The rain had barely relented. Jon looked out the sixth story window again, away from his TV flickering a save screen. Between the raindrops streaking the window, Jon could still see the guy that lived in front of his apartment building. The man’s name was Ted, and he seemed like a genuinely good person. Jon had, on multiple occasions, seen Ted hold the door open for people, return dropped wallets, and he once even saw him perform the Heimlich on a drunk from the bar around the corner. They’d never had a full conversation, but Ted always smiled and exchanged niceties when they passed. Recognizing a good person who had been reduced to living on the street was an intrusive thought most days, one that was easily quelled, but not tonight.
Jon had been anxiously glancing out since dusk, unable to concentrate on his game. He’d hoped Ted would make his way to a shelter, that he’d choose to help himself, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen. The past couple of weeks had been rough on Jon. Drowning in the wake of a messy breakup, he didn’t have much of a friend group left to lean on. He’d moved here with his fiance, they’d met people together, and that was that. His misdeeds made the separation surgical. If not for work he’d be a recluse at this point. Seeing Ted down there, alone and isolated in the storm, felt like looking in the mirror.
“Thank you, Jon.”
“No need to thank me, Ted. It’ll put my mind at ease knowing you’re not out there in this.”
“Haha, this isn’t nothing. I’ll take a cold rain over snow and ice any day.”
Ted pulled off his hood, revealing a mousy face with a dark, soaked mop. A peculiar bald spot took up a significant portion of the skin behind his right ear until he abruptly swept his hair over to cover it. They both rode the elevator in silence. This was the first time Jon had actually seen Ted without a hat or a hood or the cover of night. He’d always obscured himself when he was outdoors, but not now. In spite of observing Ted as kind and harmless, seeing him in this light gave Jon an uneasy feeling. Ted’s skin was weathered, but different from the tanned, hardened homeless men that lined 34th and Bellvue. Ted’s skin was worse for wear, sure, but it had a translucent quality that almost made him shimmer in the fluorescents.
“I’m just over this way,” Jon said to Ted as they stepped out of the elevator. Ted’s eyes wandered, looking in the opposite direction. “Room 6024, just down the hall over here,” Jon said as he paused to watch Ted starting the other way. Without turning, Ted said “I actually have a family friend that lives on this floor. I didn’t think they were home this weekend, but now I’m wondering if I had my dates mixed up. Mind if I check?”
Ted walked down a few doors and knocked. He waited a few seconds and then turned the handle, walking in and leaving the door open behind him. Jon went over to look, but it was too dark.
The fluorescent glow from the hall bounced around the entryway, and an image of a cluttered room slowly appeared as Jon’s eyes adjusted. The room seemed to be a hoarders paradise, although there wasn’t enough detail in the dark for Jon to tell what exactly the apartment was filled with.
“Hey, Ted, I’m going to head back to my place. Just knock if you need anything.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to stay here tonight, but could you give me a hand reaching something? I think there are some extra blankets I can use. They won’t mind.”
“I have some at my place, it’s all good.”
”Don’t be so nice, I don’t want to dirty up your stuff. It’ll just take a second.”
Jon sighed. Moving through the doorway into the dark living room, he turned towards the light at the end of a hallway. The stench of the apartment was unpleasant but bearable, like a nursing home. Coming into the light of the bedroom doorway, avoiding the scraps of trash on the ground, Jon saw Ted hunched over a chest. Around him, reaching to the ceiling in spots, were stacks of leather. Jon glanced at the pile closest to him and gagged. The hides were ridged husks of dozens, maybe hundreds, of people, flayed and cleansed of any and all trace of violence.
Turning back towards Ted, Jon’s eyes snapped to the knife. His limbs went stiff and he couldn’t move. Ted turned, sweeping his hair out of his face, and started to cut a shallow incision around his bald spot. Using both of his hands he slowly peeled off his face, like a molting snake. Splitting his skin at the shoulders, Ted sluffed off the translucent husk until there was only a silhouette of raw muscle standing in the middle of the room.
“Jon, let me come clean. I actually rent this apartment. I have for a while now. I don’t live here, though. A home weighs on a person. Don’t get me wrong, so does living on the street, big time, but there’s something heavy about being cooped up. It gets unbearable. Once you’ve left enough skins in a room, even if you get rid of them, the smell never really goes. Instead of trying to deal with it I started using the space as storage. Anyway, you’re right, I’ll find some covers at your place. And don’t worry, I don’t judge. The ones you brought home can’t smell worse than mine.”
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