📅 Published on July 14, 2021


Written by Keith McDuffee
Edited by Craig Groshek and Seth Paul
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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I don’t go into the woods.  There are things in there, things that drive my anxiety through the roof at the mere thought of coming close to them.  A casual hiker may not notice them, lying low and deep within the surrounding foliage.  On a windless day, they remain perfectly still.  They don’t have to make a move.  You’ll come close soon enough, and then they’re all over you.  You won’t know of their effect until you’re tucked away in your tent.  Or in your bed at home.  The next day — oh boy, the next day!  Then, then you will know…, and then it’s too late.

But I see them.  I can’t not see them, because they are everywhere.  When walking down the street.  At the playground.  Even in my goddamn backyard.  Jesus, my palms are itchy just thinking about them.

They have become the most frightening living things to me in my little corner of world.  I cannot believe that God had chosen to create these things, for poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are clearly the work of the devil himself.

My brother grew up allergic to peanuts.  For my sister, it was cashews and pistachios.  This was the deadly kind of allergic, where not the slightest whiff of these nuts could pass by their nostrils without cause to whip out the epinephrine shot.  Unlike my siblings, I was lucky enough not to have food allergies of any kind.  However, growing up in a household without peanut butter in days before alternatives like almond butter were commonplace meant I had no concept of a good ol’  PB&J.  Jam and butter?  Not even close.

Though I was clear of food allergies, there was something I did have to stay very far away from: poison ivy.  Poison oak.  Poison sumac.  The poison plant trifecta, I call them.

This was not your run-of-the-mill allergy, mind you.  While 85 percent of the population is allergic to these plants, most would need to come in physical contact with the leaves to have some sort of reaction.  This was not the case for me.  A slight breeze off a plant several feet away would carry enough urushiol oil through the air to latch itself onto me.  Then came the warm redness later that night.  Sometime, the next day, came the itching.  My God, the itching.  All from walking too close to the side of the road on a windy day.

One of the worst episodes I’d experienced came when I was a boy while helping my father stack a cord of applewood he’d cut down that summer.  Applewood, as I was told back then, is prime stuff to stoke the stove with in winter.  I suppose it must have a sweet, burning applesauce smell to it, but what do I know?  And what did I care?  I was getting paid ten dollars!  This was going toward the gaming console I’d been dreaming of for months: the Atari 2600.

Under a blistering sun, my brother and I hauled split wood onto the bed of my old man’s truck, working well past sunset.  Sweaty and sunburned, we left, not knowing the full conditions we’d been working in.  The logs had covered the immense patches of glistening poison oak that’d I’d otherwise have steered well clear of had we seen them in the light of day.

The next morning I could not open my eyes.  My face was swollen to the point of being unrecognizable.  My hands were bloated sausages, covered in liquid-filled skin bubbles.  My inflamed feet wouldn’t fit in my shoes.  My hearing was partially affected because they’d been so engorged with blisters.  It even got inside my nose and on my scalp.

I must have gone through fifty bottles of Calamine lotion that summer, that awful smelling pink stuff you coat on your rash in hopes of relief from the incessant itching.  It would do the trick for about an hour if I was lucky, and then I’d be painting more of it on, again and again.  I looked like the Elephant Man covered in concealer.

I’d resorted to drastic measures at times to alleviate the swelling.  I would take a sewing needle, for instance, dip it in rubbing alcohol, then lance the pustules between my fingers in order to drain them enough that I could bend my fingers to hold onto a fork or even wipe my own ass.  And yes, the poison oak got there too.  But that’s not the worst spot to get the itch.

The soles of your feet, the palms of your hands; nothing worst than that.  Not even your balls.  Calamine lotion doesn’t work on soles and palms, and the itch is unending and unbearable.  Placing my palms on something hot, however — say, a leather seat that’d been sitting in the sun all day — somehow provided some brief reprieve.  The searing pain was much more tolerable than the itching; in comparison, it was ecstasy.

Overall, not a good summer.  But I did get my Atari.

Now, Ted.  Ted was a different story.

There were a few times I’d gotten bad cases of the poison ivy plague during the school year.  Maybe not so bad as that summer of blisters, but once bad enough that I was kept out of sixth grade for several days.  My absence did not go unnoticed by Ted.

“You were out for three days because of…poison ivy?”  he said, the two of us standing at the edge of the schoolyard during recess.  ”“Just because you got a rash?”

“Just a rash?  Haven’t you ever had bad poison ivy before?”  Ted shook his head.  “Don’t think I ever got it at all.”

My jaw dropped.  “Never?  Not even a little?”


“Well, count yourself lucky.  It sucks.”  As I said this, Ted wore that faraway look of his that I’d seen too often.  The kind that says there’s an idea brewing within that thick skull that’s boiling into action before it’s had a healthy seasoning of reason—a true recipe for disaster that I’d seen all too often.

“What’s it look like?”  he asked, his eyes scanning the ground amongst the dense thicket of brush nearby.

It didn’t take me long to point them out.  I’d been eyeing them since we got there, and I’d known they were there since the school year had started.  And I presently stood as close as I was ever willing to get.  I pointed to the glistening patch of leaves beneath a crop of trees.

“There’s a bunch of it right there,”  I said.  “Those green leaves with red.  A ton of it.”  Ted didn’t hesitate.  He was halfway there before I could raise a stink.

“These right here?”  he called out.  His pointing finger was so damned close to the poisonous bouquet.  My mind’s eye saw the slick oils drifting through the air and onto his willing, exposed skin, and I shivered at the thought of being remotely as close to it as Ted was.

I nodded.  “I’d get away from it if I were you.”

Except he wasn’t me.  The ridiculous idea of his had already bloomed in his mind, and he was dead set on seeing it through.  He stepped directly into the patch.  He picked one of the leaves.  Then another.  Then a whole branch.  I couldn’t breathe.  My own skin began to feel hot at the mere thought of being in Ted’s shoes, shoes that might not fit his feet anymore.

My God, his hands, I thought.  His fingers.  His palms!  Dear lord, his palms!  It was like watching someone bite into the hottest pepper in the world with idiotic, wild abandon. But this was worse.  Much worse.  The mouth-burn of a Carolina Reaper may feel like the fires of a thousand suns, but that’s an agony that’s short-lived.  Ted was in for days of hell on Earth.

“Wh-what are you doing?”  I breathed.  It was then that I noticed I’d been subconsciously distancing myself from the whole scene, as though Ted’s disturbance of the plants would affect me where I stood.  In fact, even at ten feet away — for me — that wasn’t far from possibility.

“We got that math test tomorrow,”  he said.  “With Ms.  Sullivan?”  “Yeah, but-”

“Well, I’m not going to be here to take it.”

He took the words right out of my mouth.

Ted bunched the leaves in his hand as though what he held were harmless bits of greenery, not the evil carriers of Hell oil they were.  I knew it was too late for him then.  Unless he immediately scrubbed his hands with rubbing alcohol, he was in for it.  And I, for one, was going nowhere near him at that point.  Best friend be damned; as far as I was concerned, he was a walking plague.

But he didn’t stop there.

I didn’t protest.  I couldn’t protest.  And if I could have, it wouldn’t have mattered.  At best, my words would have been unintelligible gasps and stammers.  Anything worth hearing would’ve been ignored.  All of his chips were pushed to center now; he was all-in.

As one might clean themselves with a bar of soap, Ted began to rub the poison ivy all over his body.  Arms.  Legs.  Face.  For good measure, he replenished his supply of leaves when he’d rubbed some down to bits of pulp, then did the entire exercise again.  Just when I thought he was through, he did the unthinkable.

He turned from the rest of the schoolyard as though he were about to sneak a piss, pulled the front of his jeans out with his empty hand, and jammed the other hand in.  And then his hand came out empty.

It was suicide.  I was witnessing my best friend’s self-immolation and couldn’t move a finger to stop him, for in doing so, I’d surely be dooming myself.

“Think that’ll be enough to get me out of school tomorrow?”  he asked.

“What did you do?  That’s enough to keep you out for, like, a month!”  He pumped his fist.  “Yes!  Even better!”

My eyes didn’t leave Ted for the rest of the day; where he sat, what he touched, what urinal he used.  Short of wearing gloves and a mask, I behaved like some crazed germaphobe.  And as far as I could tell, Ted wore that bunch of leaves down his pants all damned day.  Pants that I hoped he’d set fire to come the next day, along with the rest of his clothes, once he realized the enormous mistake he’d made.

Side note about fire and poison ivy.  Fire, as it turns out, is not an effective eliminator of urushiol oil.  I learned this the hard way, of course, during my junior year of high school, along with a sizable portion of my fellow classmates.  One of the rare times I dared enter the woods was for high school parties.  It was isolated, difficult for the cops to get to, and had an unlimited selection of places to hide in and make out.  When no parent-free houses were available, it served its purpose well enough.

Besides an abundance of cheap alcoholic beverages, a natural ingredient of a party in the woods is a bonfire.  And a natural ingredient of a bonfire is wood.  Or, at least, a combustible material of any kind; sometimes a tire, sometimes the back seat ripped out of someone’s old car…and sometimes random brush.  In this case, on this particular evening, brush entangled with poison oak.  And a byproduct of a bonfire?  Smoke, and lots of it.  It gets in your lungs, your hair, your clothes.  And you bring that all home with you.  If you’re not completely blitzed before attempting to crawl into bed, maybe you take a shower, therefore not waking up the next afternoon smelling like a campfire.  And, if you were somehow thorough enough, perhaps you don’t succumb to the full onset of the poison oak you’d been hanging around in all night.

Like me, everyone save for a few spent at least the following few days in Hell.  From that point, not only would I stay far from the woods, I’d go nowhere near open fire pits save for ones fueled by gas.  Until then, I’d never known what it was like to get poison oak in your mouth, or on your dick; everyone’s got to take a leak at a raging beer party at some point.

And here Ted was about to get the full experience, his first time.

When I finally saw Ted exit the school bus that afternoon, I was sure it was the last I’d be seeing him for a good long time.  I wouldn’t be paying him a visit any time soon, that was certain.  Except I didn’t have to.

The next day, Ted walked onto the morning bus like nothing had happened.  In fact, nothing had happened.  Ted, as it turned out, was among that meager 15 percent of lucky sons of bitches on the planet who’s not affected by urushiol oil at all.  No blisters.  No rash.  Not the slightest itch.  And while I was pretty sure he’d taken a shower that morning I still kept my distance from Ted for that day and the next.  I did not want to take the chance.  And though Ted felt he was in Hell for having to take Ms.  Sullivan’s math test that day — a math test he clearly had no intention of preparing for the night before — in my eyes, he surely did not understand the massive bullet he’d dodged.

Some have said that it’s possible to outgrow an allergy to poisonous plants.  There are others still who claim that actually eating one can trigger an immunity.  After thirty-some-odd years of systematically weaving and dodging my way around any suspect crops of leaves — whether consciously or not — I never had the intention of finding out, most especially not by making a goddamn salad out of it.  I’d grown accustomed to avoiding it.  My quality of life hadn’t suffered at all because I didn’t go for deep-wood hikes or take up camping or trail jogging.  The memory of my childhood suffering had scarred me for life; I was not keen on ever revisiting it, and certainly not on purpose.

Ted and I kept very close for a long time.  Our wives hung out together.  Our kids went to the same school.  We attended the same church.  We even started a business together, a pizza and sub shop — Giuseppe’s — that somehow resisted being muscled out by booming franchises.  Ted was the real talent behind the place, having developed most of the recipes himself.  His pizza sauce was unmatched, which largely accounted for the loyal customer base.  I was the business side of things because, if you haven’t caught on, Ted was no good with numbers; he couldn’t count out proper change for a dollar.  And I was lucky if I could make a cheese sandwich.

We were called upon to cater the annual Saint Ambrose church picnic.  This was last summer, with days hotter than the deepest ring of Hades and the comet making its lasting streak across a bit of the night sky.  Pot luck alone was insufficient for the large gathering, and so Giuseppe’s filled in…on the house, of course.  It was our parish, after all.

Naturally, both of our families were there as well: My wife and son, Ella and Peter; Ted’s wife, Kim, and his daughter, Sophie.  Truth be told, it was as boring an affair as always.  The adults got by with chit-chat and gossip.  The kids had to get creative to remain entertained: ball, Frisbee, hide-and-seek — that sort of thing.

Saint Ambrose owned a large empty parcel of land adjacent to the church.  Most of it had been cleared years ago to make way for an expansion of the cemetery, the old one having been filled to capacity; the old mausoleum nearly there as well.  No vacancy, I guess you could say.  The dead check in, but they don’t check out.  Nothing unnatural about it, really; just old people getting older and drunk people getting dumber, for the most part.  It’s so old that some early Scottish immigrants had their names chiseled on stone there; it was bound to fill up at some point.

Sometime just before noon, Sophie came running over to us from the clearing.  She wasn’t in tears, but she was not happy.

“Daddy!  Peter lost the Frisbee on us, and now it’s not fair because he said he would’t help me find it!”

I hung my head, exasperated.  I cupped my hands to my mouth and called out.  “Peter!”  Ted clapped a hand on my back.  “Hey.  Don’t get too mad at the kid.  It’s just a Frisbee.”

I shook my head.  “It’s the last opening day Frisbee I have.  Remember those?  With the corny phrase you put on it?  Besides, that’s not the point.  And I can only take his ten-year-old attitude so much, y’know?”

“Oh no, I wouldn’t know anything about that!”  Ted laughed.  ”“Let’s go find your kid and this damned Frisbee.  And, hey, that phrase isn’t corny; it’s poetry!”

I had a laugh at that as we dropped what we were doing and headed in the direction Sophie had come.  As we crested the small hill, I caught sight of Peter in the distance, standing just outside the edge of the woods.  His back was to us as he stared into the trees beyond.


“Hey hey hey,”  Ted said with a gentle tone of reassurance.  “He’s right there.  Take the anger down a notch.”

I wasn’t angry.  So far, my son was doing just what I hoped he’d do.  Just what I’d taught him to do.  Or, rather, not do.

If you don’t know exactly what’s ahead of you in the woods, you do not enter.

And when did anyone ever know exactly what was in the woods, even ten feet in front of them?  That’s right: not ever.  Could be ticks or snakes or a covered-up hole atop a vast underground chasm.  Or, need I say it, poison ivy.

Peter turned his head to us at the sound of my voice.  His expression was of concern, though from fear of getting in trouble or of what he’d been looking at, I couldn’t say.

“What’s up, kiddo?”  Ted said.  “Go on in and get the Frisbee.  It’s not gonna bite ya.”  “I’m pretty sure that’s not what he’s afraid of,”  I said.  Ted looked at me with a bit of a puzzled expression.  I returned it with a raised eyebrow; he knew what I was getting at.

Ted shook his head and sighed.  ”“Oh, for crying out loud.  Where is it, Pete?”  Without turning back around, my son pointed directly into the woods.

“In there.  Way in there.  I can’t even see it, but I can see tons of-”  “Tons of poison ivy,”  Ted interrupted.  “Right.  Right.  Your dad’s got you all worked up about it because he blows up all like a balloon near it.  Am I right?”

“Come on, Ted,”  I groaned.

“Kinda,”  said Peter.  “Only the stuff in there is, like, a lot bigger.  And there’s something else in there too.”

“Yeah, the Frisbee!”  Sophie called out.

Peter ignored her remark.  ”“There’s a…tomb or something in there.  Next to the huge leaves.  Dad, it…”

Ted chuckled, though his tone was touched with concern.

“A tomb, Pete?”  he said.  “What are we, in Egypt?”  Ted sometimes had a fine way of making it difficult to discern the adult from the child in his conversations.

“I dunno what you call it,”  Peter said.  ”“It’s, like, one of those things in graveyards with a big door on it.  Dad, there’s sounds coming from inside it.  Like, voices.”

“What, like a crypt?”  said Ted.  “What the heck is one of them doing in the woods?  They ain’t started putting graves out here yet.  Look at it.  It’s been one big, open field for years.  Must be something else.  Don’t let some pile of logs or whatever scare ya.  Think the ol’  Crypt Keeper’s calling you to come visit?  Probably left over from when they started clearing it.”

Sudden realization seemed to strike Peter then, in why he was standing with us, explaining himself.  And so he began to ramble on in one breathless plea.

“Don’t let them make me go in there, Dad.  That thing scares me, and then there’re those huge shiny leaves, and you told me to stay away from those and never touch them, so I shouldn’t go in there!  And there’re voices in there!  Really!  Please!

“Okay, okay.  Take it easy,”  I said.  “No one’s going in there.”  “Hell with that,”  said Ted.  “I’m goin’ in.  Poison ivy never got me before, won’t get me now. And the Crypt Keeper’s a little pansy.”

“And you,”  Ted continued, pointing an accusatory finger at my son.  “You should take more responsibility next time.  If getting a little itch is what it’ll take for you to do the right thing, then so be it.”

Before I could argue with Ted’s attempt at re-parenting Peter, he approached the edge of the forest and parted a mass of low-hanging pine branches, then stopped.


“See!”  Peter said.  “You see the tomb in there, right?”  Ted took a moment to answer as he appeared to survey what he was looking at.

“Yeah,”  he said uncertainly.  ”“It’s no pile of logs.  Looks like an old crypt, alright.  Pretty old one, by the looks of it.”  He turned to look at us.  ”“This was an old cemetery before?”

I shrugged.  “Not that I’ve ever heard.”

“I mean, there’re no headstones, no other graves.  Just…that.  In there.”  “Well, that’s not creepy at all,”  I said.  “Just leave it, Ted.  Seriously.”

“Damn.  Kiddo’s right about the leaves too.  Like the size of elephant ears.”  “Oh, come on,”  I said in disbelief.  “Then those can’t be-”

“What did you say?”  Ted interrupted.

“I was saying that those can’t be poison ivy.  They aren’t that large.”  “No, no,”  Ted said, holding up a hand behind him.  “It wasn’t you.  Shh!  You hear that?”

“Hear what?”  Besides the distant commotion from the party we’d left behind, there was nothing.  I looked at the kids, who were both slowly backing away, shaking their heads in the negative.

“Ah!  There!”  Ted shouted, now uninterested in whatever noises he’d been hearing.  “There you are, you blue bastard.  Frisbee’s right there.”

He parted the branches further apart and stepped deeper into the woods, disappearing from sight.  The sound of breaking branches followed as he marched inward, spattered with moments of colorful cursing.  After about ten seconds, there was nothing.

“Daddy?”  called Sophie.  “Did you get it?”

A few seconds more.  Nothing.

“Hey, Ted!”  I called out.  I silently prayed that I wasn’t going to have to enter those woods to look for my friend, but the crack in my voice said it all.

Branches cracking again.  Ted was running now, running for the clearing.  He burst through the overhanging branches where he’d entered, panting, red-faced, and sweating profusely, no Frisbee in sight.

“Daddy!  Where’s the Frisbee?”

Ted was doubled over, hands on his knees, catching his breath.  Sweat soaked his shirt.  His face.  His hair.  Even his shorts.  Ted’s not exactly in shape, but he’s not morbidly obese either.  A ten-second run in dark woods shouldn’t have exerted him like a marathon.

“No Frisbee, sweetie,”  Ted said between wheezing gasps for air.  “Like your uncle said, we’ll buy a new one.”

She began to protest.  “But it-”

“Sophie, no.  Just…go play with something else.  We’re gonna go home soon anyway.”  She crossed her arms and stormed off.

“Uncle Teddy,”  Peter said.  “What happened in there?  Did you hear the noises from the tomb?”  Ted stood upright and gave me a look that said he wasn’t up to talking to a kid about this.

“Pete, go catch up with Sophie.  We’ll probably be leaving soon too.”  Peter did as I asked and disappeared over the hill.

“Alright, so what did happen in there?  You look like you just came out of a rainforest.”  “Man, that is the spookiest damn thing I’ve ever seen.”

“What, the crypt?”

“Well, yeah, the crypt, but not just that.  The kid wasn’t kidding about the sounds from the crypt in there.  Like…I don’t know.  Voices.  And, damn, those leaves.  All over the thing.  They…you wouldn’t believe me.”

“Alright, you’ve succeeded in freaking me out.  They, what, talked to you?”  “Moved.  Not from wind or anything like that.  I marched in the middle of them to get the damn Frisbee, and then something just felt…off.  Like I thought maybe you’d come in behind me, only I knew you’d never do that, but it felt like someone was there.  But it was just all of those plants, all around me.

“And then they moved.  Not from the wind or anything like that.  It was like they were turning to…I dunno…to look at me.

“Well, I turned and got outta there and left that damn Frisbee for those plants to play with.”

I snorted, and then the chuckle just followed it on out.  I couldn’t help it if I tried.

“Oh, okay,”  Ted said, my laughter becoming too contagious for him to avoid.  “I see.  So why don’t you go on in there and get the thing?  Damn zombie plants from the crypt.  You’ll see!”

“You know, I’d clap you on the back, but you’re sweatier than a Ridley Scott movie.”  “Ha, ha.  Well, this ain’t sweat.  It’s dew from all those leaves in there.”

I stayed far away from Ted for the rest of the walk back.  I told myself as much as Ted did that the leaves were just covered in dew.  How could all that be urushiol oil?  It just couldn’t be.  But the scars upon the memory of my youth endured, and so I took no chances, even at the expense of Ted’s playful jeers.

Soon after, each of our families ended the day and went our separate ways.

Ted didn’t show up at the shop the next day.

Ted would usually open the place up in the morning in order to get it ready for the lunchtime crowd.  I’d stroll in sometime later before we actually open for business.  Only this time, the doors were locked.  Ted hadn’t shown up yet.

I unlocked the place and went inside to call Ted.  After a few rings, Kim answered the phone.  She sounded like I’d just woken her up.

“Hey, John.”

“‘Morning.  Sorry, did I wake you?”

“No, I’m just…didn’t get much sleep last night.  Exhausted.”  “Is Ted there?  He didn’t show up to the shop today.  Place was still buttoned up when I showed up.”

She sighed with exhaustion and frustration.  ”“Oh god.  I’m sorry, Ted.  I should have called you.  Ted’s worse off than me.  It was his tossing and turning all night that kept me up.  I eventually had to sleep on the couch.  Looks like he…caught something at the picnic yesterday.”

“What, like a stomach bug?”

“No, no.  Looks like he got too much sun.  Worst sunburn I’ve ever seen, the poor guy.  But I guess it serves him right for not putting on sunscreen.  You know how pale he is.”

“Paler than a beluga whale, yeah,”  I said, punctuated with a sigh of defeat.  “Alright, so I guess he’s out of commission today.  Tell him to call me when he’s up and about.”

She acknowledged and hung up.  I went about making a closed sign for the door and directing our phone to a voicemail message stating the same.  There was no way I was attempting to run the place without Ted.

I left and spent the day doing long-neglected chores around the house.  Spending time with Ella that day made me realize that we’d both somehow come out of the previous day with nary a scant tan, much less evidence of a sunburn.  What’s more, it was an overcast day — we hadn’t worn any lotion.

Later that night, my cellphone rang.  It was Ted.  He sounded as ragged as Kim had that morning.

“Hey, man.  Sorry I didn’t call you sooner.”

“Yeah, sure,”  I said.  ”“Don’t sweat it.  You alright?”  “No.  No, I’m not.”

“Jesus.  From a sunburn?  How bad can it be?”

“Sunburn?  No, this ain’t no sunburn.  Gotta be poison ivy.  Itches like hell.”  It took all I had to keep the phone in my hand as my mouth fell open.  I suddenly felt my own skin begin to take on that characteristic burn.  My palms begin to itch, my mind telling my body that it, too, was once again stricken with the rash.  The mere mention of it was enough, like an instinctive cringe.  What’s more, Ted, of all people, had succumbed to it.  How?

“But I thought you weren’t allergic,”  I managed to say with some measure of disbelief.

“Yeah, well.  It happens, I guess,”  he said.  ”“Listen, I gotta go.  It’s…God, the itching is…I have to go.”

Before I could ask about what we should do about the shop, he hung up.

It’s not unheard of for someone who’d once had immunity to something like poison ivy suddenly lose it over time.  Ted suddenly showing signs of a reaction normally wouldn’t have surprised me.  In fact, his lack of a reaction all this time was the more surprising thing to me.  And more surprising than all of that was how quickly it had taken hold of him.  He’d gone from zero to one-hundred seemingly overnight.

There was nothing I could really do for Ted.  He’d seen first-hand what I’d gone through in the past, what meager remedies I’d resorted to for alleviating the itching and swelling.  It’s all I could do then and all he had now.

I faced the fact that it was clear Giuseppe’s was staying closed for at least another day.  Depending on how bad off Ted was Tuesday night, I’d have to consider my options, like hiring some temporary help.  I wasn’t the best cook, but I could at least keep the business afloat.

Late the next morning, I gave Ted a call to see how he was faring.  He’d likely faced another sleepless night, so I wasn’t surprised when Kim picked up.

“Hey, Kim.  How’s Teddy doing?  Hope you at least got some sleep last night.”  “I slept okay.  Ted didn’t sleep in the bed all night, stayed closed up in the den all yesterday and last night.  Didn’t want anyone to go near him.  Trust me, we didn’t want to.  He was in a mood, as you can imagine.  I woke up a couple of times in the night and heard him downstairs, grunting, swearing.  It must’ve been driving him nuts.

“But…I guess he must be doing better.  I woke up to the smell of him cooking breakfast, not that he left us any.  Just a dirty skillet.  Nice, right?  And now he’s gone off somewhere.”

“Seriously?  He went out?”  Though I was amazed Ted hadn’t gotten worse overnight, I was relieved.

“Maybe check the shop?”  Kim suggested.  She’d read my mind.

When I pulled up to Giuseppe’s, I noticed one of the exhaust vents on the roof, billowing smoke…more than usual, in fact.  Ted’s car was nowhere in sight, which wasn’t entirely unusual, since he lived only a couple of miles away and sometimes made the walk.  I thought this a good sign, that Ted really was on the mend and getting things prepared for the afternoon customers.  Except when I got to the front door, my ”“temporarily closed”  sign still hung in the window.  I figured Ted hadn’t noticed it, so I pulled it down as I entered.

I could hear Ted busy at work in the back kitchen.  The air was already hot with the warming pizza ovens, griddles and fryers.  One of the oven doors had been left open, and I could see the remnants of what looked like a pizza mishap smeared upon the oven’s firebrick floor.  Pretty early for pizza, I thought, but we served all kinds.

“Ted!  You back there?  What happened here?  Oven’s a mess!”  The sound of the kitchen fryer answered, its contents being lowered into the 325-degree oil. And then something else: a man’s exhale of intense relief.  No, pleasure.

I rounded the corner into the kitchen.  Ted’s back was to me, facing the fryers.  He wore nothing but a pair of boxers, and his skin was like nothing I’d seen before.  My sneakers squeaked to a halt as the breath caught in my throat.  I stumbled backward, catching myself on a counter.  Oozing sores covered half Ted’s back and legs.  The other half was covered in blisters the size of golf balls.

“Ted,”  I managed to breathe as I fought back hyperventilation.

Of course, he couldn’t react.  Because when I say he was facing the fryers, I mean that in a much more literal sense.  His entire face was submerged in the steaming fryer oil, up to the hairline.  I would’ve thought him dead, but a second later he stood upright.  Grease poured down over his shoulders and trickled down his back.  More of the blisters withered and broke apart under the oil’s heat.  And once again, Ted sighed in ecstasy.

“Ted!”  What was meant to be a scream came more like a strained whisper.  I threw a hand over my mouth, either due to pure disbelief over what I was seeing, or to stop myself from being sick, or both.

He straightened and turned around, my feet instinctively making a slow retreat sideways, toward the door.  What I was looking at was not Ted.  Not anymore.  This person was unrecognizable as a human being in all but frame.  Strips of red, smoking flesh peeled away from his forehead and cheeks, the bare muscle and bone behind glistening with oil.  Lips…there were no lips.  A set of teeth in a perpetual, skeletal grin, the tongue behind, bloated and red, peeking out behind them.  Eyelids hung like useless flaps.  His arms, his chest, all bare of skin, looking like an anatomy poster.  His arms, blackened and charred.  All that seemed to remain intact was most of the surface of his legs, and I could see blisters there continue to form before my eyes.

“John,”  Ted said, his voice guttural and nearly unrecognizable but calm and eerily satisfied.  “John, you were so right.  Screw the Calamine Lotion.  All you need to do to get rid of the GOD DAMNED itching is HEAT.  Once you’ve got that…oooh…it’s euphoria, Johnny.  Pure.  Euphoria.”

He held up his hands, then.  Hands that I hesitate to describe beyond that they were surely not usable appendages anymore.  Something fell from what used to be his face onto the floor, joining a mess of fried flesh within puddles of spent grease.

I couldn’t touch him.  Jesus.  I couldn’t stop him.

“Ted.  Oh, Ted.  No, no, no, no.”

He breathed a wet sigh again, somehow peeling away a flap of loose, cooked skin from his forehead with one of his red, bony fingers.  He threw it aside like a rotten slice of tomato.

“It’s okay, John,”  he gurgled.  “It’s almost all gone now.  Just a little more heat, and I’ll be all better.  This is so much better than the oven.”

He turned back around and held his breath as I held mine.  I turned and ran.

When I made it outside, I called 9–1–1.  The police and ambulance arrived moments later.  I watched as EMT after EMT entered and promptly exited, retching into the flower beds outside, before finally composing themselves to enter and save Ted’s life.  I was told if they’d been only a few minutes later, he’d have been gone.

In all my life, I’d never seen a reaction to plants like that, let alone experienced it myself.  What further floored me was that this had been Ted’s reaction to whatever was in those woods, a man who’d been immune to poison ivy for as long as I could remember.  What would those things do to someone like me?

I talked to my wife and told her she’d have to pick Peter up from choir practice at the church that afternoon.  I also called Kim, and she and I spent most of the day at the hospital.  Not a stitch of him was not covered in thick bandages, and he lost most of his fingers.  The CDC was apparently being called in, and we were told Ted was going to be put into an induced coma.  I couldn’t bring myself to see him like that anymore, and I wasn’t sure what to tell Kim about what I saw at the shop.  How was I to explain to anyone that he’d done this on purpose?  An accident.  A pure, unfortunate, unholy accident.  That was enough.

I wasn’t sure if Ted was going to pull through.  There was no doubt that his recovery –  if he had one – would be agonizing.  At the cost of removing whatever pure Hell he’d been experiencing before, would he say it was worth it?  I couldn’t fathom it.  Covered in pure scar tissue and skin grafts for the rest of his life, it’s unlikely he’d have to worry about something like poison ivy ever again.

My mind, just as Ted’s unfortunate body, would be scarred for life.

I called for a car to take me home.  I was in no condition at all to drive.

As I exited the car at the bottom of the hill, I heard Peter call out from the driveway.

“Hey, Dad!  Catch!”

I was still dazed from what had happened earlier and had little time to react.  Stars blossomed in darkness as whatever Peter had thrown smacked me in the forehead and fell to the ground, and I along with it.  I put my hand to my throbbing head, pulling back to see blood.

“Damn.  Well, that’s gonna leave a scar,”  I muttered to myself.

Peter ran up and squatted beside me, his face reddened with embarrassment.

“Oh, man!  Dad!  You okay?  I’m so sorry!  I thought you’d catch it.”  “Yeah, well, my reaction’s not all it used to be.”

I reached down beside me to pick up what Peter had thrown.  And the words upon a circle of blue greeted my disbelieving eyes.

Fly In To Giuseppe’s Empty.  Fly Out Full.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Keith McDuffee
Edited by Craig Groshek and Seth Paul
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Keith McDuffee

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