this time I sat down opposite the man, him leaning against one side of the carriage, and me on the other. He continued his story like the silent interlude had never happened.
“He recited my name, my date of birth and my Mother and Father’s full names. He told me he knew I had broken my arm when I was a child when climbing up a tree and falling from a great height, how I had been captain of my school’s football team and scored a penalty in the youth cup final, he told me how I had left high school early with ambitions of being a rock star which had amounted to nothing shortly after – all true. I asked who had told him these things, and he told me knowledge is a point of reference; that when the door is closed, he knows what is on the other side, unless the door is opened. An open door can bring in new knowledge, or let pre-existing knowledge stagnate and change. He told me my door was ajar, and he was here to allow me to close it.
He raised his hand and pointed it towards a group of children playing on the beach, kicking a football between them. He told me that soon the tides would change, and all the boys would vacate the beach – leaving only one. The boy would be average height and build, would have blue eyes and blonde hair, and would be wearing lime green swimming shorts with white dots on them. He said there was a window of 11 minutes with no other people on the beach, and in that window, I must kill the boy. I stared at him bemused, fully expecting him to break out in laughter, but his face remained stone. I turned my attention to the boys on the beach. There was five of them, from this distance they looked to be around twelve or thirteen years old. Then there was a commotion between two of them, pushing and shoving and raised voices, and all but one picked up their shirts and bags and left quickly. All I could see from the remaining boy at this distance was a lime green swim shorts, and that he looked to be the most delicate of the group. I glanced back at the man, who told me the timer had started – and that I now had the chance to shape the future. He said there would not be another chance to end the boy’s life for some years, and in that time the damage he would do would be irreversible. It would be too late.
Still not quite believing him, I asked why such a small, fragile boy had to die, and what could his possible future-self do that would mean his life had to end so early? He told me that to impress his friends this evening, the boy would steal a car and crash into another then flee the scene, killing a toddler and leaving the boy’s mother with life changing injuries. The toddler would grow to be instrumental in discovering a new type of test to detect cancerous cells at an early stage, saving millions of lives. After killing the toddler in the crash, the boy would then deviate from his own path and eventually go on to kill more people and die horribly due to a drug overdose in his mid-fifties. He then informed me the window was now seven minutes.
I looked back at the boy, so small, doing keepie-uppies on the beach. He looked like an average kid, just enjoying his time growing up. How could he possibly do the things this man had said? And yet, deep down I felt what the man said was to be true. How did he know about my childhood? Why did the man not just kill the child himself? He turned his face quickly to me – exclaiming he was a Facilitator and that he could not physically interfere in any act. Four minutes left. I had spent three minutes just watching the boy and thinking of my own childhood memories. I had the chance to make the future brighter for future generations, all that was needed was brave and bold action to be taken. Is one child worth the future of millions? Today is the day to change the world. And if not now, when? I knew deep down I could not kill the boy, but I still took time to contemplate how and if I could go through with it. I looked up to see the boy had been joined another, and they were exiting the beach together further north, away from our position.
The man next to me sighed. He stood and dusted off the sand from his trousers and from the top of his hat. He turned to face me and told me that the opportunity had expired, and that he did not want to give me an ultimatum prior, but now I had not acted in the best interest of progressing the human race – I was an accomplice in a future crime against humanity, and the decision was now out of both our hands.”
I was transfixed. Was this real? Was he weaving this lie for an ulterior motive? I was note sure and I could not distract away from the choice he was given. If I were in his shoes, would I have killed the boy? I gained some clarity and looked down at the man’s body. Throughout his story, he had continued to strip his body of his skin. He had now removed the protective layer from his lower body, torso and chest, and now one of his arms. I had been present for this but had not realised how far the extraction had gotten. He looked like he had severe sunburn all over his body. His legs had now been without skin for a while, and looked like they had become dry, the bright vivid reds had now turned a dull shade. I then noticed the smell. There was a metallic scent and taste in the air, and it made me retch. I was able to compose myself enough to not disrupt the man’s story.
“The man froze. A moment passed, and he was perfectly still. It was like he was a robotic toy with the batteries taken out, standing with his eyes and mouth open mid-speech and his hand resting on his opposite wrist as if adjusting a watch strap. The awkward pause was intense; a stranger had just approached me on a beach and ordered me to kill a random boy and he now stood motionless by my side. I picked up the book that lay sprawled open by my side and shifted my weight to my right, ready to stand. Looking as if his batteries had been replaced, he thawed from his position and held out his hand with his palm flat and fingers tight together, telling me to stop.
He started by stating that a decision was not unanimous, and given the circumstances, I had a choice to make – I could become a Prowler until I am found to have worked off my debt to future humanity, or I could work as a Facilitator. As a Prowler, my life would be put on hold, paused at this moment, and once I have completed my tasks I would be returned to this time and this place with no knowledge of any of this. As a Facilitator, I would live my life as normal, and carry out the work until the day I die – he advised that I would be immune to all illness and disease, and only natural causes would be my demise, unless they choose otherwise. In silence acquiescence, I shifted my weight once more and stood. I looked the man in the eye and remembered he had told me he was a Facilitator. Looking him up and down, his face and eyes looked to be filled with regret and sorrow, and it was then that I realised the man could either be in his thirties, or late fifties. How long he had been a Facilitator was unclear; what was clear was that I wanted to live. I wanted to dig my feet into the sand, and let it run through my toes, I wanted to run into the ocean and kick the water and feel the warm sun on my face. I wanted to live my life the way I wanted to live it, on my terms; I didn’t want any limitations. Prowler, I said.”
His expression had changed. Both the work to his body and his story had slowed. The penknife once again found the floor of the carriage as he seemed to contemplate the decision he had made in another life. His eyes were focused on the pink heap at his feet.
“He gave a slight smile and nodded at me. Both seemed to indicate I had made the decision he himself would have made. A small price to pay for continuity. He held out his hand – I accepted it, and we shook. I felt a pinch on the back of my wrist and a burning sensation like a thousand bees were simultaneously stinging me. Still holding the man’s hand, I tried to turn my wrist so it was facing upwards and I could see the damage, but the man kept my hand and wrist in position. He avoided eye contact and used his other hand to keep both of ours in place, I jerked my hand back and eventually shook it loose. Looking back, I believe he had loosened his grip. I turned my wrist and saw a name. Gerhardt Klose. It had been inked there in black letters; reading the name aloud I was instinctually aware of a location and time, a window. A window in which I must be present to assist – though what help he required was unknown to me at that point. I was the 237th Prowler in existence. All in a handshake I was given the knowledge of what being a Prowler entailed.”
There was a pause. He had not removed any of his skin for the last few minutes – granted there was now very little skin to be removed, but I felt like the man was not finished. I no longer sensed any danger – I was just a witness to this act, and not the main event. Between us lay a mound of skin. It reminded me of a snake shedding its skin to allow growth – was this a human act of ecdysis? Was this man preparing for his future growth? Or preparing for an end? In hindsight, I realise he was waiting, allowing time to catch up. But there were some questions left unanswered.
“But why remove the skin?”, I said. The words came out so fast; I was surprised he caught them. He had anticipated this question from the start.
“I discovered that the names would remain on my skin after the fulfilment, and over time the ink would bleed together like any aged tattoo, leaving not only illegible text, but taking up valuable real estate on my skin. Names only appear on a blank canvas. I had the idea around 30 years ago to remove sections of skin, in the hope that eventually fresh skin would grow and allow names to flow. Thankfully, this theory seemed to be correct – and the more available skin to etch onto, the quicker the names would appear”
It sounded ludicrous as the words left his mouth, but after a few seconds contemplation I had to admire his thought process and almost an originality in solving the problem. Skin did regrow and regenerate. As a child, I remember a bad fall one summer where I had taken multiple layers of skin from my knees. They quickly scabbed over, and new skin formed in a matter of days. The skin on my knees began to regrow before the mental trauma had subsided. The pile of disused flesh lay between us, but it no longer made me feel uneasy. I now thought of it as a necessity like he had spoken. An admiration came sweeping through my body. I felt I had boarded this train and this carriage at random but providing audience to his story filled me with something I had not felt before. Some would have felt profusely violated by the man’s actions, but his words held more substance than the extractions ever could. I needed to help the man, I felt upon hearing his tale that he did not want, or would ask for my help, but provide it I must. Was there anything I could do to help him fulfil his task? My mind was racing when he cut me off.
“I have carried out my duties for the last eighty years, assisting and killing as required, waiting for the day that my dues are paid. Today is that day.”
His body was now void of all skin from his neck down. There was a pile of stripped flesh between us. I didn’t think the human body was housed by this much skin. I looked at the mound, registering the number of names that had been in red – most appeared to be men, all had been crossed through. Did more men need killing and more women need helping? The amount of faded block colour behind the names just showed the number of names that had been etched upon his body and faded. Hopefully, they were remembered better than they were documented here. A blur in history. I raised my head expecting the man to continue his story to conclusion. As I looked, he was no longer sitting – he was stood. He was even more enormous than I had originally thought – closer to seven feet tall, easily double my weight despite his lean frame. He was red muscle and tissue apart from his neck and head, still covered with skin. He held out his hand to me. I looked down, never thinking of my skin as a glove before, but suddenly appreciating it for what it did more than what it was. I took his hand limply, unsure and held it, giving it a gentle up and down. It gave a slight squelch as it shook. Now looking towards his face, I saw his jaw clench and his brow stiffen, he bit his lip slightly and a low sound of distress left him. Infront of my eyes, words were being scratched into his throat. The process seemed slow; his jaw did not loosen, and his eyes did not open. He seemed to keep focus and his body was still – he was still holding my hand. A moment later, I felt his hand relax slightly in mine, and his features soften. I glance again at his throat to see a new name there. “Prowler 237”.
He suddenly pulled me close, dipping his frame so our faces were only a foot apart and level. He raised the penknife from his waist, the blade glistening with fresh drops of blood, and looked at me with a smile of acceptance. Fear hit me like a shotgun to the gut, my eyes widened, and it was my turn to stiffen. Before I could say a word in defence of my life, he spoke.
“Good luck, my friend”
He raised the penknife to his throat and in one swift moment, he crossed out his name.
About the Author: Jamie L. Forrest lives in Manchester, England and enjoys writing sad songs and dark stories. You can find updates on his work and pictures of his dog at @JamieLForrest87
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