Something worse

 

Dr Nielson handed me a plastic bag. “Hey Deano, throw these masks in the incinerator; we can’t use them. The box is damaged.” 

I’d worked at the laboratory long enough to know to never engage in conversation with a scientist, especially one as shifty as Dr Nielson, so I just said OK and put them in my sack. I trekked down to the basement and took the box out from the plastic bag to inspect it. Since the surge in cases, decent masks were like gold dust. It seemed criminal to waste them if I could salvage any. I punched through the perforations and opened the top of the box. The stain on the lid looked like water damage, a little squashed on one side, but otherwise fine. The masks inside remained sealed in their cellophane wrappers. No problemo.

After I torched the rest of the rubbish, I took the box back upstairs and slipped it into my bag. Security rarely carried out searches these days. You could forget staff protocol; the scientists were too busy finding cures for the pandemic. No one cared about non-descript cleaners. We appeared and disappeared like ghosts, at least that’s what I banked on. Already this week, I’d got a packet of disposable gloves and a couple of half-used bottles of hand gel. I never took anything unopened.

***

I tidied up the store cupboard and headed off home, stopping on the way to drop off some of the masks at my sister’s nursing home. I knew the old dears could always do with a spare mask or two. I gave Moira three-quarters of the box and kept the rest of the masks for myself. The home thronged with relatives, getting in quick before we went back into lockdown. I didn’t stay long.

As I arrived back at my condo, the acrid smell of marijuana assaulted my nostrils. I found Callum slumped in an armchair, shrouded in his usual haze of smoke.  

I sat down on the sofa. “I told you that crap will rot your brain.  I hope you’re not smoking your rent money?”

Callum sniggered and stubbed out his joint. “Got an interview later. I’ll check my account on the way back. The money should have gone through by now.”

“What are you interviewing for?”

“Warehouse job, shifting furniture for posh people. I expect there are loads of folks going for it, though.”

“I guess, but you’ve got the experience. Here - you’ll need one of these.” I reached into my bag, and I threw the box with the leftover masks. It landed on Callum’s lap. “No point spending your rent money on fines.”

“Thanks, Deano.” He squashed his joint into the ashtray balanced on the arm of the chair. He eased himself up and stretched. “I need some more cigs from the store. You want anything?”

“Nah, you’re alright. And you’d better smarten yourself up when you come back. I don’t think tramp’s a look they will go for.”

Callum made mess for America, but every penny counted. Once he’d got his bum off the sofa, I went to my bedroom and got my head down. I had five hours before I’d have to leave for my second job at the office block.

I woke up with a jolt and checked the time. Half two already. Blimey. I sat up. Why could I hear crying? I got up and followed the noise to the bathroom.

“Callum?”

“Don’t come in.”

“Whatever is the matter?”

I pushed open the door. Callum lay curled upon the floor, rocking backwards and forward.

“I still had my mask on when I came indoors,” he said, “I went into the bathroom and when I took the mask off...” He screwed his face up and sobbed louder.

“What? What’s happened?”

“My face”, he cried. “Look.” Callum removed the hand towel from his face, and I stumbled back into the hallway, my heart threatening to burst out of my chest. I took a deep breath and crouched down beside him to try and convince myself of the reality of what I’d seen. The flesh below Callum’s nose had gone.  Two rows of ghastly skeletal teeth were now exposed where his lips had melted away, while the white glare of bone marked the only remains of his nose and chin. The bottom half of his face was stripped bare of skin, like a dead whale lying at the bottom of the ocean.

“Does it hurt?” I whispered. I could feel my hands shaking as I placed my hand on his shoulder in a futile attempt to calm him down.

Callum lowered his head. “No. I can’t feel a thing. My face is all numb. I put on the mask when I went into the store. Maybe I noticed a tingling, but it didn’t last long. I bought my cigarettes, chatted to Eugene for a bit, then I left. Outside it had started to sleet, so I kept the mask on to walk back. When I got in, I had this horrible taste in my mouth, so I took off the mask to brush my teeth. I looked in the mirror and...” Callum lifted the towel back over his mouth and resumed his wailing.

“Come on,” I said, helping him to his feet. “I’ll call an ambulance and get you to the hospital. They can work miracles with skins graphs these days. Remember that lady who got covered in acid?”

 “No, you take me. An ambulance will take hours.”
I helped Callum to his feet and led him downstairs to my car. His sobbing had changed into intermittent cursing. “Get in the back seat,” I said. “We’ll be there in no time.”

I drove as fast as I could, but this being Atlanta, in ten minutes, we had ground to a halt. I kept wondering what had happened to him. Some sort of flesh-eating disease?

Callum threw off his seatbelt. “Hurry up, will you!” He said, springing forward and pounding his fist in the back of my seat. “I can’t live like this. I’m going to kill myself if they can’t fix it. It was that mask you gave me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped. “It was only a mask. That couldn’t have caused it. Look, the doctors will fix you up, I promise. Just hold on there.”

Callum fell quiet, and five more minutes passed. I tried to see the cause of the hold up ahead, but cars lined the highway on either side, and I was stuck up the backside of a truck.

The car door slammed behind me. I turned back to see Callum leap out of the car and sprint off in the direction of the condo.

“Callum!” I had no space to turn the car around. Damn that man, where the hell was he going? St Luke’s hospital lay in the opposite direction.

The truck in front finally moved. When I reached the next turnoff, I’d go back and go after him. My cell buzzed on the seat next to me, and I jumped. Moira’s name flashed up on the screen.

I pressed the green icon to answer it. “Moira, I’m driving. What do you want?”

“I need you to come back to the home, Deano. Those masks you gave me. They, they...”

The call cut off, and I swerved sharply to take the next turning for the nursing home. Callum would have to wait. I started to sweat and mumble under my breath. Those masks. What was wrong with those masks?

***

 When I got to the home, I fumbled with the entry code and let myself in, expecting to find the receptionist sitting at her desk, but she’d gone. I headed to my sister’s office.

Moira sat at the desk. Her mask concealed her expression.

“Moira?”

She unhooked one side of the mask from her face and let it down. My hand flew to my mouth, and I turned my head away.

 Moira's voice trembled, and I struggled to hear her as she spoke.

“What was in those masks, Deano?” I didn’t feel any pain, just an odd tingling sensation. And when I removed it, well, you can see for yourself.”

“I’m so sorry, Moira,” I said. I turned my head back towards her but focused on the floor.  “What can I do? I never meant for this to happen.”

“Where did you get those masks, Deano?”

“From the laboratory,” I mumbled. “They were being thrown out.”

Her voice grew louder. “But didn’t you stop to wonder why?”

“I never...”

“Speak up, Deano. I can’t hear you.”

“I never ask questions at the laboratory.”

“Well, maybe you should have!”

“Oh, Moira,” I said, finally meeting her gaze and trying to ignore the bile rising in my throat. Under her mask, Moira’s face resembled Callum’s. Her ragged red flesh and white teeth accused and rebuked me. “You, you didn’t give them to anyone else, did you?”

“Follow me,” sighed Moira as she readjusted her mask.

As we walked the deserted corridors, the home seemed devoid of life. “Where are all the staff?” I said. “Is it just you here?”

“Half of my staff are off in isolation. When I found out what had happened, I sent the receptionist home and ordered the carers upstairs to do a deep clean. The next shift starts in an hour, so there’s still time.”

“Time for what?” The tone of Moira’s voice made my skin itch. “Let me take you to the hospital, and I have to go back and find Callum.” I scanned the room; where the hell was the exit?

“Callum? He’ll have to wait. I need to show you what I’ve done.”

I followed her into the day room. It smelt of disinfectant and boiled mince. At one end, a TV on the wall showed two men listening to an auctioneer calling bids. At the other, five residents sat, or rather, slumped in their chairs. Each wore a mask, and at first, I thought they were sleeping.

I looked at Moira, and as if reading my thoughts, she shook her head.

 My stomach constricted, and my guts felt like they’d been stabbed with a knife. “Moira? What have you done?”

“They were too old to suffer like that,” she said. “After their visits, I made them comfortable. They didn’t even realise the effect of the mask. I’d only checked Charlie, but I knew they would all be the same. They’d been so happy to have seen their relatives, but now they were tired. Just a little injection to strengthen their immune system. Always so trusting, they just slipped away.”

“Oh, God.” My hand flew to my mouth. I looked back at the old people willing one to shift in their seat or call out for a drink.

Moira reached out to hug me, but I sidestepped her, not wanting to be touched. She nodded and hung her head. “When the next shift comes in, please explain to them what happened, “Tell the carers I’m sorry.”

“But...”

Moira took a small syringe in from out of her pocket.

“Don’t!” I ran forward and tried to wrestle it from her grip.

Too late. In one swift movement, Moira injected herself in the arm and a second later crumpled to the floor.

“Moira!” I scooped her up in my arms. With her last breath, she whispered, “I forgive you, Deano. Please forgive me.”

Gasping for breath, I looked at all those dead people and my sister lying on the floor. I got up and ran out of the nursing home and back to my car. I’d have gone anywhere to escape the horror of that scene. What had caused it? I remembered Dr Neilson. Did he give me those masks on purpose - knowing I might keep them after all?

***

I finally stopped crying as I got to the door of my condo. Inside, I found the hallway bathed in darkness. As I walked towards the lounge, Callum’s fist slammed into my face, and I fell to the floor.

I woke up an hour later, pain shooting through my nose as the room rippled and shimmered around me. As my vision cleared, I saw Callum sitting opposite, lighting up a joint and leaning forward in the armchair. His mutilated face grinned back at me, and I stifled a scream. I struggled, but the cable ties binding me, cut deep into my wrists, trapping my hands behind my back. I tried to shout, but I could only manage a muffled, “let me go.” The mask pressed against my nose, making it difficult to breathe.

Callum exhaled a long plume of smoke from his skeletal mouth. “So you’ve come back to save me, have you, Deano? Not sure you can do that, buddy.”

He rose from the chair and came over close to my face. I couldn’t take the sight of that raw, red flesh, and I screwed up my eyes, trying to block out the nightmare before me.

 “Look at me,” he snarled, jabbing me in the ribs until I opened my eyes again. “I want you to take a long, hard look at what’s left of my face. Attractive, isn’t it. Still, wondering what happened? It was those masks, Deano – the same mask you’re wearing now. But do you know the question that’s puzzling me? He leaned over and flicked a lump of ash at my face. “I’m thinking – who’s going to come now and try and save you?”

 

* * *

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