A short tale.
On the way home from the supermarket, a rather tall man with shaggy hair and dark eyes sat beside me on the bus. His plain suit gave little away other than he was not one for buying clothes too often, something I think we can all be guilty of. His age? Fifty, perhaps, but he had one of those faces you think might have been aged by decisions others are often more fortunate not to have made. All in all, entirely typical, except that as he sat next to me, his head darted about as if looking for someone; looking for someone who was looking for him. And he was scratching his right hand a little too vigorously. As I looked closer, I saw on the back of this hand a dark red mark. It looked like a puncture wound but with something still in it. The skin surrounding the injury was peeling off in thick, curling strands like wood shavings. I couldn’t help but lean away from him.
When he stopped searching the bus, he turned my way and told me, of all things, that he had been living in Ikea for a year. And just that day – that very morning, in fact – he had decided to leave. He couldn’t have stayed another night, he said. Not if he wanted to live.
“Although,” he added. “It might already be too late for that.”
It had all started so well for him, apparently. He would steal himself away, minutes before closing time, by ducking under a patterned throw or hiding inside a wardrobe like a magician’s assistant; one eye peeping out the gap until security walked their final rounds. For food, he would take a small picnic from the café or shop and it eat on the cool concrete of the warehouse floor, encircled by the dark auditorium of cardboard boxes and the flat pack furniture they contained. Cold hotdogs and dime bars were his sustenance. And even the jars of pickled fish he eventually learned to enjoy. He smacked his lips and the noise sent a wave of disgust through my body. It’s why the Swedish live so long, that fish, he claimed. As if to tell me some terrible secret, he leaned in closer, far closer than I wanted him, but revealed nothing other than that he used to change the times on the display clocks nightly. No one noticed, he said, and laughed until the laughs turned to coughs. He saw his only mistake as not learning the language, because when he would take to his bed – a different one every night – he had nothing to read.
“All the books on the shelves are in Swedish, you see.”
I didn’t believe that he had been living in Ikea, of course, but there was a charm to the concept of that life. Imagine carrying your secret through the store during the day. You could watch people pass the space you hid your toiletries and the moveable panel in the wall you hung out your handwashing behind. On that bus, the strange idea of going to sleep on Ikean beds appealed much more than sleeping in my own.
Shuffling my shopping bags as I got ready to leave, for we were nearly at my stop, I thought I would entertain his fantasy and ask him why he left his home in Ikea that morning, why he felt it was dangerous to stay. He grabbed my arm with the speed of a pouncing cat and I nearly jumped out of my skin. He stopped me standing with this grip from the hand he had been scratching the whole time. The wounded, peeling hand.
“They moved in,” he said. “I could feel their presence, sense their creeping shadows shifting to their wicked dance, always just a step beyond the reach of the light.”
“Who moved in?” I asked, pulling my arm from his grasp, repulsed but intrigued.
“Not a who,” he said. “A what. Not a somebody, but a something.”
I told him I didn’t understand and that I had to leave, but trying to stand he grabbed my arm again.
“It came with the last delivery. In the boxes, in all the boxes, in every piece of furniture. They cut down the wrong forest, you see, the dark forest with the crooked, spiralling trees, bent and arched like twisted spines from the evil they sucked up through their long, vile roots. Roots that went all the way down to where death settles, down into the stratum of sorrow, where all that is good was long gone, filtered and discarded on its long journey downwards. And now this evil, this forest, has been cut down and fractured. Chipped, shredded, and spread out among endless MDF boards that make up those furniture packs. Doled out like a minced up old cow whose meat weaves its way into a thousand cheap burgers, those wood fibres, possessed by death and revenge, are on their way to new homes. Countless homes. The forest spoke to me, told me everything in whispers from the dark. That forest had a spirit, you see, the worst kind. And now it will be everywhere.”
I looked back at the hand he held me with before shaking myself free. I saw now that in his wound there was a splinter, a wooden splinter, and the peeling skin wasn’t only like wood shavings, it was wood shavings, coming off him as if a chisel had been dragged over his flesh. His skin was imbued with a different softness from mine, a softness like living wood.
I lurched away, nearly stumbling down the stairs while struggling to keep hold of my shopping bags. I ran from the bus and all the way home. Needless to say, I have never looked at my bedside cabinet in quite the same way again.