Oliver walked into the kitchen and pulled on the hem of his mother’s dress. The woman looked down at him and smiled, but he knew she was not happy he was in here.
“Yes, my little one?” she asked.
“Can I have a cookie?” asked Oliver.
“May I have a cookie,” corrected his mother.
“May I have a cookie?” asked Oliver.
“You may, my little Ollie, but only one,” said his mother as she held up her right index finger in front of his little face. “Dinner will be ready soon.”
She ushered him over to the little square kitchen table and sat him in his booster chair. He was not a baby anymore, but he needed a little extra boost to properly reach his food.
The woman handed him his oatmeal cookie, and he held the big, round, edible disk in both hands. He took a bite of that delicious cookie, but there was a lot on his young mind, and he knew she could tell.
The older woman cocked her head to one side and looked down at him in strange concern. She smiled as she did so, an affect that Oliver was still not used to. His mother had never smiled so much until just recently.
“What is it, my little one?” she asked.
“When is Daddy coming home?” asked Oliver.
“Now, now,” said his mother with a wagging finger. “Your father has gone away. He’s not coming home.”
“He isn’t?” asked Oliver.
“No, no,” smiled his mother. “We talked about this, my little Ollie. Your father’s gone away, and he’s not coming back.”
He wanted to cry over this again, but he knew she would scold him if he did. She had told him the same thing yesterday, and he had cried then, and she had scolded him to the point where he had been terrified. It was something in her eyes that scared him so, and now he was too afraid to earn her ire again. Even so, his eyes watered at the thought of it, the thought of his father never returning home.
“Now, don’t you cry,” said his mother with a shake of her head. “Big boys don’t cry…I know something that will help, though. I know exactly what you need. You need a glass of milk for your cookie.”
He nodded his head in acceptance. He did not know why his father was not coming home, but he did not want to get in trouble anymore. Nevertheless, he saw something the bothered him, and it bothered him a lot. He couldn’t help but ask about it.
“Mommy, why is your face peeling?” asked Oliver.
His mother’s face was indeed peeling, peeling upon her left cheek, just a little, but enough to bother him, the pale skin off a tiny sliver, a fleck of jet black, like coal, beneath it.
“Don’t you worry about that, my little Ollie,” smiled his mother. “That’s not important.”
“Are you sick?” asked Oliver.
He had been wondering if she were ill, as she was not her usual self, and this bothered him…It bothered him a lot.
“Just eat your cookie, dearie,” smiled his mother.
Oliver took a bite of his cookie, but it tasted funny. He had not noticed it with the first bite, but now he did. He hesitated to have any more, but his mother would not have it.
“Eat all of it,” smiled his mother.
He took to eating the cookie again regardless of the taste. He did not want to get in trouble again.
“That’s a good boy,” smiled his mother.
She went to the fridge and pulled out the milk carton from it. She took down a glass from the left cabinet above the sink and poured him a tall glass of milk.
“Here you are now,” she said as she handed him the glass.
He eagerly took the glass with both hands, as he was sorely in need of a drink, but the milk tasted funny as well, just like the cookie.
“This doesn’t taste right,” said Oliver. “The cookie doesn’t taste right, either.”
“You asked for a cookie, and you got one,” said his mother. “I even poured you a glass of milk, Ollie. Now, don’t be ungrateful.”
His mother reached up and scratched at the left side of her face, and more of her skin peeled away, just a bit, but more than enough to make Oliver nervous.
“Mommy, why is your face peeling?” he asked again. “I don’t like it…”
There were small scratches on her face where her nails had raked across her pale skin, and these scratches left strange lines of ebony, like black trails in peach-brushed snow.
“I told you not to ask that, Oliver,” warned his mother.
She reached up and scratched at the skin of her left cheek again, and even more of her skin peeled away to reveal a small patch of pitch black beneath it.
Now Oliver really needed to know. He needed to know what was wrong with his mother, because something was wrong, very wrong, and he did not know what else to do but ask.
“Mommy, something’s wrong with your face,” he said nervously. “There’s something under your skin. What’s under there?”
His mother’s eyes widened as she turned up her lips in a weird, disturbing smile.
“Do you want to know?” she asked. “Do you really want to know?”
In truth, Oliver did not want to know, because something was very, very wrong, and he was suddenly afraid to know. There was something wrong about everything right now, from his father not returning home yesterday to his mother acting all strange. Everything right now was wrong, so whether he liked it or not, he needed to know, so he nodded his little head in silent reply.
“Okay, my little Ollie,” replied his mother. “I’ll sing you a song about it…but you won’t like it. You won’t like it at all.”
Ollie swallowed a chunk of cookie out of fearful reflex.
His mother stared at him with wide eyes as she sang with a smile.
“What’s under there? What’s under there?” she sang. “Under Mommy’s face, so fine and fair? What’s under there? What’s under there? Under pale, pale skin and long black hair?”
She reached up and peeled off more of her cheek skin, revealing a large swatch of black beneath it, about the size of a thumb, and Oliver’s little hands shook as he squeezed the half-eaten cookie in his clutching fingers.
“Daddy, Daddy, found a book,” sang his mother. “He dug it out of a hidden nook. It told a lot of horrid things, written for the ancient kings. He said the words, he read them loud, and then sprang out a turbid cloud. Black and slick and old as ages, it billowed from the musty pages.”
His mother continued to smile as she peeled off a large flap of pale skin from her left cheek. Beneath it were her teeth, the ivory pegs flawless in the light, but as she peeled backwards toward the end of her jaw, more teeth were revealed, all the same, but many more than there should have been, all the way back to the end of her jaw, all set in a line of ebony flesh beneath an outer layer of peeling, pale skin.
“What’s under there? What’s under there?” sang Oliver’s mother. “Under Mommy’s face, so fine and fair? What’s under there? What’s under there? Under pale, pale skin and long black hair?”
The cookie crumbled under Oliver’s grip, the flecks falling like dust to the kitchen table. He shook in his chair, his mouth partially open, his eyes wide, his skin blanching as he continued to watch and listen to his mother.
“Ancient, ancient, billowed, and swirled, it sprang from the pages and into the world,” sang his mother. “Existing long before Noah’s Sea, antediluvian, finally free!”
It was something in her eyes that caused Oliver to shake, the madness and fury in his mother’s eyes that held him in place in his booster chair.
“Daddy ran with all his heart, but he was quickly torn apart,” sang his mother. “Mommy screamed and tried to shout, but she was eaten from the inside out!”
His mother tore off the pale skin from the entire left side of her face, the flap of it falling onto the floor in a wet plop of a white sheet, like rain-soaked paper.
The obsidian flesh beneath the peeling skin was slick and looked to be made of tiny, overlapping scales. Her left eye was a golden color with a single, black, vertical slit where a normally-round pupil should have been, and a fire was burning within that black slit, but frosty-blue, like a flame made of ice.
Even her smile was uncanny, as the right side of her face held normal teeth and lips, while the left side of her face held a lipless mouth with teeth that spanned all the way back to her neckline.
“Now it’s time for a little snack, made with fear in a fleshy sack,” sang his mother. “Alive, alive, where you cannot move! That makes for a more delicious food!”
She finished her song with unusual gusto, the very sound of it echoing around the kitchen to assault Oliver’s little ears without mercy.
Oliver’s terror-induced paralysis finally broke as he willed his muscles to move. He hopped down from his booster seat and ran for the kitchen door, but the drug in his cookie and milk slowed him down far too much for him to actually make it there.
What’s Under There? Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott