ZAC HESTAND - SKIN
Static flickers across the screen of an ancient television set. An image emerges, and it’s Tom Fender and Tammy Ender, local morning newscasters. Tom has a salt and pepper mustache, brown suit, and a poor excuse for a toupee. Tammy face seems to be having a love affair with a plastic surgeon. A back alley one.
“For today’s top story, a major spill at the University Hospital. According to police, all occupants seem to have suffered serious injuries,” Tom said.
“That’s right, Tom,” Tammy said. “The University Hospital recently has been under investigation for rumors of obtaining black market substances. In high school sports, we turn to--”
Before we can learn the score of the underperforming baseball team, the image on screen goes black. This is caused by the viewer of this abbreviated news program. A large hand clutches a remote control at first, then throws it down on a sofa. This hand belongs to Grover Lowe. Grover is nearing 50, divorced, lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment, is the father of a 16-year-old goth who doesn’t speak to him, and hates his job (bank worker). He puts his large hand across his stomach, complains about weight that can’t go away, and continues to complain that there’s nothing to eat in the fridge. He lights a cigarette, walking out the front door.
Grover puts the key in the ignition, it sets the car in motion. He turns the dial (car was new in 1986) to find something to listen to. He stops at a news station, and the chief of police is making a statement.
“These black-market chemicals mutated to form a deadly new virus. The virus is officially being called SKIN,” he read. “Sped-up- Killing- Individuals- Non-stop. When injected with this substance, the subject coughed and...”
Grover changed the dial. He found a station playing hip hop music. He made a racially insensitive comment, and channel-surfed until he found a station to suit his tastes. A conspiracy-theory program discussing lizard people in the Oval Office. He stops at a traffic light. A homeless man starts to wash his window. Grover makes a face of disgust, and starts to honk his horn. He complains about local government and continues to honk.
At the bank, the day moves at a routine pace (slow, very slow). An old woman yelled at him for denying a loan, Grover yelled at a child for dropping a candy wrapper on the ground, and left his co-workers alone while he went out for coffee. This all happened before the 12 o’clock lunch break. When he got back, a co-worker called him out on his unprofessional conduct.
“Grover, people are waiting!” his co-worker said.
This co-worker is Tammy Hwang. Twenty-two years old, slim, glowing skin, and the unfortunate target of Grover’s frequent borderline workplace sexual harassment.
“Take it easy, honey. They can wait. Besides, it’s almost lunch,” he said. As she turned to apologize to a customer. Grover looked at her calves, licked his lips, and muttered “almost lunch” under his breath.
As twelve came around Grover closed his booth, and asked Tammy to lunch. She said no, and that she already brought food from home. Grover then suggested going out to dinner after work. She said she had plans. He mentioned that he would order take-out to have at his place. Champagne on ice waiting for them. When he said that magical creeper phrase, she walked away from him.
The bank is located in the parking lot of a shopping center. There are four eating establishments: a Chinese place, a franchise sandwich shop, a diner, and an Indian buffet joint. Grover only frequented the diner, unlimited coffee refills sold him on the place. He would eat alone, always alone. As he drank his coffee (filled with multiple packs of sugar), he would stare at young couples. Drool over the women, and make crude comments about the men. When he didn’t do that, he would unsuccessfully flirt with the server.
When five o’clock rolled around, the bank began to close up. Grover went to the manager and asked if he wanted to have a beer and pick up chicks. He said no, but they would another time. He said the same thing last week. Grover looks over at Tammy. She immediately cast her eyes downward, and briskly walked away. He rolls his eyes, and complains about women these days.
Inside a liquor store, there is an elderly Korean woman named Min-Young. She is about five foot two, petite, and wears conservative attire. Outside of her usual appearance, she wears a light blue surgical mask that completely covers the lower half of her face. She works on a newspaper crossword puzzle behind the cash register, and listens to a small radio on the counter. It is tuned in to a news broadcast.
“At the moment, masks will help with preventing the spread of--”, the voice on the radio said, but it is cut short by the loud noise of a customer, Grover.
“Yo lady, you have any Kentucky bourbon?” Grover asks.
Min-Young lowers the volume of the radio to better hear what he said.
“Ken-what?” she asked.
“Ken-tuck-ee Bur-bon,” he said. “What’s wrong, can’t speak English, lady?”
She points to the back, and goes back to the crossword puzzle. As she works, she adjusts the volume on the radio. The mask announcement ended, and now it is just playing an advertisement for a car dealership.
Grover found his Kentucky bourbon, and approaches the counter to pay. As he reaches for his wallet, the entrance door swung open. A man, tall and deathly pale, enters. His attire, and odor, suggests homelessness. He tightly grips his stomach. His face is covered in scabs.
“Hey, you go,” Min-Young said. “Bad for business.”
The homeless man inhales and exhales with great difficulty. The commercials end on the radio. Grover gives Min-Young his credit card. The homeless man begins to sweat profusely. The news report is back on the air. She puts the bourbon in a paper bag, and jesters for the man to get out of the store.
“Someone must really need that confidence juice,” Grover said. “Look pal, I might have a couple of bucks---”
“Coughing is an easy way to spread---”, the voice on the radio said.
“I say go, or I call police. They shoot you,” Min-Young said.
“Lady, calm down,” Grover said. He reaches in his pocket. “Here’s three bucks, go buy a can of--”
Before he could complete his thought, the homeless man began coughing. Not a closemouthed cough, not on his coat sleeve, but with a wide-open mouth containing excessive spittle. Grover could almost see those particles exit from that man’s mouth, and land on his cheek. Grover gave the man a shove, knocking him to the ground.
“You better not have TB, you junkie scum!” he said. “Cover your fucking mouth!”
As this is going on, the woman started to call the police on her cell phone. The homeless man began to have a seizure. His eyes rolled to the back of his head. Not wanting anymore of this action, Grover wiped his face and runs out the door.
He continues to wipe the saliva from his cheeks. He gets in the car, driving out of the parking lot. The radio is switched on, another news report.
“It’s horrible what we found. Everybody in the lab, they’re dead. Their bodies--”, said the voice on the radio. Before the voice could finish, Grover slammed on his brakes and honked his horn.
“Watch where you’re going!” he said.
In the crosswalk, a man wearing a surgical mask banged his fist on the hood of the car. Shouting and doing the “up-yours” gesture. The shouting and the banging continue a few more times, until Grover decided to get out of the car to confront the man. As soon as he and Grover met eye-to-eye, the man froze.
“You’re not wearing a mask,” the man said.
Grover looked confused. He continued his approach.
“Why the hell would I be wearing a mask? It ain’t Halloween. Don’t touch my car,” Grover said.
“Haven’t you been watching the news?”
“Buddy, scram. You’re holding up traffic---”
Before he could finish his thought, his throat began to tighten. The words he wanted to express came at a standstill. Mouth opening again to complete what he started, a dry cough came out. The other man’s eyes widen. More cars began to approach, honking their horns. As the horns continued to honk, Grover’s coughs grew bigger and louder. The man put his hands up to the edge of his mask, tightening it.
“Get away! Get away from me!” he said. He ran away and shouted to no one in particular about a mask-less cougher on the road.
Grover beat his fist against his chest, and went back into his car. He drove away from that street. The coughs continued.
As he opened the front door of his apartment, he plopped down on the sofa. Breathing in and out. Kentucky bourbon never sounded so good. Ignoring the need of a glass, he drank straight from the bottle. The liquid burning his throat. Coughing continued. This time getting louder and more frequent. He drank more bourbon.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” he said. “Bourbon ought to kill it.”
The drinking continued, and now he felt a light buzz. The coughing decreased, but now his neck began to itch. He checked his watch, and the six o’clock local news would start soon. He switched on the television. Through the series of advertisements, he continued to scratch his neck. Both the back and front.
The news report finally began. Tom Fender and Tammy Ender were in their usual spots. After their introductions, they began showing a video of the liquor store Grover had just frequented.
“SKIN has claimed another victim today,” Tom said. “The images you are about to see may be unsettling to some viewers.”
Grover leaned forward and could not believe his eyes. The same store clerk who sold the bourbon is there, crying. Her mask capturing her tears. She couldn’t barely speak to the camera. The camera panned to the ground. The man that coughed on Grover lays flat on the floor. Covered in vomit. His face looks as though acid spilled over it.
“He vomited on the ground,” Min-Young said. “His skin...his skin--”, she could not finish, and began to cry more.
“What is SKIN?” Grover said.
He continued to drink. The itching intensified. He scratched the front and the back of his neck some more. Until he felt something thick on the tips of his fingers. The right hand is behind his neck, the smallest movement making him wince. The left hand remained in the front of his neck. He moved his right hand quickly, and screamed. Something wet dripped down to his collar. The fingernails on the right hand had pieces of skin and hair caught in them. Blood oozing past the knuckles toward the wrist.
Grover ran to the bathroom sink to wash it off. He didn’t want to move his left hand from the neck just yet. Feeling the back of his collar, it is blood. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom didn’t have bandages, so a wet towel will have to do. As he exits the bathroom, his toe hits the edge of the door. Not thinking, his left hand moves down to grab the toe. As the hand moves, a thin layer of skin from the front of the neck slowly peels away like a banana. Blood begins to squirt out, shooting as a mini water pistol found in the summer months.
The blood goes from squirting to cascading down his chest. He curls up in a ball, and has a coughing fit. He removes his already blood-soaked shirt to wrap around the neck. The heavy liquor plus the hot room due to a busted AC unit causes heavy perspiration. The blood leisurely creeps down his fat, hairy belly.
Grover grabs the edge of the frame, careful to not do any sudden moves with his neck. The idea of looking in a mirror is low on the list of priorities.
“What’s wrong with me?” he said.
He holds his shirt tightly against his neck. Walking back to living area, Grover notices something unusual, yet familiar, on the television. The news continues coverage on this mysterious SKIN situation, but when the camera shows a reporter, or someone interviewed, they’re wearing a mask. The same surgical masks that the store clerk and the pedestrian he almost hit wore. Text across the screen read: Masks can help reduce the risk of catching SKIN.
“Why didn’t the media say this sooner?” he said. “Where is my cell?”
He continues to cough. The cough proved strong enough to induce vomiting. Vomit went all down his pant leg, and the carpet. There is blood in the vomit, and lumps that appear to be teeth. He sticks a couple fingers inside his mouth. Sure enough, Grover is missing a few teeth. He finds his phone on the coffee table.
As he dialed 911, the coughing made his knees wobbly. He sat down on the floor, blood and sweat continued to flow.
“911, what’s your emergency,” the operator said.
“I need an..(cough)...an...(cough)..ambulance now,” he said.
“Sir...sir...what’s the emergency?” the operator said.
Grover continued to cough. The amount of force in the cough pushed the upper half of his body forward. Causing his left shoulder to dislocate. His scream would wake the dead. The phone falls to the ground.
“SKIN! I have (cough) SKIN!” he said.
“Sir...sir...what is your address?” the operator said.
The pain in the dislocated shoulder intensifies. The excessive coughing and shouting made his throat dry. He could barely articulate a response to the operator. His stomach now began to itch. He scratches with his right hand. The skin on his right arm began to grow ruddier. Wart-like lumps started to form.
Lack of continuous dialogue with the operator caused the line to disconnect. Grover stares at the ceiling. His skin continued to grow hotter, warts and boils formed beyond the right arm to other areas of his body. Multiple warts on his chest popped, puss-like ooze exploded like a geyser ripping through his flesh.
“Make it stop! Make it (cough, cough) sta---,” he said.
The ceiling and the surrounding furniture below went fuzzy. Liquid went over Grover’s eyes. Coughing and sobs continued until the blurred vision turned to the black of night.
The door burst open, and three figures enter. Their faces covered with face shields, googles, and masks. They wear white radiation suits, rubber gloves, and carry mechanical devices used to scan Grover’s apartment.
“There’s the body,” one figure said.
Grover’s eyes have burst like grapes. Leaving nothing but two deep, hollow holes. His once round face is now skeletal with hunks of flesh hanging on. A large puddle of blood that surrounded his body is long dry. The first figure uses his device to scan this lump of a former human being.
“How long do you figure?” the second figure said.
“The apartment manager said loud screams occurred a week prior. Then silence. He stopped by the following week after receiving calls from the deceased’s place of employment. That’s when he found the body,” the first figure said.
“The manager’s been put in quarantine, right?” the third figure said.
The first figure nodded. The figure then signaled for the second figure to go outside of the apartment. The second figure came back with a flamethrower.
“Torch the body, then spray the hallway with disinfectant. That whole area is contaminated with SKIN. Everyone on this floor, and apartment, need to be quarantined,” the first figure said.
The second figure began to burn the body. The third figure turned on the television, then went to spray outside the apartment. Tom Fender and Tammy Ender are on.
“SKIN has now spread to the next county,” Tammy said. “Gov. Stephen Romero has issued a statewide lockdown for the remainder of the month, as reports of infections raise to--”
The additional report is cut off by the screams of the second figure.
“Shit! Shit! There’s a hole in my suit! There’s---”
The sudden surprise of the hole made the second figure lose control of the flamethrower. The third figure stepped back in to see what all the commotion is about. The flames shot toward the third figure. Before the third figure could react, contact with the flames and the container of disinfectant caused the third figure’s whole body to catch on fire and spread throughout the apartment and out into the hallway.