Under My Skin

Lisa Unger

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Under My Skin, by internationally bestselling writer Lisa Unger, known for her thrilling standalone mysteries. In the following passage, a woman suffering from memory loss after the death of her husband believes she may have found a clue to his murder - in her dreams.

I’m sorry. I don’t remember at all.

The words burrow into my sleep, taking on urgency, growing louder, until the sound of my own frightened shout wakes me.

I bolt upright, breath labored, T-shirt soaked through with sweat. I’m in my own bed, the covers tossed to the floor. A weak Tuesday morning sun bleeds in through the blinds, shining on my clothes from last night in a messy tumble on the floor.

The details of the dream are already slippery. What kind of car? What club? It’s important to remember; I must dig into that place.

Coffee brews in the timed pot that’s set for six, its aroma wafting through the apartment. The city is awake with horns and distant sirens and the hum of traffic. Slowly, breath easing, these mundane details of wakefulness start to wipe away my urgency. The dream, the panic to remember, recede, slinking away with each passing second like a serpent into the tall grass of my wakefulness.

Sleep is the place where your mind organizes, where your subconscious resolves and expresses itself. In times of great stress, dreams can become like a whole other life, Dr. Nash said. A terrifying, disjointed life that I can’t understand.

I reach for my dream journal and start writing, trying to capture what I remember:

Morpheus, a nightclub?

Black-and-white-tile floors, kissing a faceless man?

He takes me somewhere in his car, a BMW maybe. Afraid. But relieved, too? Who was he? Where was he taking me? Why did I go with him?

Red dress?

Powerful desire. Jack. I thought he was Jack, but he wasn’t.

The impressions are disjointed, nonsense really in daylight. As I scribble, the sunlight brightens and begins to fill the room through the tall windows. Too bright. I must be late for work.

Finished writing, I flip back through to the earlier pages, looking to see if there’s any other dream like this one. Reading what I wrote late last night, before I took the pills, it’s the scrawl of a crazy person, loopy, jagged:

Jack, computer, looking at porn? Who is she?

Another sentence that I don’t even remember writing: Was he hiding something from me?

I stare at the black ink bleeding into the eggshell page. There’s a little stutter of fear, as if I discovered a stranger had been writing in my dream journal. But no, the handwriting is unmistakably mine.

There’s a little stutter of fear, as if I discovered a stranger had been writing in my dream journal. But no, the handwriting is unmistakably mine.

I start flipping back through earlier entries. One page is filled with a twisting black spiral. It begins at a single point in the middle of the paper, spins wider and wider until it fills the whole sheet. It’s inked in manically, scribbled at so hard that it leaks through to the page beneath. There’s a tiny black figure that seems to be falling and falling deep into the abyss.

No one tells you about the rage, I’d written. I could fall into my anger and disappear forever. How could he do this to me? How could he leave me like this? Who did this to him? To us? Why can’t they find my husband’s killer?

Again, that feeling—a stranger writing in my dream journal.

But no.

That rage, what a sucking black hole it is, devouring the universe. I remember that there was a terrible, brilliantly real dream about finding the man who took Jack from me. I chased him through the streets, finally gaining on him and taking him down in a lunge. I beat him endlessly, violently, with all my strength. It was so vivid I felt his bones crush beneath my knuckles, tasted his splattering blood on my mouth. It went on and on, my satisfaction only deepening. I confessed this tearfully to Dr. Nash.

Anger, in doses, can be healthy, Poppy, she said. It’s healthy to direct your rage toward your husband’s murderer, to not hold it in. Rage suppressed becomes despair, depression.

How can it be healthy to dream of killing someone, to imagine it so clearly? To—enjoy it?

There’s darkness in all of us, she said serenely. It’s part of life.

I shut the dream journal hard; I don’t want to go back to that place. That rage inside me; it’s frightening. I don’t want to know who I dreamed about last night, where I was. Maybe it’s better to let these things fade. After all, if you’re supposed to remember your dreams, if they mean something—why do they race away? Why do they never make any real sense?

The hot shower washes what’s left of it all away. I can barely cling to even one detail. But there’s a song moving through my head, something twangy and hypnotic.

I’ve seen that face before.

Images resurface unbidden as I head to the office—I flash on the man at the bar, the blue lights of the car interior. It’s an annoying, unsettling intrusion, these dreams so vivid, so disturbing. And I’m not rested at all; I’m as jumpy and nauseated as if I’d pulled an all-nighter.

I ask myself a question I might be asking too often: How many pills did I take last night? And: How much wine did I have?

Not enough, apparently. Not enough to achieve blankness.

Nervously aware of my surroundings, I scan my environment for the hooded man. Though the day is bright, I see shadows all around me, keep glancing around like a paranoiac. There’s a group of construction workers, all denim-clad, with hoodies pulled over their hard hats. One of them stares, makes a vulgar kissing noise with his mouth. I stride past him, don’t look back.

Finally, in the office, at my desk, I feel the wash of relief. It’s early still, at least an hour before anyone else comes in. I pick up the phone.

“Hey, there,” answers Layla. “You didn’t call me back last night.”

Her voice. It’s a lifeline. She’s so solid. So real.

“Did you call?” I ask, confused.

“Yeah,” she says. “Just wanted to check on you. I didn’t like how you looked when you left.”

Scrolling through the messages on my phone, I see her call and a text, left after eleven.

“Oh—sorry.” How did I miss that?

“Seriously. What’s going on?”

Layla is the first one to start worrying about me. She was the first to think that maybe something wasn’t right a day or two before my “nervous breakdown” or “psychotic break” or whatever we’re calling it these days. Dr. Nash just refers to it as my “break.” Think of it as a little vacation your psyche takes when it has too much to handle. It’s like a brownout, an overloading of circuits. Grief is a neurological event. And Layla was the one to bring me home.

I tell her about the dream, anyway the snippets I can almost remember.

She’s quiet for a moment too long. I think I’ve lost her.


“Poppy,” she says. “Maybe you should call Detective Grayson.”

I’m surprised that she would bring up the detective who has been in charge of Jack’s murder investigation. A murder investigation that has petered to almost nothing. It’s been almost a year since Jack was killed and every lead has gone cold. There are no suspects. No new information. But Grayson is still on the job, checking in regularly, always returning my calls to query about progress. I used to crave justice for Jack, for everything we lost. It used to gnaw at me, keep me up nights. But, with Dr. Nash’s help, I’ve let that idea go somewhat. What justice is there for this? No matter what price paid, the clock will not turn back. So this question sits like an undigested stone in my gut. Who killed Jack?

“Why? What does Grayson have to do with this?”

Another moment where she draws in and releases a sharp breath. I can hear the street noise so she’s probably leaning out the bathroom window with her cigarette so that the kids don’t smell it when they get home from school. She’s supposed to have quit; obviously, the nicotine gum isn’t cutting it. I’m not going to hassle her about it. Who am I to get on her case, pill popper that I’ve become?

“I was just thinking,” she says finally, carefully. “The days you can’t remember. Maybe what you dreamed last night. I mean, maybe that wasn’t a dream at all. Maybe it was a memory.”

“I was just thinking,” she says finally, carefully. “The days you can’t remember. Maybe what you dreamed last night. I mean, maybe that wasn’t a dream at all. Maybe it was a memory.”

Her words strike an odd chord, cause an unpleasant tingle on my skin. “Why would you say that?”

“Honey,” she says. A sharp exhale. “When I found you, you were wearing a red dress.”

Ben comes in singing. He has his headphones on, clearly doesn’t see me. He’s belting out Katy Perry, singing about how this is the part of him you’ll never ever take away from him. He reaches into my office to flip on the lights I’ve neglected to turn on and his eyes fall on me. He blushes and gives me a wide smile, takes a bow. I’d laugh if my body didn’t feel like one big nerve ending, sizzling with tension.

“Maybe—you’re remembering things,” says Layla when I stay silent.

“Dr. Nash said I probably wouldn’t, that likely those days are gone forever.”

It was two days after the funeral that I disappeared. Four days after that I woke up in a hospital, remembering nothing. Even the days before Jack’s murder and through the funeral are foggy and disjointed. Part of me thinks that it might be a blessing to forget the worst days of your life; I’m not sure I want them back. Dr. Nash has suggested as much, that my memories haven’t come back because I don’t want them.

I remember the day he was killed in ugly, jagged fragments, sitting in the police station, reeling at Detective Grayson’s million, gently asked questions. Was he having trouble at work? Did he have any enemies? Were there money troubles? Affairs? Were either of you unfaithful? Hours and hours of questions that I struggled to answer, grief-stricken and stunned, trapped in a tilting unreality. There were these long stretchy moments where I pleaded with the Universe to just let me wake up. This had to be a nightmare. Grayson’s grim face, the gray walls, the flickering fluorescent lights, all the stuff of horror movies and crime shows. This wasn’t my life. It couldn’t be. Where was Jack? Why couldn’t he make it all go away?

Finally, my mother showed up with our family attorney and they took me home. I remember stumbling into my apartment—our apartment, falling into the bed we shared. I could still smell him on the sheets. I remember wailing with grief, facedown in my mattress.

Take this, honey. My mom forced me to sitting, handed me one of her Valium tablets and a glass of water. I didn’t even hesitate before drinking it down. After a while, the blissful black curtain of sleep fell.

For a while, I know Detective Grayson suspected me. After all, I would inherit everything—the life insurance payout, the business, all our assets—when Jack died. But I think at some point he realized that for me it was all ash without my husband. Then he became my ally. If you remember anything, no matter how small, call me.

The case, it bothered him. Always. Still. Stranger crime is an anomaly. A beating death of a jogger—it grabbed headlines. The city parks are Manhattan’s backyard; people wanted answers and so did he. Jack was a big, strong guy, fast and street-smart. He’d traveled the world as a photojournalist, dived the Great Barrier Reef to find great whites, trekked the Inca Trail, embedded with soldiers in Afghanistan, attempted to summit Everest. It never, ever felt right that he’d die, a random victim, during his morning run. He had a phone and five dollars on him. A year later, his case is still unsolved.

“But maybe Dr. Nash is wrong?” suggests Layla. “Maybe it means something.”

Now it’s my turn to go silent.

“Let’s do it tonight,” Layla continues. “Work out, eat, talk it all through. In the meantime, call Dr. Nash and Detective Grayson.”

Layla, queen of plans, of to-do lists, of “pro” and “con” columns, of ideas to turn wrong things right. She corrals chaos into order, and heaven help the person who tries to stop her.

“Okay.” I release a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. “That’s a plan.”

I flash on that moment at the bar, that man, again. Who was he? Someone real? Someone I know?

“You’re okay, right?” asks Layla. “You’re like—solid?”

“Yeah,” I lie (again). “I’m okay.”


From UNDER MY SKIN by Lisa Unger. Used with the permission of the publisher, Park Row Books. Copyright © 2018 by Lisa Unger.

More Story
CrimeReads Brief: Week of October 21, 2018 The Boom in Boston Noir is 15 years old now and it's time we decide once and for all who did the worst Boston accent...

Support CrimeReads - Become a Member

CrimeReads needs your help. The mystery world is vast, and we need your support to cover it the way it deserves. With your contribution, you'll gain access to exclusive newsletters, editors' recommendations, early book giveaways, and our new "Well, Here's to Crime" tote bag.

Become a member for as low as $5/month