Second Hand News (Part Three)

And now the thrilling conclusion to...
Wade's Husk

In the comfort of the living room, the telethon went coasting into its final hour.  The host, clearly crushed by the low totals on the tally board, loosened his necktie and lowered himself onto the studio's platform steps.  "These kids," he said, leaning his head onto his microphone hand, "who will help them, if not you?  And when, if not now?"  And then more video clips of the children, many of them as old as me, striving to play, to laugh and smile and plead with dewy eyes.  Did they have any idea how lucky they were, those kids, for their care and attention, for their stirring afflictions?  At the end, with music swelling and toll-free numbers scrolling, one little boy who seemed half made of metal was caught giggling at the spoonful of applesauce held out for him by a red-sweatshirted volunteer.  She pressed her finger to his nose like a button.  What could be more lovely?

When it was at last all over, my brother's rumpled castoff husk reflected in the darkened TV screen.

I got the shirt off first, unbuttoning the cuffs and jerking the cotton from the arms when it snagged on a crack or a cuticle.  Little bits of him flaked off like dust, scratching the tenderness out of my own hands.  Next went the shoes and the socks, the pants and finally the underwear: every part of him yellow and gruesome, coiled like rotted rope.  I bunched his clothes and carried them to the laundry chute, leaving his shoes neatly aligned by his bedroom door as if it were St. Nicholas' Day.

Maneuvering the husk into one of the foggy biomed bags the city provides for Tuesday pickups, I noticed the Sail Club bracelet still wound around his stiff wrist.  I yanked fiercely -- tried my best to twist his rigored fingers -- but in the end it took the garden shears from the garage.  Stabbing through the thin underside of the wrist with the wide lower jaw of the shears and working ruggedly through the his arm, ripping the skin rather than cleaving it.

Detached, Wade's arm was lighter than I'd expected, and despite the toughness of the outer layer, the inside was still damp and not as obscenely jaundiced.  I ran a finger down the glossy inner arm, collecting some moisture off the insides like the dew that develops on refrigerated cling wrap.  The hollow inside smelled a good deal like my gym locker, like a camp mattress.  Holding his skin to the light showed the sinewy indentations of veins and muscles.  I'd never before noticed the cross-hatched and wavy texture of all skin -- his and mine both.  I'd though fingerprints were limited to the fingers.  But no: we are everywhere covered by swirls and roadmap routes and ravines.  There is no silk to skin at all.

I found I could fit my hand into his, and I wore his skin as a glove while I sealed the body bag and ran the vacuum, which rattled over his spot on the rug as if it were sucking up tacks.  His fingers seemed to tingle over mine, they seemed both fragile and mean, fingers that must have scuttled quickly through snow, wanting to both retreat to a mitten and yet go on packing a better snowball.  This was, wasn't it, his winter skin?

Lugging the bag downstairs and outside, I let his head waffle and thump against each step but the last.  I waited there at the curb for the moment my father's wagon would turn up the drive, waited in the stamping cold and its slight scent of spring.  Wade, I imagined, would be sitting up front in the passenger seat, and I would meet him with a wave as he sought out the bundled refuse of his former self.

the end
last of three parts


Second Hand News (Part Two)

We now return you to...
Wade's Husk

It had happened for the first time on my ninth birthday, in front of all my friends from the third grade.  That was back when there weren't that many people shedding, when they didn't know if it could be catching.  People thought it was a thing caught by touch, like leopardsy or cooties.

So there was Jon and Chad Schmidt and Chad Schmidt's brother all gathered around the dining room table, candles barely in my cake and not even lit, and Wade starts shaking and picking at himself, all the mothers gasping and pushing their kids to the front door.  Chad Schmidt's brother had to be pulled by his collar.  My parents -- no one knew anything then -- sped him off to the hospital and I was left alone, nine years old, with my yellow cake and wrapped presents.  Wade had never been satisfied with just his own birthday, he always wanted mine as well; ever since, his wasted husks have haunted me at nighttimes, ruining perfectly good dreams with their bitter laughs and soggy motion.


His shell was still lying tangled on the floor of the den the next morning when I checked in on the telethon -- the hosts were sleepy and slow to respond to a chirping girl in metal crutches.  My parents were in the kitchen, racing the paper and sipping coffee.  "Wade shed," I told them.  "And then just left himself right there on the floor."

"Aww," my mother said, setting her mug on the breakfast nook bench, "my poor poor baby."  But I am the younger, I am the baby, and I very nearly said so, but all I had by then was the back of her bathrobe.  My father meanwhile looked up from the Arts & Leisure section to consider me over the top of his glasses.  "A family," he said, his attention back on the paper, "shares responsibilities.  It'd be nice if you pitched in once in a while."

But no way was I going to have anything to do with that thing.  It was his skin, after all: what could belong to him more?  So I retreated to my room, between the bed and the wall, looking over some Incredible Hulks and listening to the voices in Wade's room as they cracked right through the plaster.  My mother promised him anything he wanted from the grocery store in that sweet sort of tone I only hear after the school's Spring concert and the winter one.  "Are you comfortable?" she asked, and "Not even Alpha-Bits?  Not even Marathons?"  And then my father too:  "Nothing at all, champ?"

Before long, Father was at my door, more familiar in his way.  "Come out of there," he told me, "and let's get this den cleaned up."  Wade stood directly behind him, pink as Valentine candy, a vicious grin cutting across his tight new skin.

They took him to the mall, my parents, for new soccer cleats and probably ice cream, leaving me to dispose of his remains.  I warmed some water in the Radarange and stirred in a packet of cocca and crispy marshmallows.  I had a Diet Slice and some cheese crackers.  I put the telethon on the kitchen's black-and-white, and I tried to imagine a house not so haunted.

---to be concluded---
second of three parts


Second Hand News (Part One)

Wade's Husk

first appeared in Potomac Review

Vol 7, No 1, Winter 1999-2000

My Brother Wade got the TV remote out of my hands with a great final tug and then he was down on the brown shag carpeting, wiggling out of his skin; he is in that 12 percent.  I should have seen it coming -- the way his hand had clamped waxy and cold around mine, the way he slurred through his loosening lips and stamped heavily around the ottoman like a mummy in snow boots -- and had I known, had I but thought! as my father says, I would have been in a better position to keep the remote.  Instead it was now going spend the rest of the evening in my brother's old hollow hand, the fingers stiffening over the buttons, stuck on some horrid sports channel.

In summers, he can get it off in one piece, Wade can, if he unbuttons his shirt, tears open his cheek from the temples to just past the shoulders and then backs out of the whole deal as if it were a tight pair of jeans.  In winter, though, it's harder for him: he grunts and whines, he flips himself around on the floor trying to get at those parts of him that haven't slackened yet.  Watching him, you think of fish struggling upstream, or the groggy bears that in storybooks shuffle stretching from their caves to scratch their hackles against pine bark.  You think of Discovery Network rattlesnakes.

It was over soon enough, and my brother stood naked and sunburn pink in the middle of the room, catching his breath.  I waved him out of the way of the television and, once he'd gone into the upstairs bathroom to cover his tender new layer in Noxema, I switched over to the cerebral palsy telethon just now hitting its stride on Channel 18.  I'd had to actually get up off the recliner and press the little black buttons on the set itself, stepping clear of Wade's skin, the remote trapped somewhere beneath the chest cavity, his stupid face beaming up in dumb eyeless surprise.

"Aren't you at least going to clean it up?" I shouted towards the stairs.  It was already drying out and stiffening up, turning in spots that sick shade of yellow.  I sat on the lip of the chair and poked at it with the tip of one Ked, having to my memory never been alone with one of his husks before.  His chest dented in over the tip of my shoe, then slowly reclaimed its shape once I'd sat back.  On television, the actor that plays Fonzie held a microphone to a little boy who's mouth could barely work around his words.

Wade returned in his soccer shorts, the smell of cold cream stinging my eyes. He draped bath towels over the couch, wound the remote from the clutches of his former self, and eased down onto the cushions.  "Fffff," he goes, blowing air through his teeth at like the slightest twitch.  He clicked the sports back on.

I told him again he'd better clean himself up.  After a while, I couldn't stand looking at them anymore -- not the old Wade laid out and not the knee-socked athletes bounding across the tube -- and went into my room.  We could be just months from a cure, they'd said on the telethon, about those other kids.
---to be continued---
first of three parts