He woke up like a freshly vacuumed carpet. Sucked of something. Relinquished.
Maybe this was a characteristic of happy dreams, to be forgotten. Yet visceral like intestines slithering about the ground. A biotic vegetation.
He felt the thing’s presence before he saw it. It created dissonance in the room, was a distraction, emoted chaos. He dared himself to ignore it, leave it alone.
It whimpered and he looked.
A small body, curled inward, scarred, barren, naked, ugly for its abjection. He was horrified, repulsed.
The room’s normality contrasted strongly with the desolation, ruined innocence, irreconcilable depravity. But a depravity worse for having been forced. Unreasoned. It didn’t deserve this.
He knew if he left for work the progression would continue. He knew the process well, knew the steps, knew perhaps if he stayed, if he devoted himself to stopping this, maybe he could succeed. But it was doubtful.
Maybe today the pills would be enough to keep the thing at bay.
Maybe today something would happen. Something spatially ignorant that would impede the hideous growth he knew would follow.
The indecision troubled him. Every day he considered his choice and the ramifications from both. Every day he considered the ill-formed third option and knew he could brush it off, most days with a self-reflective laugh at the absurdity. He wondered if there wasn’t some combination of choices that might render his condition more positive. One day home, one day work, three days home, three days work. But his job did not allow this. His job demanded he show up and suffer with a predictable continuance.
He made coffee, the insecurity in his fingers betraying his heart. The thing upstairs hazing his vision like a blindspot he frantically checked, always vacant but rushing with whoosh of near-collision.
Grounds spilled on the counter and he splashed water on the floor and nearly dropped a mug but caught it and felt a little surge of joy from a moment that didn’t end in failure. The caffeine soon to run through his veins reminded him of all the seemingly impossible days he’d already faced and conquered. A validation in false energy. After all, wasn’t a mountain climber broken as often as he broke the face of a mountain? Brokenness made a person more whole, given time.
Yes, dependency was good.
God bless dependency.
God bless the horror upstairs.
Certain things sometimes reminded him of happiness. Not necessarily of past happiness. Just the concept. Poses often did this. Illuminated the pale agony of truth. Graffiti on a wooden bench. A bit of sidewalk heaved by frost, a geometric proof gone wrong.
Just as often, he experienced the opposite in expression: the way a person’s hand flicked a cigarette butt out the window while paused at an intersection, the sycophantic guffaw of a coworker, the wealthy exchange of emails between coworkers on mundane subjects, fantasy football leagues, the decline of the postal service.
He never could remember who severed contact from whom. One day, he didn’t know which (everything was so vague and maybe that was for the best) things shifted. A him. A Her. A them. Land masses drifted away, new mountains rose up, new valleys sunk to divide expanses from each other. Leaving a crippled Pangea, little more than a crumpled paper airplane, organically huddled in the corner of his bedroom.
He stared at a quickly expiring loaf of bread. Thought of turning it into toast. Three minutes or less. The carbonizing process. What was he trying to sustain? Food seemed so vapid, empty, an endless pursuit with no resolution.
The refrigerator probably had some Greek yogurt, definitely some almond milk, maybe a half dozen eggs, other things certainly, things not attuned to breakfast. Things of disjointed purpose.
The pantry had flour, sugar, spices, pastas, vegetables in bags or vegetables in cans, and other things in cans, and other things in general. He imagined surviving a low-level apocalypse quite handily for a decent period of time. He never defined a decent period of time, except to realize it was probably better than the average person’s lifespan in the face of disaster. Why would apocalypse bother him? He welcomed environmental swivels. He had no horizon. Only the next staircase.
He thought of the thing in the bedroom as he sipped his coffee, feeling its immediate effects. He knew the thing’s trajectory.
There was a betrayal in clocks, always showing him times of inadequacy, earlier or later than he desired. The clock told him to leave for work. He obeyed because the clock told him to go and for a while he put the sniffling thing out of his mind. Reminding himself to forget how long it had been there. How it had grown while also curling further into itself. A carapace-less bug scrunching, hardening into its own tombstone.
The bedroom cradled the past. The child’s bedroom. No, his bedroom. He owned it. Why couldn’t he remember that? There was no child. There was no her.
He sat in his desk at work and waited for someone to say hello. Waited for someone to call the phone it was his job to answer, dutifully, habitually. Waited to handle another slew of complaints. Thought of handling an axe. Taking it against a wall, splitting something. Driving a wedge between a sea of atoms.
After a meandering hour at his desk (two calls, handled quickly in his affectless voice; only in the afternoon, near the close of his shift, as the fear and sadness and despair mounted, did he find it difficult to maintain his composure and the calm continuity that, despite his inner turmoil, made him good at his job, efficient in a manner that made his coworkers jealous) the grumbling of his stomach reminded him of the ritual. A brief catching of eyes across a couple placesettings, a wobbling hand gripping a plastic spoon and waving it with the abandon of someone trying to spearfish.
He had forgotten his lunch. Forgotten to pack one. He shivered at the idea of the thing coming down from the bedroom, uncorkscrewing, orangutan-ing itself up the legs of a kitchen chair, posing and forming some new-old expression.
He waited for his next call.
What had it become? What had it been?
The thought squeezed his chest as geysers of fear rushed down his forearms, reckoning paralysis on his limbs. The phone rang. He couldn’t answer it.
Had it grown? No. Yes. How much?
The phone rang again.
The slug lazed by, half-swiveled his ruddy body, cocked an antenna. “Gonna answer that?” he said. That annoying slow drawl.
He couldn’t stand the new hire. Probably paid him more.
The slug shrugged, slumped, oozed away.
The phone rang again. Stopped. Rang. Every instance the kind of thing that might not have happened. The only happening moment etched in his brain. Growing.
The screech. The unwinding. The no more going back. The grind of metal, just like it sounded in movies.
More calls. More time.
The slug slid back and forth behind his cubicle at least four times during the last quarter of his shift. He wondered how much salt it would take. To make him foam and bubble at the mouth. He wondered how Mr. Tim would feel about that. Mr. Tim adored the new hire. Praised his output. His call percentage off the chart they kept in the break room for tracking who would earn employee of the month.
Growing melancholy marked the passage of his hours and sometimes he reminded himself of his hourly salary but sometimes he thought of what underwater welders or brain surgeons or the president made by the hour and despite their job descriptions compared to his this knowledge destroyed his efficacy. Worth inseparable from money.
By the time he started his drive home his hands shook on the wheel and his brain shot messages in every direction, rendering his grey matter a flaming corn maze from which no escape was possible. He couldn’t focus and the cars around him became hazy, dreamy constructs of a world collapsing around him, a world offering him nothing in the way of solace or positive mobility. A twitchy paralysis began to overtake his motions and he felt ancient and newborn simultaneously. One foot in the womb and the other in the grave, with nothing keeping him here, in life.
His mind wandered desolate, barren wastelands littered with carcasses, skeletons, and irreducible landmarks telling him his own stories, the stories that cut him deepest.
His car lost its purpose and he drove recklessly through pale streets, past faceless people he didn’t recognize, cars that weren’t his and houses whose insides didn’t exist for him. The world a succession of exteriors, each more ghastly than the last. The only interior he knew was his, the very worst of all.
He parked in his garage and paused in the kitchen, his breath coming in short gasps. He knew the progression. He knew the steps every breakdown took. The slow descent tumbling into an uncontrollable slide.
The phone rang. Work chasing him.
“Gonna answer that?” The slug’s voice echoing. Present in the room. No. A phantom. Not there.
He picked up the receiver. Just a groaning. Heard double. From upstairs and wheezing through the phone. He put the one down, couldn’t dismiss the other. Began shaking.
“You really ought to shadow the new hire,” Mr. Tim was saying. “He could teach an old dog like you some new tricks.” That set Mr. Tim laughing. How much salt would it take for Mr. Tim and the slug to foam, to bubble, to froth at the mouth? What might it take to turn Mr. Tim into a pillar of salt?
In the break room. The slug making the water cooler glug as he filled his stainless steel water bottle. “Makes my productivity soar,” he was telling a rapt woman, “it’s all about the hydration.” He guffawed. His flubby body squirming like a pillow filled with worms.
He saw the clear glass saltshaker, three quarters full. Enough to maybe fizz out an eye. Turn the slug into a neo-pirate.
The slug nudged him with an antenna on the way out, one eye sparkling, the other antenna twitching toward the chart on the wall, the productivity numbers showing a glaring difference, the slug far out-distancing his own performance.
Maybe if he found out where the slug lived. Maybe if he worked up enough courage to carry the small bundle down the stairs, into the car. Its coffin. Its cargo hold. Its eggshell. Maybe someone else deserved the creature.
“Why would you do that?” Janice asked. Already reaching for paper towels. Rushing to the aid of the slug as a bit of his slimy skin sizzled where the salt had puddled. The exterior gone white, bubbly, then smothered by the paper towel. But blissful in that between space.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Accident.”
“Think nothing of it,” the slug said, amicable, an antenna whirring about to defray the tension.
The saltshaker had about half of its contents left. How much had he poured? Maybe a teaspoon.
What else could he do to negate the faux pas? However purposeful. He invited the slug for dinner. Wanted him to see. To see what went uncharted by his call performance chart in the break room above the water cooler.
The slug came up the front walk. Grim, he opened the door for him. Switched into all hale-fellow-well-met-mode. Something she would have disapproved of. The ability to hide a thing, to mask.
The slug wore a hat, a coat. He took both, draped them over a chair in the living room before leading him to the dining room. A saltshaker in the middle of the table.
At one point he excused himself to use the bathroom. Really to check on the thing.
Came back. Said, “We should do this again sometime,” as the slug lifted a shovelful of lemon cream pie to his mouth. Gulped it. Gave a deflated look as he was ushered out the door.
“Monday,” he waved from the door as the slug galumphed into his Lexus.
When he turned from shutting the door, it was there. Crouched behind him, blankly ashen face upturned. Mewling. Cowering. Rising.
Now it followed him. A silent specter dogging his footsteps. All the way to the door. Ready and crouching when he came home. Looking sightlessly, neck creaking to trace his movements. Its grizzled carcass of wrinkles making no sound as it caked his footsteps with invisible crime scene chalk. It had been living but now it had woken.
He made a trip to Kroger, giving his front door a perfunctory glance, feeling the thing’s stare through the wood.
The cashier raised her eyebrows as she scanned an army sea salt canisters. Twelve in all. She scanned his rewards card, telling him how much he’d saved today with a false cheer. She didn’t offer to help as he stuffed a paper bag full of the salt.
He apologized to the slug for his odd behavior last time. Wanted to make it up to him. Wondered if he could pick his brain about work-related topics. Did it in hearing distance of Mr. Tim just to see that sycophantic smile of approval. Gave one of his own in return.
The slug came over the next evening. He was prepared.
“The thing about customer service…” the slug was saying.
He was nodding along. False rapt attention.
The thing had focused its desolate face on the slug since he’d come up the front walk but the slug apparently couldn’t see it.
His anger at the slug not being able to see the thing, with its curling fingers, its disgusting infantile crouch, angered him. He was nearly boiling and they hadn’t even finished the main course.
“Do you see it?” he asked, gesturing.
“See what?” the slug paused with a forkful of mashed potatoes halfway to his slurping lips. He half-lowered the fork. Shifted his massive body to see where he was pointing.
“The thing,” he hissed. “Can’t you see the thing?”
The slug became immediately uncomfortable, swallowed air with a visible gulp along his frontier, a shudder down his whole body like an eel’s slither across a seabed.
“Can’t you see the thing?” His anger rising like a previously dormant beast. Prodded and newly inconsolable.
He’d prepared the salt canisters by slicing off the cardboard tops. He’d lined them up near his end of the table, made invisible from the slug’s vantage by the angle and the tablecloth.
He would make him see.
He picked up a canister and flung it at the slug, salt flying everywhere, a white sandstorm. Wherever it struck the slug’s body it began to foam.
He took another canister in each hand, approached the slug, began shaking them at him like spreading fertilizer across a garden.
“Can you see it now!” he screamed. No longer a question. Frantically looking between the thing and the slug as if to visually connect the dots for him, the slug newly foaming wherever salt struck his bulbous flesh.
The slug was screaming now.
“Can you see it now?”
He flung the canisters he held, releasing the last of their salt. He went back and grabbed two more, not even halfway through his supply. The slug had tried to rise from his chair but found movement difficult as he began devolving into a slippery mess of foamy flesh, the agony searing through him.
He was back, flinging more salt at the slug, still raving as the thing looked on, partially uncurled from, keeping its distance from the scene.
“See what?” the slug gurgled.
“Can’t you see this?” he said, pointing at the thing again, accidentally throwing out a spray of salt as he did so.
“See what?” the slug gasped, the airflow constricted by the salt’s progress as it ate into his body.
The slug was immobilized, fizzling. He kept pouring out the contents of the canisters, all twelve, until his dining room floor resembled the stomach contents of an unholy beast and the table looked as if a snow globe had exploded across its surface. He poured the salt until it was gone, until it consumed the slug and the slug was gone. Reduced to a pile of goop.
Until the thing was all that was left. Until it was just him and the thing again. Until the next morning when he woke up and it was him, and the thing, and another, newer thing.
Michael Prihoda is a poet, editor, and teacher living in central Indiana. He is the editor of After the Pause, an experimental literary magazine and small press. In addition, he is the author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which is The First Breath You Take After You Give Up (Weasel Press, 2016).