Authors: John Burks
Skin on My Skin
John A Burks
Copyright © 2014 John A Burks
All rights reserved.
Dreams of my father woke me long before the alarm did, just like they did every day.
I say dreams. Nightmares might be the better term, but even that’s a bad description. Nightmare implies something other than a simple retelling of a horrific memory. To me nightmares imply something paranormal, like the old monster in the closet I thought was coming to get me in those youthful years before the Preacher’s Plague rendered all other monsters into cuddly teddy bears. There was a real monster in our home, but instead of hiding in a closet or under my bed, he shared a bed with my mother.
I’ve had the dream night after night, year after year, fifteen years now. It’s the same dream, with very little deviation. I think it probably started right after the actual event; right after my father killed my mother. He said it was to save me, but I often wonder about that. And even if I wanted to accept my father’s account of his own heroism and sacrifice, how did that explain him trying to murder me years later?
The dream always starts the same way. Eight-year-old Jacky Watts - that’s me- is aggravated with his mother. The younger me is annoyed that he’s missing
Space Force Alpha
because his mother has the news on in the background. She’s not even listening to the newscaster prattle on about the Preacher’s Plague. She’s standing at the front door, crying and staring through the homemade containment barrier, waiting for my father to come home. I can’t even record the show about Earth’s stellar space heroes fighting off the alien hordes because mother has every news channel recording at once, taking up all the DVR slots. Like she’s ever going to watch them…I probably won’t even be able to download the show, what with the Internet acting so wonky with everything shutting down. At least the power was still on. It would get hot in dad’s homemade containment rooms otherwise.
I’ve listened to enough of the news, on enough of the channels, to know they aren’t saying anything different. The Preacher’s Plague is not jumping genders, blah, blah, blah. Nothing to worry about. Stay in your homes, stay off the streets, do not make contact with other humans. But if you have to have interaction, find someone of the other gender. Under no circumstances should males be in the vicinity of other males. If you need medical treatment, pay special attention to the gender specific signs at the emergency room. I’d seen enough news video to know what would happen to men if they got too close too each other since the Preacher released his plague. He’d made men allergic enough to each other to die in close proximity. But not just men were dying, despite what the news broadcasts were saying. But eight-year-old me doesn’t much care about the Preacher’s Plague or the terrorist known as the Preacher. Sure, it’s been weird living in dad’s homemade containment bubbles, but sometimes it’s sort of cool. I can imagine I’m with
Space Force Alpha
. It’s not like eight-year-old Jacky Watts needed a lot of physical contact with his father anyway. Dad hugs were icky and embarrassing and my friends laughed at me when dad, dropping me off at school, insisted on hugging me.
I missed my friends, but didn’t necessarily miss school. The principal insisted the teachers would keep up with assignments through the web and email, but I hadn’t seen anything from school in a couple of weeks, since way before the internet started going out. Maybe that had to do with the wonky Internet, or maybe, like mom said, they were just all dead. Mom was a hell of a pessimist.
I was mad, bordering on outright anger, but I couldn’t help but watch as they replayed the video of the riot outside the grocery store in Brooklyn. I’ve seen it a hundred times already, but the video of people’s bodies swelling, their skin blistering, their throats choking off from the swelling and their gasps for breath was hard to look away from. I’d seen lots of video of what happened to men who got too close to each other, but that scene in Brooklyn was the most dramatic. It was hard not to look away from the carnage, hard not to imagine the pain and gore. Mother, every time she stopped to watch it, wondered why the people would get so close to each other. Why did the men insist on congregating when the Plague made it a death sentence to do so?
“Once again,” the newscaster began, “the government insists that the Preacher’s Plague has not jumped genders. There is no call for alarm,” he said. The man looked frazzled. He had dark bags under his eyes and the makeup crew had obviously called in sick. “Screw it. You can see in the video that men and women are both being affected by the Preacher’s Plague. The soldiers in the broadcast room say we have to tell you it isn’t jumping genders, but it is. It’s fucking obvious. Human beings are now officially allergic to each other.
Deathly so, to the point your body is fucking explodes if you get too close to someone else. It’s the end, I guess. The human race is now about to be extinct.” Someone says something to the newscaster off stage. “I don’t really give a fuck. They have a right to know. People, the government goon in here is telling me that I can’t tell you this, but you’d have to be a fucking moron not to know. You can see it right there in the damn video. Oh, that fucking Preacher got his wish. Homosexuality is gone. But so are the rest of us.”
The camera drops, showing the garbage strewn newsroom floor. There’s a gunshot. The newscast suddenly cuts out, going to the emergency alert system logo. Mom, noticing the new quiet and thinking I changed the channel, puts it on another newscast. She either didn’t hear the gunshot or didn’t care.
“Stop changing the channel,” she ordered me through her sobbing. “I’m listening to the news.”
“I didn’t change the channel.”
“Your show doesn’t matter now. It’s the end. Just like the man said. We’re done.”
The dream always gets dark, at that point, like a movie doing a dramatic cut scene. Weird that it didn’t have a thundering soundtrack to go with it.
“He’s going to come home today,” my mother insisted, and it was, somehow, prophetic. She had said the same thing every day for weeks, and dad hadn’t come home yet. He’d left us prepared, told us to stay in the house, in the containment unit he’d built, and then gone back to work. I can fix this, I remember him saying. We have to fix this.
“Okay mom,” I said, trying to balance my annoyance with the concern I tried to hide. Her panic was rapidly becoming my panic.
“He has to. There isn’t anything else he can do. It’s all over with now. It was way bigger than he ever thought it would be,” she said, turning to look at me. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d really looked at me. Her eyes were glassy with fear and shock.
We hadn’t heard from dad in weeks, but it was okay. And though I’d never seen dad’s workplace, I knew he was out saving the world, just like the guys in
Space Force Alpha
. Captain Johnson and his crew might fight aliens with lasers, but dad fought the bad guys with a microscope and test tubes in a lab. Even if, at the tender young age of eight, I’d realized the implications of what my mother had said, I don’t know if I would have believed her. Or, at least, I wouldn’t have lost faith in my father. That didn’t come until much later. The CDC on television always looked so confident and I thought that confidence was because my father worked there. Who wouldn’t be confident around him? He was a super hero.
“Can I watch
Space Force Alpha
?” I asked, again, hopefully.
And again my mother said no. “Read a book.”
I didn’t want to read. I wanted to watch TV or, if nothing else, go outside. I’d never been the kid that wanted to play outside, but being cooped up in the house for weeks was driving me crazy. Mom wouldn’t stand for that either, though. I might come in contact with another boy or man and we’d both explode. Or something like that. I wasn’t sure exactly how the Preacher’s Plague worked.
“Can I go outside? I’ll stay in the yard and if someone comes near I’ll run back in the house.”
The question didn’t even rate an answer.
The new news commentator on the new channel droned on. He didn’t sound any different than the guy on the first channel. The authorities were still on the hunt for the Preacher, the man who’d released the Plague. All resources were being committed to find a cure. Dark days, stand united, blah, blah, blah. I wondered if
Space Force Alpha
was even on anymore. It seemed like the whole world was being drowned out by news of the Preacher’s Plague.
“I just don’t understand,” my mother whimpered.
“What mom?” I asked and then regretted it. I didn’t want to talk to her about this.
“Why do they keep getting together if they know it’s going to kill them? Why didn’t the gay people just stay apart? Why are all those men and women getting close to each other? They know the Plague is going to kill them if they do. Why do it?”
“I dunno, mom,” I said and, as an eight year old, I didn’t know. Really.
None of it made sense to me. I was eight. I should have been playing baseball or thinking about how icky girls were. I shouldn’t have been wondering why people were basically committing suicide by getting too close to each other.
“Oh my god,” my mother muttered. “There he is.”
“Your father. He’s home. That has to be him, right?”
Like I’ve said, I was only eight at the time, but I didn’t think dad coming home was a good thing. The Plague wasn’t cured. People were still dying. Didn’t he need to help with all that? Didn’t the CDC need him? I rushed to my mother’s side and wondered how she knew it was my father.
The man getting out of the little electric car looked like a clown getting out of a Volkswagen at the circus. He was wearing military grade bio-armor, the same stuff all the troops I’d seen on TV trying to stop the rioting were wearing. He was carrying an angry looking assault rifle and, for half a second, I thought he was a character out of
Space Force Alpha
. The armor was covered in brown stains and dented. It looked like my father had been in a fight, which was a weird thing to think about. My father didn’t fight. He was a scientist.
Mother grabbed my arm and stepped through the clear plastic onto the porch. My skin burned where her hand gripped my bare skin. It would be a long time later that I realized what that meant.
“Where have you been?” my mother demanded, as if she didn’t know. Her voice was laced with panic, and her thinking wasn’t entirely clear. She’d been that way for a while.
The suit sat and stared at us for a few moments and it was strange. At that point, I wasn’t even sure it was my father behind the armored visor. I couldn’t see anything in there. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the suit’s speakers boomed to life. “Helen, let go of his arm. It’s jumping; it’s spreading to women, between men and women. It’s everywhere. You’re going to hurt him.”
Dad’s voice, through the suit speaker, was dull and distant, like he was talking through a twenty-foot section of pipe. The fear and panic in his own voice didn’t translate too well.
I tried to pull away from my mother, suddenly afraid. In that second all the news which I’d half-heartedly listened began to sink in at one time. Right then, eight-year-old me knew exactly why the newscaster had been shot. My skin, under her palm, bubbled and burned. Eight-year-old me suddenly realized I was falling victim to the Preacher’s Plague.
“It’s not jumping,” my mother insisted. “The newsman said it’s still just between men. Men can’t touch men. That’s what you people wanted, right? You even said it wasn’t jumping. I thought it wasn’t going to hurt us. I thought we were okay?” She was nearly hysterical, crying the whole time she talked and I knew she didn’t believe it. She’s said as much earlier. She just wanted to hear my father tell her it was going to be all right, that they would fix it.
“Helen,” my father insisted, “no. It is jumping. You can see it in the videos they are showing on the news. They’re showing them without the government’s permission. And honestly, there isn’t much government left. They’ve all gone home to die with their families. If they aren’t dead already. It’s over. I… I failed. I can’t stop this. I can’t stop it from jumping between men and women. The good Lord knows I tried. Helen,” he began, sadly, “you have to let the boy go or you will both die. Look at his arm, Helen. You’re killing him. You have to get into your containment area. We have to wait this thing out. Maybe… maybe it will burn itself out eventually.”