by Jack Dowd
Alyssa bolted the door, undressed and pressed the power button. As a stream of hot water burst from the shower head, she kicked her clothes into the corner of the bathroom, placed her glasses beside the sink and ran her toes over the fabric of the mat. She hadn’t realised how much she had missed its texture or the sound of the steady patter of the water against the shower tray. It was strangely nostalgic after returning from university. She stepped under the water, closed the shower door and smiled as the warmth enveloped her like an embrace.
The power shower had been installed shortly before Dad’s death, when he had lost the ability to wash himself. Alyssa didn’t realise how much she missed its strength. The shower in her shared flat in Glasgow only provided a trickle of lukewarm water.
She rinsed the water through her hair and realised that this was her first moment of solitude since leaving Scotland. The train to King’s Cross, the Underground and the two buses home had been packed with tourists and commuters. Upon seeing her daughter home three weeks early from University, Mother had screamed at a decibel Alyssa hadn’t realised it was possible for a human to make. A bombardment of questions followed.
‘How did you get here?’
‘How much did the train ticket cost you?’
‘What happened to your eye?’
No-one on the trains or buses had given it a second glance but Mother had spotted it instantly.
‘Owen… hit me,’ Alyssa remembered saying and winced as her hand brushed across her eye.
She told her mother about their fight in the laboratory. She had knocked a beaker of their prototype compound over Owen’s notebook, melting it in the process. She hadn’t blamed Owen at first. Professor Madden had already arranged two interviews with scientific journals who were deeming their product, dubbed Recuperate, revolutionary. The paste would slow down the symptoms of skin cancer, allowing more time for treatment. Too late for Dad but it would affect thousands of others, if it passed the clinical trials.
Alyssa remembered trying to explain the importance of Recuperate to Mother while they unpacked.
‘Did you report it to the police? Do you have a crime reference number?’
‘They should kick him out of university.’
‘I knew he was insecure, I knew it. I could tell just by looking at him.’
When Owen had stayed with them last Christmas, he had been charming. Grandad had even joked of hearing wedding bells. Alyssa had, of course, heard the rumours about Owen in student accommodation. One girl said he trapped a stray cat in the accommodation’s stairwell just to watch it try to escape. Another had suggested he had broken his classmate’s arm on a night bus while yet another student had claimed he had slashed the tyres on a lecturer's car. Alyssa regretted her decision to ignore the stories as her gaze fell to her stomach, enlarged by a diet of comfort food.
Professor Madden had escalated the incident to the conduct panel. Owen had been permanently suspended from the university the following day. No-one had heard from him since.
Alyssa noticed that a veil of steam cloaked the shower door while the lens of her glasses on the far side of the room were coated in condensation. She picked up a bottle of body wash and poured the liquid onto a spare sponge.
Clearing their flat had been easier than expected. When she had opened the front door, armed with empty bags and empty boxes, Owen had been absent. It took her less than twenty minutes to pack her belongings and leave.
She picked up a miniature bottle of shampoo she had salvaged from her old flat. As she gave the bottle a squeeze the plastic lid shot off, ricocheting from the shower door. The sticker of rose petals and raindrops fluttered to her feet.
Drain must be clogged, Alyssa thought as she detected a strange odour that reminded her faintly of sulphur. She poured a small drop of the shampoo into her hand before running it through her hair.
With their final project destroyed and her lab partner missing, she knew that a first degree was now impossible. Would it be worth applying for Mitigating Circumstances? That would mean delaying graduation…
Something was burning.
Alyssa glanced at the shower controls. Although caked in limescale and near ten years old, they appeared normal.
She reached for the power button worried that when she pressed it, the controls would start emitting sparks. A scarlet knot of hair clung to the palm of her hand.
She stared at it, dimly aware that her fingers were tingling. The knot fell to the tray below, landing with a splash between her feet.
She ran her hands through her scalp, searching for the bald spot. More hair freed itself and fell down her back in clumps.
‘What the fuck?’
Pain exploded in her fingers as though they were being held over an open flame.
Alyssa screamed and punched the power button. The water ceased. Through the hairs that were now intertwined with her fingers, she saw that her hands had turned the same colour as a lobster.
She reached out for the door handle but a fresh wave of pain swept through her body, forcing her to double over. She stuck the crook of her elbow into the metal handle and pushed. The door rolled open as the handle, its base eroded, clattered across her feet.
‘Alyssa?’ Mother called. ‘What was that?’
Alyssa staggered onto the shower mat. She felt the shampoo cascaded down her shoulders and back while her fingers continued to throb and peel. She opened her mouth to reply but only succeeded in releasing another scream.
The image of Owen’s melted notebook flashed across her mind. She snatched at the towel on the radiator but it fell to the floor, somewhere Alyssa knew her pain threshold wouldn’t allow her to reach. She caught a glance of herself in the mirror. Water glistened across her bald scalp as shampoo suds clung to the tufts of hair that remained. Her skin was scarlet, as though she had been sunburnt. The shower tray now resembled a soggy carpet of hair.
‘Alyssa, what’s wrong?’
The pain and heat were spreading. She reached for the door bolt but her foot caught in the folds of her discarded shirt. As she fell, her knee colliding with the porcelain bowl of the toilet, she felt trails of shampoo run along her head, across her face and towards her eyes.
‘Alyssa, open the door!’
The vision in her left eye was extinguished in a stab of pain.
The bathroom door banged as Mother attempted to force it open but the bolt held.
The last thing Alyssa remembered was the heat.
Jack Dowd graduated from London South Bank University with a BA Hons in Creative Writing in 2015. After graduating he had several short stories published, including one story winning first place in the Metamorphose’s Science Fiction Short Story Competition, before he focused on his novel, Empty Nights, which he self published in 2018.
Jack writes micro fiction, flash fiction, short stories, novels and novellas while occasionally turning his hand to plays and screenplays. Although he writes in most genres he can generally be found penning thrillers, horrors and mysteries. Jack has participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) eight times and is currently working on his second novel, The White Wasteland.