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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Spotlight On... Under My Skin by Zoe Markham

It gives me great pleasure to introduce my fellow Carina UK author, Zoe Markham, on my blog today to celebrate the release of her debut YA novel, Under My Skin, so make yourself comfy and check out the prologue and first chapter...

**insert creepy music**


Inside we are all monsters…
Chloe was once a normal girl. Until the night of the car crash that nearly claimed her life. Now Chloe’s mother is dead, her father is a shell of the man he used to be and the secrets that had so carefully kept their family together are falling apart.
A new start is all Chloe and her father can hope for, but when you think you’re no longer human how can you ever start pretending?
A contemporary reworking of a British horror classic, Under My Skin follows seventeen-year-old Chloe into an isolated world of darkness and pain, as she struggles to understand what it really means to be alive.
Set against the familiar backdrop of everyday, normal teenage worries, Chloe's world has become anything but...

Prologue

Risen


You know that split second when you wake up and the line between your nightmares and reality is blurred? The darkness and the icy burst of fear in my stomach tell me it’s a dream; but the damp, decaying smell and the unfamiliar sound that I can’t quite put my finger on feel horribly real. I don’t move, and I try not to make a sound. I even hold my breath, and just listen. There’s a faint beeping noise close by, only it’s distorted somehow and I can’t focus on it. As I’m trying, I notice something else behind it, a harsh sort of rasping, rising and falling in the background. The more I try to isolate the sounds, the harder they get to hold on to. Maybe if I just lie still, and try not to panic, I’ll slip into a different part of my dream; a nicer part, one involving Tom Hiddleston reading to me in bed or... only I don’t know because I can’t lie still, I’m starting to shiver with the cold. The beeping sound is changing – it’s getting louder and faster now; uneven, frantic almost. I shiver harder, and then the rasping stops and the beeping switches down to just one, low, continuous tone and it’s panic one, Chloe nil. I shoot bolt upright in what doesn’t feel anything like my bed, and force my eyes open, except… I don’t. They don’t. I don’t move. My brain’s screaming: Up, UP! Get up! But nothing happens. I can’t move.

It’s the worst kind of nightmare, the kind where you’re trapped inside your own head, only I don’t think any nightmare could feel this real, for this long. I should’ve woken up screaming by now. And someone should be here: Mum, turning the light on, telling me it’s all right; or Dad, shouting What’s all the noise about. Only there’s no one.

And then the beeping stops, and I think maybe it’s over.

In the sudden, brief silence that follows I hear Dad’s voice after all, and he is shouting, and the relief is almost as intense as the panic was, but it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. I don’t know if it’s Chlo, or No, and then after a few seconds of him saying it over and over I’m not even sure it’s really him at all. I don’t know what to feel any more, until light explodes around me, light a million miles away from the warm yellow glow of my bedside lamp, and I get my answer: Pain. I feel pain. It’s everywhere, all at once, and I don’t know where I end and it begins. I don’t know how I’m going to feel anything but pain ever again. The light’s coming from inside me, ripping me into a thousand burning pieces and I don’t know who or what I am any more, only that I don’t want to be.

My mind must have been the last thing to shatter. A tiny of piece of it comes back with the same, steady beeping. The voice is there too – closer, clearer this time: a voice as torn and as broken as what used to be me. It’s Dad, but it’s not Dad.  

‘I can’t do this,’ it says. ‘I can’t do this on my own.’

Chapter One

Moving 


I’ve been lying on the backseat of the car, hidden under a heavy blanket, for over an hour now – and all he’s worried about is the kettle. I’m not entirely convinced he’s got his priorities right.

I can’t feel my legs and I’m shaking with cold even though it’s the middle of summer and roasting outside. For anyone else it would be unbearably hot in here; a death sentence even. For me? Well, sore subject. Don’t think about it. Don’t.

So, apparently I was supposed to pack the kettle and all the tea stuff in an easy-to-get-at box. To be honest, given the fact that we had to move under the cover of darkness, like thieves in the night, I really think he should give me a break. It’s not like any of this is my fault. Not directly, at least. Anyway, how does he think it feels, having to hide in here like some kind of dangerous freak that people need protecting from? Don’t, don’t think about it. Be angry, take the mick, do anything but think about it.

‘It’s for your own safety, Chlo,’ and ‘I’m doing all of this for you, Chlo,’ is all I’ve heard all morning – but it doesn’t feel like it’s ‘all for me’ at the moment.

‘The one thing I ask you to do,’ he hisses, as he slams the door.

‘Wait!’ I hiss back. ‘Dad! How much longer are they going to –’

Too late. He’s gone.

I genuinely don’t see why it’s such a problem. If I was a removal man, well, woman, I’d bring a flask if I was that bothered. And what the hell is taking them so long?

I roll over onto my stomach to try and get more comfortable, but fail.

‘It was not the “one thing” you asked me to do,’ I mutter angrily. Anger is good. Anger means you don’t have to think.

You need to pack up your room, Chloe … You can help with the rest of the house, Chloe … Most of this stuff up in the loft is yours, Chloe. It’s been endless. There was hardly any stuff in the basement flat, packing up there took less than an hour. Our old house, though, that was a different story. Seventeen years’ worth of memories flooded out as soon as he opened the front door. I could still smell Mum’s perfume when we went inside. You’d think he might have realised how much something like that would hurt. It’s only been six months. I still cry every day; still have the nightmare every night. The sodding kettle was the last thing on my mind.

He didn’t even want me to go with him at first, ‘If anyone sees you, Chloe…’ Yeah, it would have been Game Over for both of us. But I wanted to say goodbye to the place. I had to practically beg him. In the end, he took me when it was dark; when all our old neighbours, who we never knew anyway, were fast asleep and dreaming sweetly. Government agents too, I imagine, if they even sleep (they never sound human when he talks about them.) I sat in the shell of our old living room, where everything felt damp and musty from being empty for so long and nothing like the cosy, family space it used to be. And I thought of all the nights me and Mum had sat on the sofa under a blanket, armed to the teeth with Pringles and Coke, watching vampire flicks. The cheesier and sillier the better. Mum even liked the ones that sparkled.

He never thought about that, did he? He actually expected me to be thinking about tea bags. Bloody men.

It’s another half hour before the lorry starts up and I finally hear it roll away down the drive. I can hardly pull myself up from the seat, I’m so cold, and Dad has to help me out of the car like I’m a toddler, not a teenager, dragging my blanket along behind me. Both my legs are numb, and walking is agony. I catch sight of my reflection in the window as I stagger into the cottage, and get a painful reminder of just why I had to stay out of sight.

I look … well, let’s face it … I look like some kind of dangerous freak that people need protecting from.

Don’t. Don’t think.

I look away fast, but not fast enough. The image of the dangerous, unthinkable stranger in the window stays with me.

Dad doesn’t say anything, he just goes straight through to the big fireplace in the living room and starts artfully arranging logs, like he knows what he’s doing; like we’re the kind of people who’re comfortable with large open fires and not the sort who regularly deal with crappy economy seven night storage heaters.

I just hope he gets it going quickly. I’m freezing.

There’s a wide, expensive looking rug right in front of the fireplace, and I awkwardly kneel down on it as I try to wrap the blanket back around me. There are boxes piled high to the side of me, and I send one of them flying as I swing my arm around. Dad flies off the handle. Again.

‘Chloe! Can you try to be careful – Oh, Christ,’ he bellows, fumbling with the firelighters before petulantly throwing the whole packet into the fireplace. He storms out of the room and starts noisily clattering around with boxes somewhere else.

And I thought it was supposed to be us teenagers who were the stroppy ones?

I don’t say anything, there’s no point, he’s not exactly in a listening mood right now. I shuffle forward and grab the matches from where they’ve fallen on the rug, and with a shaking hand I set light to the crumpled newspaper sitting temptingly underneath the greasy pile of firelighters. A bright, dancing inferno forms in front of me as they quickly catch, and I feel the intensity of the heat slowly starting to come through. I close my eyes and bask in the warmth, like some kind of freakishly oversized, domesticated lizard.

When I can finally feel my extremities again, and when I think Dad might have had enough time to calm down, I part company with the blanket and shuffle down the hallway to look for him. I find my way through into the kitchen, taking two more boxes down with me en route. I’m wearing two XL hoodies which seriously bulk me out, and still limping hard on my left leg; it’s a wonder I don’t take a load more out for good measure. I wait for fresh shouting, but when none comes I shove the fallen boxes to one side with my good foot, and stumble further into the room.

There’s no sign of Dad, but the back door’s wide open and I slam it shut against the unwelcome coolness of the air. ‘It’s warmer out than in!’ he’ll say when he sees it. Well, not to me it isn’t.

There are at least a million boxes stacked up in here, and it looks like I’m on my own. I suppose I’m going to have to get used to that. I sigh, and aim a boot at one of them, which doesn’t help. I’m wearing my classic black, eight-hole DMs. My ‘shit kickers’ Tom used to call them, Watch out, Chlo’s got her shit kickers on! I’m not good for kicking much of anything any more, I don’t have the balance. I still like wearing them though. I suppose they remind me of how I used to be.

I miss Tom so much. That seems to be all I do these days, miss people. Oh and cry; I do a lot of crying.

I have a quick look around to try and distract myself, and end up thinking how much Mum would’ve loved this room. This is what she always dreamed of: a big, detached cottage out in the country, far away from all the noise and hassle of London. She would’ve been so excited, even though it’s just a rental. Dad would never have considered renting when she was alive, ‘dead money’ he always called it. I bet he wouldn’t call it that now. It’s a bit too close to home.

Mum would’ve kept the kettle and the mugs and everything out too. She probably would’ve even made a little picnic for everyone – sandwiches, sausage rolls and crisps and what have you. Everyone would’ve been laughing and joking and drinking tea. No one would’ve been shouting, or swearing. Or crying.

I rub my eyes with my sleeve, furiously trying not to dissolve into tears and then wincing as I get a painful reminder that I’ve got my new contact lenses in. I can’t stand the things; the cringe factor of actually putting something on my eyes like that totally freaks me out, which is pretty ridiculous considering everything that’s happened. That’s me though: ridiculous. I’m part tragedy, part freak show, and my whole situation is just too unbelievable for words.

Be angry. Take the piss. Don’t think.

I make a half-hearted effort to focus on the unpacking, but it feels pointless. We’re only going to be here for a couple of months, and I’m not really sure why we’re even bothering.

If Tom was here, he’d be legging it out back to the wood Dad told me about, the one at the end of the garden. He’d scope out the best spots for camp fires, like we were ten-year-olds; or he’d be up in the attic Dad mentioned, going crazy over the view and trying to climb out of the skylight to take a selfie with all the sprawling fields in the background. We’d have a box-unpacking race, and whoever finished last would have to order the pizza. Then we’d eat our way through mountains of it, burning the boxes in the fireplace as we went, and I could catch up on six months’ worth of school gossip in one glorious all-nighter.

But I’m never going to see Tom again.

Come to think of it, I’m probably never going to eat pizza again either. So it’s a pretty pointless line of thought, all things considered.

I pick at a thick line of packing tape on the biggest box, and try to guess what Dad might have done with the scissors.

*

I lose myself in slowly emptying the boxes until early afternoon. I don’t have a watch, and I haven’t unpacked the clock yet, but I’m going by the noises emanating from my stomach. I can’t see anything of outside because Dad’s pulled all the blinds and drawn all the curtains, and I daren’t touch them. We’ve got the fire, the heating, and the lights on, all in the middle of the day in the middle of the summer. He’ll have a fit when he gets the bills. Or, I suppose he won’t, not any more.

‘You need to keep out of sight at all times, Chlo.’ ‘Don’t draw attention to yourself, Chlo.’ Like there’s any way I’d actually go out of my way to draw attention to myself, looking like this. To be honest, I’ll be quite happy if no one pays me any attention ever again.

I unbox our battered old microwave and struggle to haul it over to the countertop. I’m out of breath when I drop it down; I definitely need to work on strengthening my muscles. I’m still so feeble, almost embarrassingly so, if today’s anything to go by. Dad says in an ideal world I should join a gym, do a proper induction and work out a tailored fitness plan with some skinny, Lycra-clad dictator, but that’s never going to happen. I mean, he won’t even let me out of the cottage. But even if he would, there’s no way I could face the thought of being somewhere like that – a room filled with noisy machines, loud music and sweaty people – it’s my idea of hell. I wouldn’t even have gone before this all happened – back when I was a normal (ish), confident, cheery soul who pretty much wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. A lifetime ago, it feels like. Anyway, I’m really not equipped to sweat heavily in public any more; it plays absolute havoc with my skin. I’d terrify all the hordes of toned souls clean out of the building. It’s a pitiful thought, really, but it does kind of make me smile at the same time. Teenage zombie sends yummy mummies flying.

When Dad finally reappears with armfuls of logs for the fire, he’s still muttering on about the kettle.

I keep my head down and start to get things semi-organised in the kitchen, and when I limp back through it looks like he’s already pretty much got the living room sorted. The empty cardboard boxes are neatly folded and stacked, presumably ready for when we leave. And I realise I’m going to be in trouble because I just kicked in all the ones from the kitchen and chucked them by the back door. I’m tired, and I ache, and I really don’t care any more. If it’s that big a deal then I don’t get why we’re unpacking in the first place.

My arms are feeling almost as heavy as my legs now, and I slump down onto the new sofa. The fire’s blazing, and I lie back as I watch Dad plug the TV in and monkey about with the settings.

I want to close my eyes for a bit, but I don’t want to fall asleep with my lenses in, and I daren’t ask him if I can take them out just yet. He’ll do the resigned parental sigh, and then tell me I need to get used to them, and I’ll ‘never get used to them if I don’t wear them.’ So I look around the room instead, and try to understand why he’s rented a place this big just for the two of us. I know money isn’t a problem now, not after his ‘keep quiet or else’ pay-out from the government, but the cottage is immense. There are no neighbours for a mile or so in any direction, there’s an actual wood at the end of the back garden, which may or may not contain a Magic Faraway Tree, and out front there are two double garages (ideal for our one car), and an epic driveway, which is basically half a mile of twisty private dirt track leading up to the cottage. All it needs is a moat, and we’ve got our very own castle.

It’s mad that it’s actually ours; until Dad finds out what he needs to know.

If I’d been younger, if Mum had been with us, if our lives hadn’t somehow turned into a surreal, waking nightmare, this place would’ve been the most amazing thing ever; like actually waking up in the middle of an Enid Blyton novel. Even as a cynical, broken teenager I’m still half expecting Dad to bump into Silky and Moonface when he takes the bins out. It’s not home though, for all its storybook qualities. I don’t think anywhere can ever really be home again.

Dad heads upstairs, and I know I should be helping him, but the heat in here is delicious and I can’t make myself move. I stare hard at the flames, trying to find patterns, images, anything that I can lose myself in. It’s like one of those 3D magic pictures, I stare until my eyes water but I don’t see a thing except orange. My eyes were pretty ruined by what happened. I can see a lot better with Dad’s drops, and my contacts in, they’re way better than the clunky glasses he got me, but it’s never going to be like it was before. Nothing’s ever going to be like it was before.

Muffled swearing drifts down from somewhere above, and footsteps thunder down the stairs before Dad bursts into the room waving two mugs and a box of tea bags at me.

‘In the box marked ‘Bathroom’! Honestly, Chlo!’

Well, I don’t know what he expected, to be honest. I’m not exactly organised at the best of times, and it hasn’t been the best of times for a long time.

‘They both have sinks in,’ I tell him. ‘I wasn’t that far off. Give me a break.’

That earns me raised eyebrows and a pointed look. I suppose I’ve been on a break for a while now. At least he’s not shouting at me. That’ll be the thought of imminent tea working its magic.

‘How many boxes are left in the kitchen?’ he asks.

I shrug, and slowly, painfully unfold myself from the sofa to follow him through. He starts rummaging through the impressive layers of mess that I’ve heaped onto the kitchen table. He’s going to whine at me any minute now about – yep – here we go …

‘Oh Chloe, how hard is it to collapse the boxes and stack them? This lot are useless now.’ He starts flinging the crushed boxes over his shoulder like some kind of deranged terrier. ‘They’ll have to go out for the recycling. I need this all cleared by the morning. I’m going to have to leave early until I can figure out the traffic, and the best way in, and I don’t want to be tripping over all this lot in the dark.’

I want to make a comment about the wicked sorcery of electric lights, but I stop myself just in time.

‘Come on then,’ he sighs. ‘Pull your finger out Chlo and let’s get this lot cleared between us. The sooner it’s done, the sooner we can settle down and have a rest.’

He sighs as he starts straightening out all the crumpled newspaper that I’ve flung about. Like they won’t recycle it unless it’s in mint condition. Why does he do that?

This has all got to be crazy for him too, I know that. But it’s no picnic for me, and this was all his choice when it comes down to it. His fault – although I’d never say that; not to his face anyway. He’d say it wasn’t a choice at all, and that any parent would’ve done the same in his shoes. I don’t know about that. It’s not something your average parent would think of. Thank god. All this time together, and I can easily have our conversations in my head now. We barely used to speak, before.

We’re both throwing stuff into drawers, and getting in each other’s way, and the silence outside of my head starts to feel oppressive. Dad cracks first.

‘Just… finish up in here as best you can, will you. It’s almost done.’ he snaps, rubbing red-rimmed eyes heavily underlined with dark shadows. I feel bad, noticing for the first time just how tired he really is. It was a long drive down, and we left before it was even light. He’s got to be running on fumes now.

‘I’m going to go up and put your bed together,’ he says, heading for the door, but then he turns back to look at me. I suppose I must look pretty rough too, even more so than usual, because his voice softens as he says, ‘Once I’ve got that done, I’ll find us the nearest Chinese and order in a massive takeaway, ok?’

I’ve been meaning to ask ever since he first told me about the cottage, but I kept forgetting and it looks like I’ve run out of time now, so I just blurt it out and hope for the best. ‘Can I have the attic room?’

He sighs, and I know I’ve already lost. ‘Chloe, it’s just an empty shell up there. There’s no storage space, or heating even, and you need the en suite. I had the removal men put all your things in the master bedroom. You’ll be much better off in there. And it’s the nicest room in the house.’

I sigh back.

‘I’m not saying you can’t go up there, but you’re going to struggle with that ladder, and you need to be warm.’ He rubs his eyes again. ‘We’ve got those fan heaters you could use up there, but I haven’t unpacked them yet and god only knows where they are. I picked you the room that’ll be easiest on you.’

He’s trying, I know he is. And I’m trying too, mostly. He’s risked everything for me, and I know I need to meet him halfway, but it’s hard sometimes. And I can’t help thinking that if he’d been like this before – this caring, protective figure who’s always around, instead of the work-obsessed, distant parent who never came home – none of this would ever have happened in the first place. It’s all his faul– Don’t, don’t think.

He crosses the room and pulls me into a bear hug, and I can’t think of a thing to say.

‘Can we just try and make the best of it?’ he asks. ‘As soon as I get settled in at the hospital I’ll be working on the vaccine every spare minute I can find. It could only take a few weeks, Chlo, if I can just catch a lucky break. As soon as I can get you some long-term supplies made up, we can think about getting out of the country and really starting over. We just need to get through this bit first, and keep our heads while we’re at it. I know it’s not going to be easy, but we’re so close, Chlo. We’re almost there.’

He goes to kiss my forehead but I flinch and pull back. I’ve been by the fire with both my thick hoodies on, and I’m so self-conscious like this. I don’t feel like I’ve been sweating, and he always says there isn’t any smell, but… when I think about what I am… I mean, there must be. You never think about… them… being fragrant. I can’t bear the thought of it. He gives me a sad smile and squeezes my shoulder before heading off up the stairs.

I work hard at sorting out the last of the kitchen things, and there, right inside the very last box at the bottom of the pile, is the kettle. If kitchen implements could talk I swear this one would be laughing at me. As I pull it out, I spot the UHT milk tucked in neatly underneath it.

I get the kettle on at last, hoping that tea will maybe go some way towards an apology for how whiny and useless I’ve been today. I wrestle the last of the cardboard and newspaper over to the back door while it brews, and then head slowly and awkwardly upstairs with a full mug in each hand. I don’t know where anything is up here yet, but I follow the swearing to the room where Dad’s attacking a bed frame with a screwdriver, and park his mug on the windowsill before flopping onto the mattress lying on the floor with mine. I take slow sips, and try to get my breath back. I’m so unfit now. I’ve done way more today than I have since it happened, and I’m really struggling now. It makes me tired just watching Dad. He doesn’t stop until my bed is bed-shaped once more, and then he drains his mug in one go, and sighs in appreciation.

‘Oh, god, that’s better,’ he says, and I can actually see him starting to relax right in front of me. As if someone’s released a valve somewhere, and he can breathe again. I wish tea could do that for me.

‘Up you get then,’ he tells me, and as he hauls my mattress up onto the frame he catches sight of the longing look I give it. ‘Go on then,’ he says kindly. ‘Why don’t you lie down and have a nap, while I try and find somewhere we can get ourselves an enormous takeaway. I think we deserve it.’

He pulls a contact lens case from his pocket and hands it to me, and I fire him a grateful smile in return. I couldn’t remember to put the kettle in the right box, but he somehow remembers to keep everything I could ever need close to hand at all times.

He pulls my duvet up over me, and I’m asleep before he’s even left the room.

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ISBN: 9781474031974
Release date: 31st March 2015


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