Sheila Armstrong

Scratch

It is not one in a thousand, it is simply one plucked from a thousand; nondescript, stale. No different to the others surrounding it; and yet, an offering from their midst. The cover is bright – unbearably so – slashes of colour that spin and intersect in vicious angles, then gallop off into their own personal futures. It hurts the eye to follow, leave them be, leave them be. Instead, feel the weight in your hands. The title is illegible, in stark, dark crosshatching, hidden behind the joyous loops and swirls of the blues and greens and yellows. They seek to bury it, drown it in the saccharine sweetness of colour, make it lose its way along the spectrum and dissolve into its component photons. Odd, you think, but no matter. No one ever remembers the title, until they come across it in an innocuous paragraph, subtly-not-so-subtly unemphasised.

The dedication page is blank. No one to thank, it seems. But the peer reviews are good, adjectives sliding into their quotation marks like obedient dogs, slinking home late at night to gaze up at you beatifically. You do not notice their bloodstained gums.

The first page does not disturb, simple random strings of words; amino acids creating endless chains of DNA. The sentences are brief and to the point, the metaphors two dimensional and the phrasing acceptably bland. Nothing remarkable, nothing strange, nothing strange. But a pulsing behind the eyes begins. Barely noticeable, surely not worth throwing two ether-drops into a glass to sizzle and melt. An itch, even. Pages turn; verso follows recto, ambling along in a horizontal flutter of licked fingers.

By the end of chapter one, the words have passed straight through and left but a faint, tacky, sweet-smelling residue. No matter at all. But the itch has become a scratch. And so you scratch. Gently, at first. Surely your clumsy fingers can draw out the poison, but no. Harder.

Ah. To continue, to the topic at hand: For you are not one to leave a book unfinished, oh no. They are only words, and words are your friend, and friends are your words.

You fly through chapters two, three, four, five, skimming over the paragraphs, for that vague sense of unease you began with has become not-so-vague at all. Rather, it is coming into focus – the lens adjusts as it takes root. Your gorge rises. Just your imagination, quite sure, quite sure. But swallowing will not clear this tightness, nor this itch. You scratch at your eyes again, but the pain swells twofold for every fingernail you claw across your raw and tearless brow.

Ah! Halfway through.

A break, your body cries, take a break! Leave this behind. Close the covers, leave no bookmark. Leave it under the bed to gather dust with the rest, with the words that were not remarkable enough to endure. Put it away, away, away.

Yet you persevere. Why not? A book can cause no stir, no ripple in the wider scheme of things. Yet you do ripple. Waves of blood wash up from your feet to come to rest on the top of your brain, joining the rest and adding to the weight that has suddenly appeared, building and swelling behind your eyes. Turn the page. Scratch.

The next few chapters are hard, the pressure builds and builds, but you must finish. Scratch. You enlist your index finger to help you wade through the words, clawing at each sentence; a frustrated toddler again. The pages bleed; your fingers scythe through the words and leave violated phrases in their wake, torn open, useless now, coated in a slick-thin layer of synapses that have flayed themselves in panic from your brain. Scratch.

The pressure builds, you must hurry. You feel bloated, like a cyst too deep to burst. Pages fly, you fly. Words rebound off your retinas and slingshot around your head, but instead of losing momentum, they gain it, speeding up, and everything is frantic, frantic, no time to pause, to consider, just scratch, and go, and scratch, and hurl your eyeballs from left to right so fast they hurt, and read, and scratch –

Ah. Relief. The final chapter is here, and it is but a page long. You gaze at the block of type as a whole, unwilling to begin dissecting the words just yet; revelling in the moment of success. But your eyes ache still. Scratch them, scratch, feel the filmy softness of the cornea bend. Again, but glare through your fingers at the page, because the end, the end –

Something gives. Something ruptures, releasing the steam and screams that had been building up, and up, since the very first sentence. Darkness. There is a whistling in your ears. How distracting. But the itch has passed. The words have vanished too, washed off the page by a sea of blood. Vexsome, vexsome. So close to the end, to the who-knows-what sort of revelations.

But perhaps the darkness is better. It’s nice there.

Nice, so nice, so light and heavy and firm and heavy and light, so nice, nice.

 

 

 

Sheila Armstrong grew up in Sligo and now lives in Dublin city centre. She is 25 years old and works as a freelance editor. Sha has been shortlisted for several awards and has been published in various journals. She is currently writing her first collection of short stories.