Visible: A Short Story

Still soaking wet from the shower, James sat at the dining room table. The wooden handle of the large kitchen knife was in his right hand, the blade of the knife over his heart. He took a long drink from a dark bottle on the table, the only alcohol left in the house. After a long deep breath, he eased the knife into his skin, screaming in pain as he traced the memory on his chest with the blade.


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Somewhere in human evolution, before recorded history, there was a random mutation. Ever since the random genetic event, around the age of sixteen, memories would begin to appear on human skin like vivid tattoos. It didn’t matter how dark or light the person’s skin, the memories showed as vivid and bright on any skin tone. In fact, by the time a person reached middle age, their skin was mostly a bright tapestry of memories, making it nearly impossible to distinguish what skin color a person was born with.

The images could stain the skin like snapshots, first-person views of a moment frozen in time or they could appear more dreamlike in their representation of the event. No one really knew why they appeared or how your body chose which moments to permanently press onto itself. Maybe it was the memories that carried the most emotional weight or even simpler than that, it was the memories you thought of most frequently. Sometimes they were almost immediate, sometimes it would be days, weeks or even months after the actual event when the memory would appear. That too was a point of much debate.

James was seventeen when his first memory appeared. It was a large one too, extending from his left wrist up to the inside of his elbow. The memory was a swirling dark purple and black night sky speckled with gold stars. The night sky was broken by the outline of his old yellow jeep parked on top of dark green grass. Inside the Jeep, the two occupants were almost glowing as they leaned into each other, only a sliver of space between the driver and the fiery red hair of the passenger. Both were looking up at the stars, a solitary arm pointing above the open top of the jeep towards a gold-tailed shooting star streaking across the blackness.

After the first one appeared others slowly made their way onto James’ body. Just a few weeks after graduation, a small memory appeared on his left leg. It was a sea of black robes against a blue sky dotted with graduation caps. Another, after he turned twenty-one, on his right leg. The same fiery red hair from his first memory, this time standing in the midst of colorful slot machines, hands outstretched in an invitation to grasp them. Even though the memory was a little blurry and completely sideways, it was still one of James’ favorites.

Not all of the memories were pleasant, though. A month after his grandfather died, a memory of him appeared on James’ right calf. The bald, hollow face looked nothing like the boisterous man James had loved. Every time James caught a glimpse of it, he could feel his throat tighten a bit.

peter-bucks-685005-unsplashIt was late August, the year he turned twenty-three when one of his most beautiful memories appeared. The image extended over the upper half of his right rib cage. It was different than all of his other memories. There was no background, no context for the image. It was as if everything else had disappeared from the memory and only the single, solitary figure of a woman remained. Flowing red hair braided on either side into a crown and laced with jasmine framed porcelain skin that nearly matched her white dress, bunched at the bottom into large concentric ovals. Every once in a while, when he saw it in the mirror, he could still smell the jasmine.

James was thirty-one when the memory appeared that led him to the dining room table and the knife. The memory was his largest so far, it started on his left shoulder and spread over most of his chest, covering his heart. It was upside down. Black leather, white skin, and red hair, all covered in dark, thick red blood. A grey seatbelt pressed tightly across a soft yellow shirt. Blue eyes staring lifelessly ahead with too-large pupils. James was in the shower when he first noticed the memory. After three hours lying beneath the cold patter of the shower, he was able to drag himself to the kitchen. He found the knife in the sink, caked with weeks old white frosting.

Still soaking wet from the shower, James sat at the dining room table. The wooden handle of the large kitchen knife was in his right hand, the blade of the knife over his heart. He took a long drink from a dark bottle on the table, the only alcohol left in the house. After a long deep breath, he eased the knife into his skin, screaming in pain as he traced the memory on his chest with the blade.

The blade sliced through his multi-colored skin easily enough. He was only a few inches across the memory when a hand reached from behind him, grabbed the knife from his hand and slammed it onto the table. He looked at the knife confused, the white icing now soaked in red blood. He hadn’t heard the footsteps, he hadn’t even heard the door open. Before he could turn, arms wrapped around him and fiery red hair fell over his body, covering the memory on his chest and soaking up blood from his open wound.

stephanie-mccabe-65991-unsplashJames stared at the arms wrapped around him. The arms he knew better than his own, arms that reached to him from his favorite memory, arms he hadn’t seen in weeks. He looked at the pale, freckled arms full of vivid memories and noticed something new. On the right arm was a new memory, one he had never seen before. A bright, colorful memory of red and blue balloons tied to their dining room table rising above mounds of brightly wrapped presents. On the table was a white cake with colorful sprinkles and a large red candle in the middle, shaped like the number five. James’ heart nearly stopped when he saw the face staring wide-eyed from behind the cake. Unlike his newest memory, the red hair and yellow shirt bore no blood stains, the blue eyes flickered with life and young rosy cheeks pursed to blow out the number-five-shaped candle.

James didn’t move. He sat taking in deep breaths of her. Even if this moment never showed on his skin, it was a memory he would need. One he would replay in his mind for years to come. A memory that may fade with time but never fully disappear.