Rachel is 19. A little rebellious, a little bitter, she enjoys hanging out with her boyfriend Tony—and spending as much time as possible away from her new stepmother. Her relationship with her father was dealt a huge blow by the death of her mother, and she’s still trying, and failing, to come to terms with that. Her home life is a shambles, choked with frustration and anger.
But Rachel’s life is about to undergo an abrupt change. She’s about to wake up early on a clear Colorado morning to find that everything is different. All but a small percentage of the world’s population has fallen unconscious—no heartbeat, no respiration, eyes flat and dead—and something unfathomable has happened to their bodies. And that’s only the beginning.
As Rachel races against time to determine what has happened to the world, she also desperately needs to find her father, whose fate remains uncertain. Because all around her, these comatose bodies are beginning to awaken with unnatural life, and nothing will ever be the same.
Under the Skin is my second book and the first of a planned apocalyptic-horror trilogy. It will be available from Permuted Press in 2014!
Here’s the opening of Under the Skin.
Under the Skin
by Jason Bovberg
Rachel lurches up from sleep, disoriented. Immediately she’s assaulted by a sharp pain above her left eye. She frowns with distaste, then yawns. Her mouth is dry and funky, and her sinuses feel assaulted. Her stomach is undergoing a prolonged lurch. She can’t even remember how or when she found her way to her bed. These are all vestiges of last night, although most of it is merely a blank spot in her memory.
“Dad?” she mutters, half-conscious. Did her dad call to her?
She finally opens her eyes into a squint. The early morning throbs through the curtains, along with some kind of distant keening. A siren? No, that’s not it. Dust particles shift in a dim, reddish beam, caught in a hot breeze that bloats the dark curtain. There’s a deep sound like retreating thunder coming from far away, fading into the distance—or maybe it’s just the soundtrack of her headache.
She knows she ought to apologize to her dad. Last night before jumping into Tony’s new Subaru, she’d said some things. Yelled some things, really. She tries to tamp down all that nonsense. She’s tired of feeling this way all the time. The inevitability of guilt. She’s not the one who—oh, forget it.
“What, Dad?” she tries again, pushing a little exasperation into her voice.
What time is it? she wonders. She twists toward the clock, bleary-eyed.
“Oh good lord,” she whispers, annoyed.
Then she holds her breath, listening. Besides the sounds from outside—the faraway whine and what seems to be the angry wailing of a cat a few doors down—there’s nothing. She reaches up and digs the sleep from her eyes. Her heart is beating rapidly now, waking her fully. Her mind feels clouded by the remnants of some kind of twitchy nightmare.
She sits up, her bare feet touching warm wooden floorboards.
She stands carefully, a little off-balance, and assesses the situation. Her clothes are in disarray across her floor, all of them inside out, hastily tossed. There’s a vague odor of smoke in the room, no doubt from the clothes. Somehow she managed to pull on her nightgown last night, but she doesn’t remember doing it. Her panties are still nested within her wadded-up jeans, and she finally finds her bra flung over a middle-school spelling bee trophy that her dad insisted she keep displayed on her dresser, even now, into her late teens. She shakes her head mildly at the sight.
Her mouth tastes foul. She doesn’t have any memory of brushing her teeth following her late night in Old Town. She doesn’t even recall Tony driving her home. She does remember the overriding intention to stay out later than her dad or Susanna might wait up for her.
She moves out of the room, into the hallway.
Something isn’t right.
The rest of the house lies in humid shadow, awaiting the day. She pads into the middle of the main room and looks about. The room is filled with shadowed corners still, seemingly full of silent riddles. What appears to be something crouched becomes, upon examination, a folded magazine. What at first seems the glint of a rolling eye becomes the lazy, reflected glint of silverware under the indistinct glow coming from the curtained front window. The stuff of night terrors, fading with the light of dawn.
God, her head hurts. She gently shakes herself away from these weird perceptions, not letting them bother her. She tells herself not to let another alcohol-hazed nightmare follow her into the day.
Then there’s a sound from the hallway, more than someone shifting in sleep. Some kind of crunching sound. Rachel frowns, staring over her shoulder down the dark hallway.
She turns and starts toward the bedroom her dad shares with Susanna. At the threshold, Rachel peeks through the half-open doorway and sees her stepmother asleep—sees her slack face, sees sunlight from the bedroom windows pinlighting her cheek with a faint, glowing redness. She also sees with a little shock that Susanna is naked under the sheets, her body barely concealed. With some envy, she notices the heft of the large left breast and the tanned expanse of thigh. Rachel has always reluctantly admitted that Susanna is a beautiful, well-rounded woman, but Jesus, what a fucking bitch.
Rachel turns away, slightly embarrassed about the unintended bedroom peek. Not that Susanna ever missed an opportunity to flaunt her body.
Anyway, her dad isn’t there. He must be at work, or out for a walk.
Rachel tries to shake herself further from her hangover. She steps through the hallway carefully, not wanting to wake Susanna, and when she reaches the kitchen she bounces a bit, enjoying the icy tingle of the kitchen’s tile floor, beginning to feel herself energized. She goes to the refrigerator. She avoids looking at the door shelves, which hold a portion of Susanna’s unending supply of red wines. Instead, Rachel roots around in the crisper drawer at the bottom of the fridge.
She brings a cold apple to the front room, plants herself in Susanna’s favorite rocking chair, and takes a bite, leaning her head back and trying to lose herself in the lazy movement of the chair. In the quiet of the big room, she breathes deeply around her mouthful of fruit, then closes her eyes, just chewing.
A peal of thunder shakes the house, jarring her.
“What the—” she says out loud, then lets loose a small adrenaline-spiked laugh. “Okay.” She remembers the dying thunder from earlier and understands why everything seems weird. Morning thunderstorms in Colorado are rare, but then again, not totally surprising. Anything’s possible with Colorado weather, her dad always says. Rachel’s mom said that, too.
As she continues to chew her apple, she lets herself go contemplative.
Rachel’s mother loved Colorado weather—the unpredictability of it all. It was one of the things that drew her to the mountainous state from the dreary, smoggy sameness of California a decade before. She used to like to sit in this room, too, before this chair was in the house, before anyone else was awake, and look out onto the new day through the big picture window, watching new snow blanketing the world or early summer heat making her roses recoil in their beds. Rachel’s mom appreciated solitude, loved simply relaxing here in silence before anyone else in the house stirred. Or even while everyone else was still at work or school. Rachel remembers occasionally wandering into the room from the garage to find her mom dozing in the purple light of sunset angling in from the foothills. Those fond memories too often merge with the more recent recollections of her resting in the traumatic aftermath of a chemotherapy session.
But Rachel understands the appreciation of solitude. She gets it. She’s an only child. She too likes when everything lies unruffled and calm like this, as if nothing in the world has yet awakened. She likes to watch the day come alive gradually around her, even likes the way her dad’s light snores—gone this morning—give a peaceful echo to the long, drowsy shadows.
She doesn’t have opportunities to do that like she used to. This morning is an oddity, but she’ll take what she can get.
She finishes her apple slowly.
Finally, she opens her eyes, lets loose a tiny sigh. She glances back again toward the bedroom.
Rachel’s mom has been dead for five years, and Rachel still can’t believe how comprehensively things have changed. She sometimes feels as if she missed out on the few wonderful years that, in normal circumstances, would surely have bridged her childhood and early adulthood. Those two years during which all her friends seemed to grow and thrive? Rachel saw that time flit by in a period of restlessness and quiet sorrow.
Damn it, why did every quiet moment in this house conjure thoughts like these?
Too often, and with no small amount of survivor guilt, Rachel recalls the days and weeks that followed her mother’s death, and the way she and her dad tried to cope with the gargantuan empty space in the house. The black hole in their lives. She still misses her mom terribly, but Rachel is proud of the way the two of them faced the loss together and came out stronger and closer than they were before.
Then her dad introduced her to Susanna, this energetic young woman he worked with. The first time Rachel met her was at his office on the south end of town, at a Christmas party, and she couldn’t help but notice with a tinge of jealous foreboding the playful look that passed between her father and this woman who couldn’t have been more than ten years Rachel’s senior. That goddamn party took place almost two and a half years ago now. And her father hasn’t been the same since.
Maybe Tony’s right, she thinks. Maybe I just miss my dad.
“Ugh,” Rachel says to the empty room.
At that moment, there’s another rumble of thunder, much farther away. Rachel listens to its soft growl, glad the morning storm is already moving away.
She’s still glancing in the direction of her stepmother, back there in the dark master bedroom, and there’s a weight of resigned melancholy in the glance. She’s all too conscious of the emotion, so she closes her eyes, pushes it away, and tries to enjoy the last of her solitude.
But something isn’t right.