Friday, October 5, 2012

A Floorboard Pamphlet

       It was three days ago: the beginning of a frosty, blustering February. Trees long-dead from the previous Fall whizzed by like skeletal onlookers and it was all I could do to keep myself from jerking the wheel violently to the right and ramming into one. I was traveling across the country to see my mother. It had been a while since I had come home. Our relationship had dwindled years before.

       The trip was to be a jaunt of twelve hundred miles, one-way, and I was all alone. Yes, left in my solitude to soak up the grim, unsettling panorama of the Road, I rolled onward. Every hundred miles or so, I would become so uncomfortable with the dim hum of the engine that I would brave one of the local radio stations.

       They were never a comfort.

       Before I had left on the trip, I made sure to clean my car out, like I always do. I even took pains to vacuum under the mats on the floorboard. I pulled the car up to the neighborhood dumpster and shoved a couple of quarters into a pay-a-vac. Yanking the hose from its housing rack, I raked the chipped, faded plastic mouth of it all across my upholstery and it sucked away every grain of sand and smidgen of litter.

       On my way out of the college town I had called home for nearly half a year, I stopped at a quaint family-owned gas station and picked up a hand-made air freshener while browsing a rack for candy bars. Even six-hundred miles into the trip, I could smell the distinct odor of honeysuckle and thyme. A weird combination, I know, but you just wouldn't believe how invigorating it was. One of the last few pleasures I knew before...

       Well... before I can tell you much more about what happened, I need to convey the absolute sterility of my vehicle. Its interior was so completely, positively devoid of anything that you wouldn't have seen a single mote of dust wedged between the loops of fiber in my carpet seats with a microscope. It's not like what I found in the right-front floorboard just slipped out from under the passenger seat because I slammed my breaks too hard.

       But, sure enough, just after crossing the border from South Carolina into Georgia, I noticed a small white rectangle, right there in the corner of my eye, laying on the floorboard. I immediately sensed how unnatural it was, and felt compelled to pull over at the next exit, even though I had filled up my car twenty miles earlier.

       Given my luck, I hadn't noticed that the exit I had pulled off onto was a service route, and hadn't a gas station or anything remotely resembling a civilized building in either direction as far as the eye could see. After driving five miles down a one-lane gravel road, I found a turnaround point carved into the forest that jutted off to the right a bit, and stopped.

        I couldn't bring myself to look at that simple, horrific object, just laying there with me in my car. The aborted engine was ticking through the dashboard, but even that sound was muffled and oddly distant. There was no avoiding this secret passenger.

        When it could no longer be avoided that I would not be able to continue back down the highway until I had confronted this ordeal, I bent over and reluctantly scraped the thing up into my hand. I slapped it down onto my steering wheel, producing an extremely brief and whimsical honk from the horn which caused my skeleton to nearly wriggle itself out of my skin and go dancing through the forest for the rest of eternity.

        I brought myself to examine the object, only to discover that it was a pamphlet. The foldable kind you find in run-down community colleges on racks in the hallways, where they beckon to you with messages about what to do if you're having suicide thoughts. This one was devoid of color or pictures, however. All there was to behold on its blank, matte surface was a single word in verdana font:



       The word hit me like a sack of bricks to the gut, and all of the breath left in my lungs evacuated. I became mildly hysterical, shivering while my teeth chattered and my eyes darted back and forth from hellish word to rear-view mirror. I was almost giddy. In fact, I even started to laugh in a sad, stunted way.

       I tried to pull myself together a little. To rationalize the whole thing. It was just a word: "skin". For all I knew, it could have been a simple dermatologist recruiting pamphlet, somehow misplaced and conveyed to a sticky spot on the underbelly of my glove box, only to peel off months later and fall to the floor. Heaven knew I'd had friends from school in the car who'd had interest in joining the medical field, and we'd gone to more drive-thru's and pizza parlors than I dared recount. My car must have been coated evenly in a greasy miasma of goos by then.

       Sure, a pamphlet could have gotten stuck to my interior at some point. At least, that's what I let myself believe for long enough to open the thing.

       The sound of it unfolding was crisp. It reminded me of the sound of construction paper being sliced in art class, back when I was in high school, under that levered machete board (or so that's what I called it in my head). Spread open across the beige leather of my steering wheel, it screamed at me with its implications, and all I could do was hold it taut there and gape at it.

Skin Donation (you have been selected!)

 We of the Love Corporation, LLC., have

been in the process of abducting lone  
travelers on America's interstate system
For the past seventy years. We are the 
main cause of missing persons in this
country, and have held the championship 
title for nearly fifty years (save, of course,
for a brief period in the 70's when that
bothersome Zodiac killer stalked the 
lovely denizen of Vallejo, CA., and 
nabbed nearly two-hundred souls. What
a summer!). 
If you have responded correctly to the fear 
catalyst that we've infiltrated into your 
vehicle through the AC system, then you
are sitting in a little patch of sand on a
service route, just off of I-85.
Please stay right where you are, as a rep-
-resentative is approaching your location
as you read this very pamphlet. Thank you
very much for your donation, and have a
wonderful day!

J. G. Waldenfont

        I couldn't breathe. My arms were rods made of lead that kept the pamphlet pinned in front of me, where I could do nothing more than read it in scrutiny, over and over. When I had pulled to a stop at the turnaround point and shut off the car, it felt unbearably hot inside, so I had cracked the windows to allow a bit of fresh air to waft in. As a result, I could hear the ambience of the woods, and had begun to notice the crack of twigs and branches as someone, or something, approached where I was sitting.

       It didn't take long for the baby spruces at the fore of the treeline to bend apart and reveal a grinning man in a slick navy blue suit carrying an anodized steel briefcase. His eyes were cold black marbles. His steps were violent. Jerky and impatient, as if he had two industrial-strength elastic bands attached from his heels to his ass cheeks that yanked his feet up with an ethereal swiftness after each lunge.

       Even so, it might have taken him all of four seconds to close the distance from the woods to the car, and then he had my door open and he was yanking at my seat belt and hauling me out by my legs. He threw me back against the hood, causing the car to rock on its suspension, and ripped my shirt and jeans off with a pair of surgical scissors. I was unable to move during the entire process, except for the fact that I couldn't stop blinking my eyes. I thought that I might be able to blink the whole nightmare out of existence.

        He slammed his briefcase onto the metal near my head and pried it open to produce a large device that reminded me of a lemon zester, only it was powered with a battery that clamped onto the butt-end of its handle, like a power tool would be, and there was a hose at the back of its head which wound around the man's wrist and snaked back and out of sight, over the lip of the case it had been produced from. He pressed a button, and it buzzed to life, its mechanical, ratcheting sound bouncing heroic echoes off of the trees.

       For a moment, he gazed into my eyes, and I don't know why, but I fancied I could see a look of tenderness -- something akin to pity -- but the face soon contorted to an expression of ravenous hunger and he pressed the gyrating, clicking, shining contraption to my naked abdomen, where it began to brutalize my flesh and dig it up into mountains of red, syrupy pulp.

       I went numb shortly after it began, and the rest of the time in which this all happened is a blur to me, except for a few candid moments which appear in my memory as seconds-long short films done in the style of grindhouse avant-garde. The man never said a single sentence, although I feel like I might have vaguely heard him mumble something under his breath urgently, sounding like "give me".

       I also remember his wild breathing, which struggled through his thick neck and sometimes came out sounding like a goose, honking. He would shake his head from side to side in excitement and chomp his teeth together very quickly, like they were a set of those wind-up gag teeth you always see in movies and cartoons but rarely ever manage to find in real life.

      (I am remembering something now: he has just finished shearing all of the precious white skin off of my chest and armpits. He steps back, doubles over with hands on knees, and sneezes. Then, he straightens up, and stands high above me, somehow impeccably devoid of my blood except for an interesting smudge of it running along the left lapel of his coat, which is shaped like a smiling dolphin, and snags a loose flap of skin hanging off of my collar bone. He holds it close to himself at shoulder-level, takes a few steps back, looks around him in every direction like he's checking to make sure no one can see him, and swallows it whole.

       He doesn't even chew it.

       Hours later, as the sun was beginning to collapse beneath the strain of the horizon's advance, I came back to my senses, and was shocked to find that it hadn't all been a dream. There I was, splayed out against my hood (which was now an even coat of reddish-brown, in juxtaposition with my champagne finish) and I could hear owls hooting in the eaves of the pines.

       All of my skin was gone.

        Somehow, I survived for two days under the beating sun, and through the frosty nights. Maybe the low temperatures created a layer of brittle ice-crust that kept me from bleeding to death, but I would have been thankful for that slow, lovely escape from life, as millions of tiny insects enclosed me. Gnats and ants that somehow found their way out of hibernation to feed on my tender, exposed muscle tissue. During the height of noon on those days, when I would thaw out a little bit, my body would begin to itch everywhere, and it was so unbearable that I would scream until my vocal chords ruptured. Then, I would spit up blood until I fell asleep for a spell of half an hour.

       On the cusp of the third sundown, a truck that had happened upon the service route was ambling through and noticed me. He was slow to get out and check me for signs of life, as he had assumed that I was dead, and when he realized that I was breathing and blinking, he wailed like a woman and vomited all over my glistening abdomen.

        I arrived at a hospital in Winder, Georgia an hour later, and there, they administered care to me for over two months. The local authorities questioned me about how it all happened, and I could barely talk to them because, aside from my lack of knowledge about the details of the event, the scar tissue that had developed, shiny, hard, and pink over the expanse of my bodily surfaces kept my movements slow and tense, so that it took me thirty seconds of trying and re-trying to form each word, and even then, the officers didn't understand ninety percent of what I was trying to tell them.

        Shortly after my care was complete, and there was nothing else the doctors or the authorities could do to aid me, I was released. Now, here I am, stuck living with my mother, who doesn't seem to notice one bit that I'm missing all of my skin, and I don't think she would care if she did.

        I was bereaved for a long time, torturing myself with the possibilities of who could have been responsible, and how this happened in a country where things are supposed to be so safe. How the pamphlet made it into my car. Why it was me they chose. Why they needed the skin. But soon, after my scar tissue's hardening forced me into a nearly quadriplegic state, and I could no longer hope to get out and search for answers, my torturous thoughts became distant and blended in with the everyday helpings of porridge and applesauce. 

       All I can say now is that I'm relieved I'm no longer going to college.

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