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Touch

P.G. Streeter lives with his wife and son in Maryland, where he teaches high school English. He's been writing since he could hold a pen and telling stories even longer, but he has only recently begun making a serious effort at publishing. He's thrilled to be published in DSF. Find him on Twitter at @p_g_sWrites.
Noon sun. Busted streetlamps and rusted shutters. Graffiti in layers of peeling paint. Brick walls and stalls of the Newtown Bazaar. The press of the crowd.
Mad Hour, we call it, and rightly so: who would enter the marketplace with so many people about, each one a potential carrier? Yes, I see the paradox. Reminds me of something I heard once, from a taxi driver, before all this, before Paellis totus: "Can't get a cab in this city," he told me. "Too many taxis." It's just like that: no one goes into market at Mad Hour--too many people.
Of course, everyone around me is dressed to the nines. That is: limbs, core, and head, times three. Three layers each, a bare-minimum safety precaution. Do that, they say, and maybe you'll be OK.
Skin is sin, everyone says. Miranda, the head of my Cell, put it like this: "That stuff you call skin... isn't. Not anymore. It's the topmost layer of your innards, like muscle and tissue, stuff you don't want exposed to sun and air.
"That first layer of fabric is your skin now. Exposing even it is sin. The second, that's your shell. Still part of you, a protective integument."
"So, what, we're bugs now?" I said to her. I was impertinent then. Foolish. I'm lucky to have made it this long.
But she said, "Yes. Embrace it. Being human will get you killed, so be the bug."
I bit my tongue, and after a pause she continued: "On top of that exoskeleton? Layer three. That's your clothing, and you don't want to underdress."
In public, around others, everyone knows the drill. It's hot as hades this time of year, so the game is to find the thinnest possible material that isn't too fragile or porous. Good stockings, athletic wear, scarves, those long, winding medical bandages.
Gloves are in highest demand. People have killed for gloves. And it's harder and harder to get much from raiding and looting. Have to go farther out, risk more.
I knew a guy with a spandex bodysuit, a few years back. He was with us, for a while, but someone from another Cell followed him. Stalked him for days, waiting for the guy's monthly turn at the bathing pool. Waited for him to strip down and wade into the spring, then clubbed both his watchers and stole the suit. When he returned to camp, naked, sans escort, the dayguard shot him immediately. Only later, when the other two were found and roused, did we piece together what had happened.
We all agreed the precaution had been worth it.
See, touch is the disease. Mere contact, skin-to-skin. A brush, a pass, that's all it takes. Everyone observes the taboo, knows the consequences of contact... but still, despite all caution, a ripped garment in a crowded place is fatal.
And the kicker is that you won't know it, not at first. There's a three-day incubation period, symptom-free. As that third day ends, the host starts seeking touch, doesn't even realize he's doing it. It's monstrously efficient. Those of us who survived the initial wave did so due to dumb luck, then adapted quick.
And now here I am. Newtown Bazaar. Mad Hour, when desperate merchants slash prices and desperate buyers risk the press of deadly humanity. Touch is unavoidable, so they pray for more dumb luck and trust in three-times-three.
I don't know how I got here, this cracked asphalt street--brick walls and market stalls and the Mad Hour crowd, standing and staring at me, necks craning in one synchronized motion. They peel off hoods and scarves and goggles. Walk slowly in my direction.
I feel perspiration drip down the back of my neck. It pools under my arms and breasts, slides down back and belly, gets caught in the crooks of my knees and webbed spaces between my fingers and toes.
That's when it hits me--as they tear off jackets, let socks and trousers and wrapping drop behind them; as their gloves (oh God, their gloves) drop, as if in slow motion, hitting pavement with an exaggerated thud; as garments trail behind them; as they pick up speed and close the gap--it hits me: I'm exposed.
No outer clothing. No exoskeletal shell. No, not even skin--just the fragile human flesh beneath all of it. Just me, naked as the day I was born. And they're closing in.
That, as always, is when I wake up.
I'm in the dark. Air is muggy. Close.
My eyes adjust to see the brick interior walls of the run-down paper mill that serves as my Cell's current digs. I'm not in the communal sleep space, where the crowd lies each night, spread as far apart as possible while three watchers stand guard.
No: I'm in isolation. One of two brick boxes, a pulldown metal screen between them, each just big enough for a body, a bucket, and three days' store of food and water. She's in the next one over, and when our three-day seclusion is over, we'll get something neither has gotten in a long time. We'll get the thing we always want but can never have.
How much time remains, I wonder, until the thick metal gate between the two rooms clangs open?
I'm still drenched in sweat; I don't dare undress to sleep, not even in here. I think of the opening gate and can't decide what terrifies me more: finding her motionless on the ground, the Paellis inert, but not before doing its job? Or living, breathing, stepping toward me, ready to fold me into her arms?
I'll ask her to take it slow, I decide. A single touch, my ungloved hand clasped in hers, for as long as we can stand to hold them.
For so long, touch has meant death. Now that it might mean something like life, I fear it even more.
A creaking sound. Metal screeching, space opening. I wait.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 17th, 2019


This story first presented itself in the form of a dream over a decade ago. Nearly the entire scenario was there, intact and clear as a photograph. It terrified and fascinated me.

I took a few shots at it over the years, but I couldn't quite recreate the haunting quality of the dream. As I approached it again recently, however, it really hit me what this story was truly about. My job became framing the story in order to draw that subtext out. Did it work? You tell me!

- P.G. Streeter
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