Thanks to the narrator and all others involved for another great production of one of my stories!
“It’s salty,” little Tommy said, cupping some of the water in the palm of his hand.
“Of course it is son,” I chuckled. “You know the ocean’s salty.”
“Too salty!” He exclaimed, and flung the offending liquid onto the sand. I came over and knelt down, leaving my paperback on the beach chair.
“Daddy! Ouchie! It burns!” I could see tears forming in his eyes.
“It’s okay, son.” I took his little hand and felt the wetness of the ocean water on my fingers. It was warm, and tingled. The tingling increased and the warmth turned to a heat. He was right, it did burn…
Tommy began to cry.
And then, from down the beach, I heard a scream.
“OH MY GOD!!!”
I stood and squinted through the bright sun reflecting off the sand. The scream was joined by others from all around me and I could feel the terror of everyone on the beach becoming one rising wave of panic.
I saw a young girl run in with the surf, screaming, her tanned skin melting over her bikini. A fat man in a speedo ran in the water and fell. When his arms came up they were bone to the elbow, with great flaps of dissolving skin hanging like cloth. A young man pulled his tiny daughter in by the arms, dragging behind her the stumps that had been her legs.
I watched them come in, running, thrashing, falling, all of their skin melting from their horrified faces and revealing the white bone beneath.
Tommy was crying. From high above, the sun beat down on the beautiful white sand of the beach.
“My ear hurts,” my roommate said, when he got back from Peru.
He’d gone on a three week trip for an adventure, eating the local food, wearing shirts made from Alpaca wool, and finally bushwhacking through the dense jungle of the Amazon the last week.
“That’s pretty normal,” I said, “You did just get off a plane.”
But the pain in his ear didn’t go away with the passing days, it only got worse.
“This is killing me man,” he said a couple days later. “I think I’ve come down with some kind of Peruvian ear disease or something.”
I told him he probably just had an infection, and to go see a doctor.
“I don’t trust doctors,” he said. “But it hurts real bad. Tomorrow I’ll go, it’s too late today.”
And he went to bed.
I heard him calling out in the night in pain, and wondered if I should offer to drive him to Emergency – but then the sounds of his suffering subsided, and I fell asleep.
The next morning he wasn’t in the kitchen having a cup of herbal tea like he normally did. I entered his room, concerned. He still lay in bed, turned on his side.
“Hey man, are you alright?” I reached out and shook his shoulder.
I recoiled in horror, as millions of tiny black spiders erupted from his ear and covered his dead body. They ravenously devoured it, their first meal, the one in which their eggs were laid back in the darkness of the Amazonian jungle.
It was after my week in Mexico that the first one arrived.
I came back home to San Fran with the family to find a postcard in our mailbox, identical to the one I’d purchased at the hotel gift shop in Playa del Carmen. I was a little unsettled, but what could I do? The postcard was blank, with only our mailing address and a postmark from its destination. I didn’t tell my wife. I thought I was losing my mind.
Later I went to Portland on business. When the week was out I was overjoyed to be fly back to the comfort of home and family.
“Was it a stressful week?” my wife asked over dinner some time later.
“Huh?” I said, through a mouthful of steamed beans.
“You mailed us that postcard but didn’t write anything on it.” I stopped chewing.
I recognized the card from the ones I’d seen in the carousel by the front desk at the hotel – it had their logo on it. The postmark was for the day I’d flown out. The card was blank.
I couldn’t sleep that night or the one after. I sat on the couch in the dark staring at the soft glow of the television and drinking Jameson. I thought I was losing my mind.
When I came home from work the following day the flag on our mailbox was up. Inside I found a postcard with a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.
There was no postmark. It had been delivered by hand.
The front door was open.
My mother always told me to wear sunscreen. I guess I should have listened to her.
I took a vacation to Mexico a while ago. I didn’t wear sunscreen. I don’t need to wear sunscreen – sunscreen is for pussies who are worried about their delicate skin, their pale complexion turning bright red like a tomato, and those horrors looming ominously in the future of skin cancer and melanoma and basal-cell carcinoma.
Not me; I’d rather burn like an egg in an ungreased pan the first day and get it over with, then let my bright right burn fade into a perfect dark brown tan. I never peel. Peeling is for the weak. So I don’t peel. But that wasn’t the case this time.
I got one of those truly horrible burns you only ever hear about from your friends, one of those burns where you burn and it peels and then you burn under the peel and it peels again. I guess I should have stayed off the beach after that but it had stopped hurting by then.
When I got back after my week of vacation my skin was still peeling, mostly on my back and shoulders.
“Geez, that’s a bad burn ya got yourself there,” one of my co-workers ventured the day I got back. “No shit.” Douchebag. “Glad to have you back, Chuck.”
After a week when it was still peeling was when I started to worry. The top layer had long since peeled away and the layer beneath was peeling too. And the layer beneath that. It didn’t itch. It didn’t hurt. It just kept peeling. How many layers deep could I have possibly burned myself on that beach in Mexico? Christ, how many layers does a person’s skin have anyway?
I went to the doctor but he didn’t have much to say.
“Wow, that’s a bad burn you got yourself there, son.” No shit. “Just get back yesterday, did ya?”
“No, I’ve been back for a week.”
His face wrinkled. “Hmmm. I would have expected the peeling to stop by now. Try some aloe.” Thanks Doc.
The following night I stood in the mirror and pulled a long strip of the deepest dry, peeling layer back. It just kept coming and coming off my shoulder, a giant wide strip that grew as it travelled downward. It was an oddly satisfying experience, like taking the plastic wrap off the screen of a new TV.
That is, until I noticed that beneath it there was no more skin. There was no blood. There was no pain. I wasn’t afraid. I watched with a sort of morbid fascination, like someone burning an insect under a magnifying glass, as I peeled the last layer of my dry, burnt skin off and revealed the red corduroy of my shoulder muscle beneath.
I stared at the exposed muscles in my back in the mirror for a long time that evening.
I wore three undershirts to work the next day, to soak up the blood, but there was none. That night I peeled the burned skin off my calves and chest and revealed the muscles underneath. It was strange, to see my insides in the bathroom mirror, bright red, but without a drop of blood. I looked like a drawing in an anatomy textbook, or like one of the bodies in that travelling science exhibit where they plasticized the cadavers and displayed their horrific bulging muscles in frozen poses of action: a dead man throwing a frisbee; dead people playing cards around a table; a dead woman atop a rearing horse cadaver, with its skin missing and muscles also pulled tense in exertion.
It’s only a matter of time before the last layer of skin on my face starts peeling too. It’s been another week now and there’s no skin left anywhere else on my body. I can’t go back to the doctor, not now. After he got over his disbelief he’d surely commit me to scientific research somehow – a medical oddity for study. He’d become famous and I’d become a prisoner, a walking cadaver, a freak show like those I’d seen on display in the travelling exhibit.
That’s not what worries me though. What worries me is the other day the muscle on my right hand started to come loose. Last night I grabbed a portion and started to peel it back and it all came away, muscles, tendons, nerve, everything. I could see the white bone of my fingers below.
What worries me is that I have no idea just how deep a burn can go.
I want to tell you the story about my family vacation. Well, actually that part is not really that important; what is important is that it’s the story of how my baby sister died.
When I was younger my Dad took our family on vacation to Mexico.
Now when you most people that that, they probably think of going to a nice resort for an all-inclusive vacation where you can sit on the beach in the sun and drink margaritas to your heart’s content until you are drunk as a skunk at two o’clock in the afternoon while your bratty kids play in the surf and you ogle the gold-digger with a supermodel body in a tiny bikini in the beach chair next to you out of the corner of your eye and hope she or her fat old rich husband don’t notice because your wife sure as hell won’t because she’s passed out next to you in another beach chair from too many damn daiquiris and has her wide sun hat pulled down over her face and a New York Times bestseller that Oprah recommended splayed open facedown on her chest.
This was not that sort of vacation.
You see, when I was growing up, my family was poor. My Mom was homemaker and my Dad held down a blue-collar job – he worked the line at the plastics plant just across the tracks before they brought in all the robots and computers and fired everyone.
But goddammit my father was a proud man. Even though he was poor and could barely afford to feed me and my baby sister sometimes, we were going to go on a vacation.
So we went to Mexico, not to a resort with surf and sand and unlimited food and drink, but to a ranch in the desert. As determined as ever, he drove our family through the sweltering heat for 12 hours straight, in that beat-up old blue Chevy with no air conditioning. I sat in the back and sweated and read comic books while Mom sat in the front and took care of the baby.
Finally we pulled in off the desert highway to the ranch where we’d stay for the week. It was a big property and the room where the four of us stayed in wasn’t bad for what my Dad was paying – it was about what you’d get at a cheap motel back home.
The ranch was owned and run entirely by two tall Mexican brothers, who constantly wore giant grins and spoken quickly and excitedly, mixing Spanish and English. They did everything – the older and taller one, Alejandro, greeted us at the desk when we arrived and managed the grounds. The younger brother, Eduardo, cooked delicious Mexican meals 3 times a day in a cramped little kitchen in the dining hall. When he wasn’t doing that he was working with the ranch machinery – tractors, generators, pumps – at a big shed on the edge of the property.
The problem was there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the ranch, other than stuff ourselves with food or ride the couple of horses they had around the fenced-in area by the stable. My Mom mainly just took care of my baby sister, and sat in a chair on the deck outside our room.
I think it was around the third or fourth day when I started to get really bored. I had finished reading all my comic books and explored the ranch as much as I could. There was just nothing else for a kid like me to do.
Later that evening Mom and Dad were sitting out on the deck chairs. Dad was drinking a beer and arguing with my mother about the baby. I just wanted to get away from their shouting.
“Dad, I’m bored.” I said, and sat up. “I’m gonna go exploring.”
My Dad stopped yelling at Mom for a bit. She was rocking the baby which had started crying because of their arguing.
“Alright son,” he said, and took a long pull on his bottle of cheap Mexican beer. “But don’t wander off too far, it’s getting dark out. Come back soon, ya hear?”
“Ok!” and off I ran.
That night I wandered far off into the desert, past Eduardo’s big machine shed and over one of the hills surrounding our little bit of civilization. I wasn’t worried because I could always see the lights of the ranch, but had never explored out that far before. It got quite dark out and what I could see was illuminated by the light of the full moon.
I came down the side of another hill and stopped. There, off in the distance, I saw it – two green eyes, reflecting the light of the full moon back toward me. I was afraid. What was it? It didn’t move – the black shape surrounding the eyes just stayed there, perfectly still, and stared back at me from the next rise. When I finally slowly took a step forward it darted off up over the hill, kicking up plume of sand behind it.
That was enough for me. I high-tailed it back to the safety of the ranch lights.
I asked Alejandro about it in the morning when he was serving us delicious piles of his brother’s huevos rancheros.
“Ahaha, little señor, oh you were out exploring the desert at night?” He laughed again. “Strange things live in the desert my little amigo, I think perhaps you met some of our neighbors, no? los coyotes!” I smiled at him but didn’t understand the last words.
“Coyotes, huh?” my Dad answered gruffly through a mouthful of egg and refried beans. “Half wolf, half dog, son.” I found out later that wasn’t true. “I toldja not to wander on out there. Yer lucky he didn’t make a meal of ya. Best be more careful.” I nodded and Alejandro kept smiling.
It was our second last night at the ranch when it happened. I guess Dad drank too many beers and didn’t close the door all the way behind him when he went to bed.
I woke up halfway through the night and thought I heard boards creaking outside, and a scratching at the door.
“Dad! Dad! Something’s outside!”
“ehhhhhh? Go to sleep son.” He rolled over in bed next to my mother. I know I heard something. I was frightened but closed my eyes and managed to fall back asleep.
In the night I dreamt about the hills of the Mexican desert, the green eyes of los coyotes staring into me, and my baby sister crying.
In the morning I woke up to the sound of my mother screaming and sobbing. I had never seen my father like I saw him that morning, and never did again – he just got real quiet and had this far-off look in his eyes.
It killed my little sister. I looked over at the overturned crib and her body laying next to it on its side. Whatever it was had come in to get her – there were claw marks on the door and a trail of sand from the desert. Two perfectly circular puncture wounds were in her tiny throat, and the body was pale, as if all the blood had been drained out. I’d never seen anything like that before and to this day wish I hadn’t. I cried and cried and buried my face in my hands.
The brothers came by later that morning. The tall one, Alejandro, tried to console my mother, and called the police from our room. They were in the next town which was 30 miles away so didn’t arrive for another half hour.
The other brother, Eduardo, looked more like my Dad did. He just got really quiet after he saw my sister’s body, and then just stared at the ground without saying anything.
Later the two brothers argued in Spanish but I didn’t recognize any of the words: sangre, policía, niña muerta. Alejandro kept talking quickly and loudly, but Eduardo just looked down at the ground and quietly murmured responses.
Coyotes, los coyotes….. the older one kept saying, over and over again.
“No,” said the other, sadly, without looking up.
Even though I didn’t understand, I remember feeling a chill run up my spine when I saw him mouth the next words.