It is not a lie to say that Chester does not interact well with women. There is something about them he feels he doesn’t understand. He never knows when they’re going to be nice or cruel to them. He has no conception of whether what he says to them will be well-received, ignored, or reviled. Chester blames his lack of a romantic partner on this lack of understanding.
Chester is confused by most women, though none confuse him as much as his mother, for whom has a mix of feelings that one could only label paradoxical. He loves her, but he resents her as well. He respects her, but he is ashamed of her. He is grateful for all that she does for him, but he blames her for the way his life has turned out.
Is it weakness or strength that has kept his mother living in his father’s house all these years? Strength, for the way she has endured his treatment of her; strength, for the way she took the brunt of his maltreatment, so that Chester suffered little of it directly; strength, for the way she has maintained her love of Chester and of herself despite all his father has done.
Yet Chester thinks of her as weak, because she hasn’t left that man behind her. He thinks of her as weak, because instead of taking Chester away from him and moving him somewhere safe, she remained, because she loves Chester’s father still and she loves Chester even more. Chester thinks sometimes that she hardly has a will of her own. She relies on his father to provide for her, and she lets him tell her what she can and can’t do.
Chester’s father was never what one would call receptive to his mother’s love, and so she gave most of it to Chester as he grew. She loved him, supported him, provided everything she could for him, and, as he sees it, coddled him. She suffocated him and stifled him with her love. As he sees it, she gave him too much and let him do too little for himself, and thus here he is, alone, with a small, pathetic house in a terrible neighborhood marked as his only life accomplishment.
Chester is driving home. He’s coming down off of the high that was the anger and frustration he felt at the customer service desk, and now he feels like a melting puddle of regret and self-deprecation. Plus, his arm still itches. No matter how much he scratches it, the feeling won’t go away. Of course, he’s scratching it through the sleeve of his hooded sweatshirt, which is never very satisfying. He considers pulling over to look at it and get in a good scratch, but by the time he thinks about it he’s already pulling into his driveway.
There is only one way Chester prefers to deal with things, which is not to think about them. He will, at times, take action, as he did when he returned the pens, but he has to be in a position where he feels like he is forced to do something. Most of the time, if he can distract himself from something that bothers him, or from something that seems challenging or painful, he’ll do so for as long as he possibly can.
Chester has his phone in his hand as he steps through his front door, but he doesn’t want to make the call he promised himself he would. He has the pens, too, but he doesn’t even want to go into the spare bedroom. He doesn’t want to be faced with the ruined desk, because he no longer feels brave enough to argue for a replacement. The woman at the customer service desk defeated his desire for it.
He doesn’t want to waste money buying a new desk. He doesn’t have extra money left to spend, to be honest, so getting the desk replaced was his only real chance at having one. Then again, he’s not sure where the desire came from to have a desk in the first place. He’s not a person who’s given to sitting down and writing. He can just use his kitchen table for that, in the future.
Chester tosses his phone on the couch, where, for a time, he can stop thinking about it. He drops the pens there, too, for a moment, as he rushes toward the bathroom to look at his arm, because it seems like as soon as he entered the door, the itching intensified. Then he doubles back, grabbing them even as he strips off his sweatshirt, and tosses them into the spare bedroom onto the desk. If this set, too, is faulty, he doesn’t want to ruin another piece of furniture.
His eyes flick back to the desk as he passes by the door, because for a moment he swears that the stain has darkened further, and that it has eaten its way even deeper into the surface of the desk. Chester shakes his head, ignoring those thoughts for now in the face of the terrible itching of his arm.
What he sees in the bathroom mirror, once his arm is beared in the harsh white light of the lights that line the mirror’s top, sets his heart to staccato, high-tempo beat. His tattoo hasn’t just darkened or blurred, it has spread out across his upper arm. It’s no longer an image but a harsh black mottling, lanced through now with the red left in the wake of his scraping fingernails.
Chester is breathing hard. That and his heartbeat are the only sounds he’s adding to his own home. The rest are just the regular sounds of his neighborhood, continuing on in complete ignorance of Chester’s life. To the west, someone is watching a television show with a laugh track, the volume turned up high enough that Chester can hear the fake laughter, though he can’t make out the dialogue. To the north-east someone is playing rap music with a thumping bass, which must be shaking their floorboards, it’s turned up so loud. Somewhere, there are children playing. And somewhere, again, a woman is crying.
The ink has run off of Chester’s bottle of toothpaste. It’s not just his tattoo that has dissolved. It’s not just the print on his shampoo bottle in the shower. There’s a black puddle on his sink next to the red bottle. Chester likes cinnamon toothpaste. The label, which was once blue and red and white, is now stained grey where any ink yet clings to it.
Chester’s breath comes with surprising difficulty. He retreats to his bedroom, where he looks at the boxes in which some of his things are still stored. There was print on them, once, too: they are old shipping boxes from things he or his parents had delivered. It has run, though not to the floor. The cardboard has taken it in, weakening and wrinkling from the now-wet ink.
For some reason, the next thought on Chester’s mind is concern for his figurines. He rushes from the bedroom toward his collection, imagining the little plastic people and animals washed bone-white (though he doesn’t know what color they are beneath their paint, sitting and dissolving in a pool of ink that might as well be their blood.
The figurines, however, are unharmed. Chester tries to find solace in this, but there is no solace to be had in his pounding heart. They are painted, not inked. Like the color of the walls of his house, and like the dye of his clothes, they are unaffected by whatever is wrong here.
And there is definitely something wrong. Chester feels it as a sudden truth, not just because of the odd clarity brought about by his fear, and not just because none of what’s happening makes logical sense, but because he has just realized something else. The woman is still crying, but her voice comes not from outside the walls of his home, but inside. Her sobs echo across the hardwood floor and Chester’s blank walls, emanating from the spare bedroom.
With each step held back by trepidation, Chester advances toward the door. His house is so small, he can’t imagine someone could be in it without him noticing. The spare bedroom is tiny. Surely he would have noticed her when he passed by.
But no, as he steps into the bedroom, he sees why he didn’t notice a presence: it is empty, as it always seemed to be. The crying is coming from below his feet where the ink stain has darkened so completely that it is no longer a stain, but a hole in the hardwood floor into a blackness beneath it.
The crawlspace. Chester knows, somewhere in the back of his mind, that his home has a crawlspace beneath it. It was mentioned as part of the inspection. The only access to it is a small metal door on the back side of the house, locked with a bolt to which Chester was not provided a key. This didn’t bother him, because he had no intention, at the time, of ever going down there.
The sound of sobbing pushes up through the hole in the floor. She is down there, in the darkness; whoever the woman is who is crying. Chesters eyes can’t pierce the darkness of the crawlspace. He can’t see her. He can hardly believe there’s a real person there, and not just a recording or something the previous owner made to play a joke on him.
The hole in the floor, though, is real — a hole burned through wood by leaking pen ink. It makes no sense. Feeling outside of himself, like he is not within his own body but is instead an invisible force guiding it through the motions like a man playing with a video game character, Chester retrieves his phone from the living room. He turns on the flashlight function and, swallowing, crouches next to the hole in the floor.
The light pierces through the darkness, illuminating motes of dusk, raw dirt, and, as Chester angles it and brings his head yet closer to the ground, the bleak white bones of a human skeleton, over which a woman hunches, restrained by the low quarters. She wears a tattered black dress, but her skin is a ghastly white, blanched further by the unflattering light of Chester’s phone.
Chester stares, slack-jawed, as she turns toward him. Her hands, once covering her faces, unfold. He sees first that they are stained black, in stark contrast to her skin. Then he sees the source of their stain: the tears that pour from her eyes are as black as the ink that leaked from his pens. The only color on her face is her eyes, which are a deep, rich blue that perfectly mirrors Chester’s own.
The phone drops from Chester’s hand as his muscles go weak from what he thinks his fear. He swears as the phone drops into the crawlspace, reaching after it. The light shines upward, and in silhouette, his hand looks as black as the ink. But — no, no. He recoils, pulling his hand out of the hole, and in the light of the room he sees that it is black.
The ink of his tattoo has reached outward, spreading down all the way to his fingertips. His entire arm has been taken over, fingers going numb, only just twitching as he tries to pull them into a fist. He scrapes at his upper arm with his other hand, pulling his undershirt back, to see that the ink is flowing beneath his skin, visible, like a stain being absorbed into a paper towel.
Chester’s fingers begin to drip. There is not ink exuding itself from his pores, though this is what it resembles, at first. His fingers themselves are dripping, liquifying before his eyes, starting with the tips and advancing upward. Chester screams.
Beneath his shirt the ink has spread across his chest, seeking one part of him above all others: his heart. She wants his heart. He feels her desire as palpably as his own, though she has spoken no words. She is silent. Her sobbing has ceased. Her face is just beneath the hole in the floor, her ink-stained hand reaching upward toward toward his chest, crooked into the shaped of a claw.
Chester tries to rise, but before he can get his feet under him, her fingers press up against his shirt. The ink stains it immediately. Cold lances through him. Chester’s heart stops. He falls forward onto the hole, and his vision goes as black as the ink.