Pass It On, It’ll Make Your Skin Crawl
Al Bruno III
The dog was barking, its voice high and frightened. Josh woke at once wondering how long he had been asleep for. He had just lain down for a moment to relax but the clock told him he had been out for hours. Josh shook his head, no wonder the dog was barking.
His wife Dina stirred uneasily, eight months pregnant and forever uncomfortable. Josh smiled at her in the dark, still terrified and bemused at the thought of fatherhood. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt Josh opened the back door expecting to find his beloved mastiff bounding in place expectantly.
Good thing my nearest neighbor is over a mile away.
The fenced in back yard was empty and the front gate was still latched. Up ahead the dog’s barks had become combative snarls.
This made no sense. Josh had trained Roscoe well; the dog knew his boundaries and going past the front gate when he wasn’t on a leash was simply not allowed. Josh headed around to the front of the house, to the dirt driveway that was far enough back from the road to reduce the occasional pair of headlights to frail shafts of illumination flickering between the trees. After ten years of living in the heart of Chicago he still found it hard to sleep without the murmuring din of the city and the light from oncoming traffic.
Earth oozed between his toes as he scrambled between his old battered truck and the newly purchased minivan. Four footsteps later and his feet were caked with mud and he vowed to himself that this spring he would find a way to finance paving the driveway.
Along with touching up the roof and re-grouting the bathroom wall … and the baby too. He thought. So many plans, so many expenses.
The dog became silent. “Roscoe?” Josh called, “Come here boy!”
A muffled cry filled the air. It was a human cry. No dog ever made a sound like that.
Visions of lawsuits filling his head Josh plunged forward into the trees to find Roscoe half-chewing, half-gagging on something wet and gleaming. Another shape was retreating toward the road, nearly collapsing with every pained step. Josh ordered the dog back to the house but Roscoe was snarling, his ears pinned back. Josh had to strike the dog to make him obey.
This is crazy! Roscoe never acts this way. At least until now.
The trespasser, if that’s what it was, collapsed between a pair of trees.
“Are you all right?” Once he was sure the dog had retreated back to the house Josh moved closer, “Did he bite you?”
A car sped past leaving him with a snapshot image; a supine shape, slender and dressed in a shapeless orange and white hooded suit. A dark stain spreading out from the figure's midsection; blood soaking through the layers of cloth and PVC. The suit was hooded with a clear plastic faceplate that was cracked into a dozen spider web patterns; it obscured the wearer’s face beyond any hope of recognition. Josh involuntarily took a step back, a generations worth of TV shows and movies had taught him what a hazmat suit looked like. The knee of the suit was torn away, marking the place where Roscoe had bitten. There was something about the wounds that looked too dark and too greasy.
Then the car was gone and all Josh had left was shadows.
The figure in the hazmat suit spoke with a voice that was a sexless rasp, “I’m sorry.”
“Are you all right?” Josh felt ridiculous asking the question. He and his father had gone deer hunting for years, he knew a bullet wound when he saw one. The bite on the knee from Roscoe was nothing compared to that.
“Somehow dogs always know. It’s even in one of the memos. I should have stayed back but I saw your truck…” The figure made a sound somewhere between choking and a nervous laugh, “I thought you could help. Isn’t that hysterical?”
“Look, you wait here. I’ll call an ambulance.”
“Wait. Don’t go,” the figure in the hazmat suit sat up suddenly and whimpered from the pain of it. Josh flinched away from the smell of the wounds; the scent brought to mind something septic and rotten. The flesh beneath the cracked faceplate was all swollen ridges and thick furrows. Those unnatural striations shifted and slithered of their own accord. The figure pushed the strap from a tattered knapsack into Josh’s hand, “Take these. It’s almost too late...”
“What-” Josh drew back.
“I can feel it. I can feel it in my bones.”
With a soft splitting sound a thin weal opened up on the flesh of the dog bitten knee and blood, heavy with thick wormy shapes began to ooze from it. The shape in the hazmat suit mewled. Flecks of red began to spatter the face plate from the inside, shapes wriggled against the broken visor.
Stunned and almost breathless Josh ran back to his house. The front door hung open; he must have forgotten to close it behind him. There were muddy paw prints in the kitchen. Josh scrambled for the phone. Who could he call? The police? An ambulance? The fire department? Josh dialed 911 and let them decide. Whoever they decided to send it would take fifteen minutes at best for them to get here. Would the man- or woman- in the hazmat suit even be alive by then?
When the 911 operator finally answered Josh gave them whatever information he could and hung up.
Should I wake Dina? Should I go out there and tell that… guy I think… that help is on the way? Maybe I should wash my-
Josh looked down at his hand; he was still holding the muddy, torn knapsack. He looked at it for a moment, and then dropped it. It tore open from the impact, a digital camera and a sheaf of papers spilled across the kitchen floor. Tilting his head at an angle he saw they were all documents with some kind of a corporate letterhead.
Trinity Advance Corporation, they have a place about a few miles up the road. They’re a medical research facility… they make artificial limbs and stuff.
Josh glanced closer at the papers, they were all photocopies and they looked to have been hastily made with the images off center and marked with the occasional glimpse of a finger or hand near the corner of the document. They all seemed to concern something called ‘Research Initiative I:VI:VII’, it was all over Josh’s head but the one thing that did catch his eye was a map of an unnamed city with concentric rings drawn around a central point. Each ring was marked with different percentage- ‘99% Efficiency… 71% Efficiency… 49% Efficiency.’
Sifting through the papers Josh found other documents, letters from ranking military officials first sanctioning then removing support for the project. The dates however didn’t add up to the other requisitions and testing data.
The digital camera was within arms reach. Josh picked it up and flicked it on. A small LCD window lit up giving him an image of the Trinity Advance building; he could see their triangle shaped logo that read TRIAD near the main gates.
With a push of a button he was looking at another image, this one of a room full of prosthetic arms in sealed vacuum pouches. Figures had been caught moving in the background but the picture had been taken in haste making them seem distended and inhuman. Josh wondered how the person in the hazmat suit had gotten onto the grounds of the building, past the checkpoints and electrified fences.
Another press of the button and another picture, this one of men in familiar-looking orange and white hazmat suits. They were working in a long white room, tending to vials incubators and microscopes. Is this where they make vaccines? Whoever did this had brass balls. I wouldn’t break into a lab like that for a million bucks.
The fourth picture was similar to the first except now it appeared the picture taker was on the other side of the room. There was a trough of some kind to the left of the frame; it seemed to be filled with some kind of a dark liquid. There was a stain on the floor nearby, a patch of discoloration that seemed to resemble a smeared handprint. There was something about it Josh didn’t like.
The next digital photograph was the last, the symbol in the upper corner of the frame read ‘5/5’. This picture was almost the same as the third picture except for the two figures in the center of the frame, a man and a woman. They reminded Josh of sketches, all clean angles and perfect features. They were dressed in street clothes. The woman had her head thrown back in laughter, the man had his head turned towards the strange troughs but his eyes were focused directly on the camera taking his picture.
What is all this? Will I ever know? Do I really want to? Well the police can sort it out. But I still better wash my hands just in case.
Roscoe groaned. Josh turned to see the dog laying half in and half out of the bathroom doorway. The old mastiff’s breathing was labored and phlegmy.
Josh knelt beside the old dog and reached out to stroke his fur. It writhed beneath his touch. Josh pulled his hand away as though it had been scalded. Roscoe took a final sobbing pant. Pale shapes began to seep from the dog’s mouth and the corners of his eyes.
“We have to get out of here,” Josh choked back tears. His car keys were on the counter in the usual place; he called his wife, shouted for her.
“What’s wrong?” Dina’s speech was slurred with sleep.
He rushed into the bedroom, pulled her to her feet, “We have to get out of here.”
He was afraid that if he explained more he might start sobbing or screaming.
He thought of the map in the pile of papers on his kitchen floor…
‘99% Efficiency… 71% Efficiency… 49% Efficiency.’
Where was he now on that map?
“What’s the matter?” Dina pulled away from him, “Tell me.”
“Listen, please…” He kept tight hold of her hand; out of habit he put his arm around her waist.
He felt the skin of her belly flutter and undulate.
Dina winced, “Oh! He’s awake too.”
Josh’s eyes found the muddy paw prints and it all made sense. Didn’t Roscoe always go to her when he thought he might be in trouble for chewing up a pillow or having an accident?
“Honey?” Dina asked, “What’s the matter?”
Josh didn’t answer; he just kissed his wife and waited for the police to arrive. He tried to tell himself it was just the baby kicking, but he knew that when the police arrived here they would find something terrible.
He could feel it in his bones.