UNDER MY SKIN • by Joely Opie-Harris

(content warning: rape)

I close my eyes and the quiet, black space around me is filled with you. Do you think of me too? I wonder if you do. Wonder if that night is still carved into your wrists, wriggling beneath your skin, like it is mine. It plays like an old song, vibrating in my bones.

***

The late-summer sunset lights the forest with a crimson glow. Lounging in the heat, we slop vodka into our plastic cups and salute the dying light. Lucy slurps her vodka lemonade, declares exams officially over and with them, our youth. Down the dirt track the two of you cruise, twisting a final growl from your bikes before letting them sleep. With the crack and hiss of beers Lucy makes introductions and alcohol smooths the rest. You don’t drink. “Riding home.”

Six feet of lanky teen, with spot peppered cheeks and curious eyes, you ask questions: family, pets, school dramas, great loves. And I’m flattered. Your curiosity buffs me to a golden shine. When the night air grows thin, the other dirt-bike boy gives us a cool wave before thundering off into the night. But you stay.

Did you already know then what you would do?

Shivering, Lucy declares it’s time to take the party inside. World spinning, mud slipping, we totter up the forest track to the deserted house on the hill. The only steady footed person left, you grab me as I stumble.

My stomach turns as your hand slides beneath my jeans, nails grazing my thigh. Twisting, I clutch at air, at your chest, at a place to break free and your face rushes from the darkness, bowing towards mine. I still feel it: the fleshy, spongy texture of your skin, the bulge of your eyes beneath my fingers. I thrust you away. Under your grasping, there’s a sharp edge of strength, but you let me go. Let me slip from your grip. I careen towards the house.

Houses are safe. Dark woodlands coax out base instincts but in lamp lit, sofa-lined, curtain-closed homes, we behave. Lucy flops on the sofa, giggling into a boy’s shoulder. In the kitchen, I grasp for the familiar and the cold porcelain mug between my palms returns me to British courtesy. A cup of tea? Coffee or hot chocolate anyone? I’m relieved when their slurred chorus of agreement gives me a job to do. I want to smooth the shame of misread intentions. Unfazed, you take the hot cup with a smile and the guilty coil in my stomach loosens a notch.

Bottle dry, I flop into bed. Lights off, droop-eyed, safe in the quiet dark of that room. Alone.

But then there is pain the inky dark. It’s the sharp compass that rights my drowse-filled head. Under what sky, roof, or constellation I awake, I don’t know, but I hurt. Searching for the wound, my hands find a wall, a chest, solid, alive, breathing, but not my own. As pieces of reality slot into place I feel your panting, hot on my neck. Pregnant fear crawls across my skin to hatch paralysing dread. Let me be small. Let me fit through the mattress pores, slide through the bed frame, slip out of the real.

I tell my hands to push, push at your chest — they do and… Nothing. Not even a word, a hitch of breath. You’re in your rhythm now. Old pieces of me shatter; my body abandons me. You’ve pulled me on like a glove: I am your puppet.

Your weight lifts with the creak of springs. Your spectral shape, a cardboard cut-out snipped with moonlit scissors, rises from the bed, and stands over me.

Then you go.

What cue did you have to leave? Were you done?

Ankles fettered by underwear and jeans, I fumble in the dark, drag them over shivering skin. Searching for shapes in the night, for shelter, a place to hide, I find a black box outline. Sanctuary. I scuttle beneath the table, pull my knees up beneath my chin and squeeze into the smallest shape imaginable. Squeeze so small your black eyes won’t find me.

***

The grind and roar of your motorbike echoes through the hollow chamber. I hold my breath for an hour. Heart sobbing relief does not come. I am never sure your shadow will not return.

***

Do you play that record too? Am I one in a collection, in a rack of memories, to play on a lonely day? I want to believe I’m the only girl, because if I’m not…

You don’t know the rest. You weren’t there. Didn’t see the part where blood-stained underwear clung to my thighs on a two-hour bus ride home. Or the part where my dog howled and licked my cheeks because the hurt inside just kept flooding. My fingernails left tracks on legs, arms, lips, scratching, scrubbing, peeling you away. There was no clean for me though. Whatever you put inside wouldn’t leave. I tried everything. Tried to retch you out with two fingers down the throat but you weren’t in my stomach, you were in my blood. Could I leech you? I tried tugging red ribbons from my wrists. You didn’t leave.

So, you’re here. I feel your flesh beneath my fingertips and the press of your chest on my lungs. You still wriggle beneath my skin and, no matter how hard I try, I can’t scratch you out.


Joely Opie-Harris is a Teacher of English living in the South West of England. She is currently studying for a master’s degree in Creative Writing through the University of Hull Online.


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